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China is likely to use its millions of citizens living overseas to further its interests in South East Asia, according to former Australian prime minister John Howard.
Mr Howard was speaking as part of a panel discussion on the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network which includes Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.
The panel discussion in London was organised by the Policy Exchange think tank and also included former Canadian PM Stephen Harper and Lord Robertson, the former secretary-general of the UN.
"Australia's population will reach 25 million soon, one million of them are ethnic Chinese," Mr Howard said, according to ABC News.
"[They are] terrific citizens making enormous contributions to our nation, but it remains the case that China is very interested in the capacity to use those people to further her own power and her interests," he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Harper said the threat of cyber espionage posed the biggest threat to the Five Eyes network.
His comments are a likely reference to concerns over Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, which Australia may block from taking part in the upcoming rollout of the 5G mobile network in the country.
In 2012 the Australia government blocked Huawei's involvement in the National Broadband Network over security concerns.
"Different countries have permitted the penetration of Chinese and other hardware in particular, and in some cases software, into our systems in a way that causes some of the rest of us to be reluctant to engage in cyber cooperation," Mr Harper said during the panel discussion.
Meanwhile, the Australia government is pushing ahead with new laws to tackle the growing threat of foreign states trying to wield influence in Australia, which have caused diplomatic tensions with China.
Under the bill, espionage, treason and treachery offenses will be expanded, while acting with a foreign country to influence Australia's democracy will be criminalised.