Australian media outlets exploded two weeks ago with articles about current member of Australian parliament and former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison joining the advisory board of the Hudson Institute’s China Center.
“Morrison joins advisory board of Rupert Murdoch-backed think tank,” blared the Sydney Morning Herald headline, citing Murdoch’s $100,000 in annual support to Hudson. While attention on Morrison’s new role at a U.S. think tank, while concurrently serving as the member of parliament for the New South Wales seat of Cook, drew scrutiny in Australia, his appointment to the advisory board of Hudson’s China Center raises questions about whether Morrison has entered into a principal-agent relationship with the China Center. If so, Hudson may need to register with the Justice Department as the agent of a foreign principal and disclose various aspects of the arrangement.
“Understanding the nature and dimensions of Morrison’s role is important in evaluating if his addition to the team at the Hudson Institute’s China Center creates FARA (Foreign Agent Registration Act) registration obligations,” David H. Laufman, a partner at Wiggin and Dana law firm who previously oversaw FARA enforcement at the Justice Department, told Responsible Statecraft.
"It seems odd to me for a current foreign government official to have a role at a U.S. think tank. It raises obvious questions about whether a foreign government will be influencing the Hudson Institute's devising and dissemination of content within the United States to influence U.S. public opinion or U.S. government officials,” said Laufman. “A position on a board of a program at a U.S. think tank connotes a measure of direction and control of the operations of that program.”
The Hudson Institute did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the role and responsibilities undertaken by Morrison as a member of the advisory board whose other two members are former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former diplomat Paula Dobriansky.
The China Center is clearly focused on shaping U.S.-China policy.
The Center’s website says:
The China Center at Hudson Institute studies the ideological, structural, and long-term domestic and international forces at play in shaping China’s strategic intent, sharp power capabilities, and weaknesses and vulnerabilities, with the central goal of engendering America’s value-based, non-partisan, sound and effective responses to the China challenge.
Under the leadership of Hudson Senior Fellow Dr. Miles Yu, who previously served as the senior China policy and planning advisor at the State Department, the China Center will bring together leading China experts, policy makers, and national leaders to solidify and extend the non-partisan national consensus on America’s approach to China.
FARA, as described on the Justice Department’s website, “requires certain agents of foreign principals who are engaged in political activities or other activities specified under the statute to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.”
Morrison’s role as a foreign individual and a member of Australian parliament and his advisory role over Hudson’s China Center raises the question about whether Hudson’s China Center is acting as an agent of a foreign principal.
“If I were still overseeing FARA enforcement at the Justice Department this is something I would allocate some scrutiny to, to determine the nature of Morrison’s role in the operations of this program in order to assess whether his involvement would constitute registerable activities under FARA for the Hudson Institute,” said Laufman. “The category I'd be looking at is whether Hudson Institute is engaging in ‘political activities’ as broadly defined under FARA, as a result of Morrison’s involvement in the China Center.”
“An ‘agent of a foreign principal’ is any person who acts as an agent, representative, employee, or servant, or otherwise acts at the order, request, or under the direction or control of a ‘foreign principal’…” and who engages in any of a number of activities, including, “[engaging] within the United States in political activities, such as intending to influence any U.S. Government official or the American public regarding U.S. domestic or foreign policy or the political or public interests of a foreign government or foreign political party,” according to the Justice Department.
Joshua Ian Rosenstein, an attorney focused on FARA at Sandler Reiff law firm, told Responsible Statecraft that the scenario of a foreign politician serving on the advisory board of a program at U.S. think tank wouldn’t necessarily trigger a FARA registration but he would advise a stringent set of measures in order to avoid a principal-agent relationship between the foreign individual and the U.S. think tank.
“I would recommend a set of guardrails to make sure that this foreign individual serves only in an honorary or advisory capacity and that officers and directors do not need to follow their directions,” said Rosenstein. “I might go even further as suggesting that the foreign advisor not make specific recommendations about programmatic activities.”
Hudson has provided no clarity about Morrison’s role, but his inaugural appearance at the think tank, an event held on December 6th where Morrison delivered prepared remarks and engaged in a conversation with Center director Miles Yu, emphasized Morrison’s interest in promoting U.S. policy in the Pacific centered on containing and pushing back against China.
Morrison heralded “the most trusted set of relationships in the world between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom.”
He warned that China threatens these countries by seeking to “modify the global rules in ways based on an order that would better suit Chinese interests.”
The event, where Morrison highlighted U.S. and Australian defense cooperation in the Pacific in order to counter China and warned of “mutually assured destruction” if the U.S. and China clash over Taiwan, concluded with Yu presenting Morrison with a Winnie the Pooh mug, a nod to a Chinese internet meme mocking Chinese President Xi Jinping by comparing him to the portly bear.
“What is noteworthy is that Australia has an interest in the U.S. role in Asia and countering China, so there's every reason to expect that Morrison would seek to ensure that the U.S. continues to be a mainstay to help promote Australian security in the region as a counterweight to threats from China,” said Laufman. “That increases the possibility that he will espouse views, in the course of this center’s operations, that the U.S. should aggressively try to counter China within Asia – views which promote Australian security interests."
Morrison did not respond to a request for comment.