SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia cancelled a vote on Tuesday to finally ratify an extradition treaty with China, 10 years after it was signed, with the government set for an embarrassing defeat on the vote.
Australia’s inability to ratify the treaty is a setback in China’s overseas hunt for corrupt officials and business executives who have fled abroad with their assets, dubbed Operation Fox Hunt.
Political opposition to the treaty in Australia stems from concerns over China’s humanitarian record, with human rights groups regularly accusing Beijing of obtaining confessions through torture or under duress.
The planned parliamentary vote was to be held two days after China Premier Li Keqiang left Australia, where trade deals underpinned fast improving Sino-Australia relations.
But a spokesman for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the vote had been cancelled, after opposition politicians who control the upper house Senate made clear they would not support the treaty.
“It has been in our national interest to have this agreement with China,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told a news conference. “We will speak with our Chinese friends in more detail and decide what to do.”
If Australia had ratified the pact, it would have become one of the few Western countries besides France and Spain to enter into an extradition treaty with China.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the treaty would allow both countries to go after cross-border criminals and was in their joint interests.
“We hope that Australia keeps in mind the broader picture of bilateral relations and continues to promote the relevant domestic process so the treaty can go into enforcement as soon as possible,” Hua told a daily news briefing.
In an article published on the eve of Li’s visit, China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, highlighted his country’s hopes for the extradition treaty to enter into force soon.
“The visit seems to have been very successful on the economic merits, but this inability to ratify the extradition treaty will inevitably lead to a sense of deflation,” said Euan Graham, director of the national security programme at Australian think-tank Lowy Institute.
It is also a blow for Turnbull, who revived the long-dormant process of ratification a year ago, with Australia seeking closer cooperation with Chinese law enforcement to stem a rising tide of synthetic drugs trafficked from southern China.
Three Australian employees of casino operator Crown Resorts Ltd remain in Chinese custody following their arrest in November 2016 for alleged gambling offences.
Reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; Additional reporting by Philip Wen and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez