SYDNEY - One of Australia's most senior government ministers has accused the Chinese Communist Party of behaving in ways that are "inconsistent" with his country's values. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton warned Canberra would work to counter foreign interference in Australian universities, as well as cyber espionage.
Peter Dutton's comments are some of the most uncompromising language yet from an Australian government minister on the perceived threat posed by China.
Tensions between Canberra and Beijing have risen in recent times because of allegations of cyber attacks by China, and that it has meddled in Australia's domestic politics. There's also been friction over the detention of a Chinese-Australian writer in Beijing, and differences over Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Australia also has concerns about Chinese interference in its universities, including allegations that students who have supported democracy protests in Hong Kong have been harassed or monitored by Chinese agents on campus.
Peter Dutton said Australia must be wary of China's ambitions.
"My issue is with the Communist Party of China and their policies to the extent that they are inconsistent with our own values, and in a democracy like ours we encourage freedom of speech, freedom of the expression of thought, and if that is being impinged, if people are operating outside of the law then whether they are from China or from any other country we are right to call that out," he said.
The comments prompted a stinging response from the Chinese government.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, told a press conference that he hoped "Australia will reject the Cold War mentality and bias, and work to advance bilateral relations and mutual trust."
The Chinese Embassy in Canberra said it rejected "Mr Dutton's irrational accusations ... which are shocking and baseless."
Australia is a liberal, middle-ranking world power. China is its biggest trading partner by some distance, and three of the main pillars of the Australian economy, mining, tourism and education, rely heavily on demand from China.
The challenge for Australia, which has a close military alliance with the United States, is to be able to criticize and challenge China while maintaining a key trade relationship that has underpinned its recent prosperity.