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By Zalika Rizmal

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's domestic spy chief has warned that universities need to be "very conscious" of foreign interference in an apparent reference to China's perceived undercover influence on campuses.

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation director-general Duncan Lewis told politicians in Canberra late on Tuesday that espionage and foreign interference were an "insidious threat".

Lewis said foreign powers were "clandestinely seeking to shape" the opinion of the Australian public, media organisations and government officials "in order to advance their countries’ own political objectives".

Lewis did not specifically name China in his late night testimony to a parliamentary inquiry, but when questioned about China's involvement, he said he "strongly identified" with comments made by a senior government official this month that universities should protect themselves from Chinese influence. [nL4N1IE264]

Asked last week about the Communist Party's overseas activities in places like Australia, a senior official said Chinese people living overseas had to respect the laws of the countries in which they lived.

China is Australia's largest trading partner, with business spurred by a wide-ranging China-Australia Free Trade Agreement signed in 2015.

Relations between Australia and China have been tested in recent months after the United States, Japan and Australia voiced concerns over Beijing's unilateral actions in the disputed South China Sea, including continued artificial land building.

(Reporting by Zalika Rizmal in Sydney and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Jane Wardell and Nick Macfie)

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