Despite challenges, Australia and China should maintain law enforcement cooperation
18 Jun 2019|

Australia and China convened the inaugural Australia–China High-Level Security Dialogue in Sydney in April 2017. The joint statement from the dialogue outlined a range of areas for future law enforcement cooperation: combating transnational crime—including counter-narcotics operations and economic crimes—cybersecurity and counterterrorism.

The two countries already have an established framework for cooperation, especially on counter-narcotics. Cooperation on other crime types is either nascent or aspirational. However, there are also risks and limitations for Australian law enforcement agencies working with China.

My ASPI special report, Australia–China law enforcement cooperation, released today, examines existing cooperation, discusses the risks and limitations, and makes recommendations for future cooperation.

Today, Australia has one of the strongest police-to-police relationships with China of any Western liberal democracy. And it has longevity: the Australian Federal Police has maintained a presence in China since the 1990s.

Australia and China signed a treaty on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters in 2006, leading to the confiscation and repatriation of criminal proceeds. The two countries signed a treaty concerning the transfer of sentenced persons, which came into force in 2011. Australia and China also cooperated in the ultimate arrest and conviction of Zhao Nuo, a Chinese-born Australian citizen who murdered his wife in Western Australia before fleeing to China on a false passport.

Countering narcotics importation from China to Australia is an important priority for Australia, which has a serious crystal methamphetamine (or ‘ice’) problem. China is a major drug production and transit hub and has the largest number of clandestine ice labs in the region. A large majority of the total ice imports detected entering Australia come from China. The AFP has been working with its Chinese counterparts on a successful joint counter-narcotics effort called ‘Task Force Blaze’ since 2015.

China has a particular interest in working with Australia on ‘economic crimes’, with a primary focus on fraud and corruption. This is particularly the case since Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corrupt officials. Many alleged economic criminals have fled China, taking their assets with them. Western countries such as Australia that don’t have extradition treaties with China are attractive destinations due to the lower risk of fugitives being returned to China.

China has long sought an extradition treaty with Australia. A treaty was signed on September 2007, but successive Australian governments of both political persuasions have failed to ratify it. This is due to Australian concerns about China’s political and judicial system and human rights protections.

The arguments made against ratifying the treaty highlight the concerns and risks of working with China on law enforcement. A diverse range of individuals and groups have expressed concern over China’s political and judicial system, the rule of law, and civil and human rights. The deteriorating human rights situation in Xinjiang province is of particular concern, and large-scale cyber espionage targeting Australia can’t be overlooked.

It’s important that Australia makes it clear to China that these differences complicate law enforcement cooperation and limit what can be done.

That said, Australia and China have a mutual interest in law enforcement cooperation and need to work together. Both countries experience criminal threats from drug production and supply, economic crime, money-laundering, cybercrime and terrorism. These crimes cross borders, and crime emanating from one country can, and does, reach the other.

The Australian government has a duty to protect Australia and Australians from crime and terrorism. Those threats are transnational, so effective relationships and collaboration with foreign countries such as China are essential. Australia must prevent itself from becoming an attractive destination and safe haven for criminals. And Australians who are the victims of crime expect perpetrators to be brought to justice. That means Australia should continue to cooperate with China and look for opportunities to enhance cooperation where it’s in Australia’s interests to do so and where that cooperation doesn’t conflict with Australia’s laws and values.

To ensure that Australia can continue to work with China on mutually beneficial law enforcement activities and enhance that cooperation in appropriate areas, while managing the risks involved with cooperation, Australia should delineate what it’s prepared to cooperate with China on and what it isn’t, and communicate this clearly to China.

How much cooperation is undertaken and on what issues may depend on what crime type is involved and future developments in China’s domestic and international politics. For example, Australia may be able to undertake deeper cooperation on counter-narcotics, in which legal definitions of the crimes are more aligned and less political compared with counterterrorism or cybercrime.

Australia may need to reconsider its future cooperation depending on the state of bilateral relations and future developments in China’s domestic politics. For example, a further deterioration in human rights in China may require Australia to reduce or curtail cooperation. Likewise, an improvement could allow for greater cooperation and assistance.