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China Satellite BW

At last, we’re awake to China’s predatory meddling

By Peter Jennings

The past ten days of Australian politics show us what the next ten years may look like, in terms of how Australia shapes up to its biggest strategic challenge – protecting our interests from an aggressive, nationalistic China intent on dominating the Asia-Pacific.

After years of wilful blindness, the Australian government could no longer deny that China’s clumsy interference in our political processes was trashing the integrity of the system.

If Australia was going to retain a shred of concern for its sovereignty the Government had no choice other than to do what it did: modernise and strengthen our anti-espionage laws and oh-so reluctantly say no to the rivers of Chinese money corrupting our political parties.

Sam Dastyari’s artful venality resurfaced to become ‘exhibit A’ in the case for the Government’s anti-subversion moves, but the reality is that the legislation took a long time to develop. With an infinite lack of enthusiasm the Canberra security bureaucracy has come to accept that China presents a profound threat to our political integrity and sovereignty. The risks go far beyond a few spivs on the take.

Why has it been so hard to see what’s in plain sight? The answer, of course, is money. The spoils of China’s growth have enriched our business community; fattened our universities with easy cash; funded research and development when our own leaders couldn’t see the point and paid for the advertising campaigns designed by the naïve kids that pack our political parties.

Our security agencies have spent the last 17 years focused on a real but contained threat of Islamist extremism, and countering espionage and subversion became the poor cousins. In Canberra’s policy fights over national security versus foreign investment, the Defence Department habituated itself to get out of Treasury’s way. The result is years of Chinese investment – often directly by state owned entities – into Australia’s critical telecommunication, electricity, gas and port infrastructure that exposes the country to intellectual property theft and cyber-attack. The contours of this risk are now surfacing but will take years to unpick.

Malcolm Turnbull is due some kudos for accepting the need to push back against the risks of Chinese subversion. He didn’t begin his time as Prime Minister with this understanding of China’s emerging pattern of behaviour, but acting on it now has delivered one of his better weeks in the job.

And what of those who opposed Turnbull’s tougher anti-subversion line? The most worrying response came from individuals, presumably driven by today’s Bennelong byelection – claiming that Turnbull’s actions were based on ‘Chinaphobia.’

Frankly, that’s cynical manipulation, exploiting a dog-whistle assumption that voters with Chinese ancestry will think the anti-subversion legislation is based on race and aimed at them. What nonsense! The real concern is the predatory and anti-democratic behaviour of authoritarian regimes, like the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese Australians should welcome the anti-subversion legislation: like any other Australians, they have a right not to be manipulated by foreign agents and their local proxies.

A second response to the anti-subversion legislation has been to deny there is any problem. The ANU’s Hugh White told Michelle Grattan that ‘the government has so far not provided any clear evidence that Beijing is actively seeking’ to ‘influence our politics.’ Really? If the political payments and donations; denunciations from Beijing; offensive People’s Daily editorials and endless cyber theft of intellectual property don’t amount to evidence, I can’t imagine what level of interference would pass that test.

It’s not coincidental that similar patterns of Chinese state behaviour are being called out in Germany, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. It’s true that the Russians and North Koreans, among others, try to covertly manipulate political processes, but the Communist Party of China, led by its United Front Work Department, makes this work a central part of external influence building.

In last Monday’s Australian Bob Carr set out ‘seven steps to tame fears over China.’ My assessment is that Carr is wrong or misdirected on almost every one of his steps. It’s important to go through them to explain why that’s so.

Carr’s first step is to say, ‘drop the stridency’, but it’s not the government that has played the race card or used official spokespeople, as Beijing has, to make allegations of ‘typical anti-China hysteria.’ Indeed, it’s important that the government uses measured language to say when China crosses an unacceptable line. Australia has looked the other way for years, never calling out or imposing costs on bad behaviour. All that quiescence achieved was to make Beijing think we were exploitable and soft.

The hand-wringing fear that a Chinese official or editorial might say something harsh about the relationship is the latest manifestation of Australia’s cultural cringe. Bob Carr captures this queasy spirit in his Diary of a Foreign Minister: ‘How does that get read in the Chinese embassy?’ he asks of Obama’s pivot to Asia. Saying where are national interests lie isn’t strident, just sensible.

Carr’s second step is to ban financial donations ‘from any source that may reasonably be thought to be seeking to influence Australian foreign policy, even from Australian citizens’. Buying influence is wrong in any circumstances but Carr misses the point that there is a critical difference between overt and acknowledged promotion of policy and covert influence building. And does Carr really think it would be healthy to shut down debate between Australians? That would deliver an environment closer to Beijing’s comfort zone but hardly consistent with healthy democracy. 

Carr’s step three is to return to John Howard’s 1996 approach to China of focusing on common interests and setting aside discordant ones. Howard’s approach was right for the time, but twenty years ago China’s economy ranked seventh in the world, about the same size as Brazil’s. China had three brief paragraphs devoted to it in the 1997 Australia’s Strategic Policy statement.

The picture is vastly different today. There’s no point pretending that the gentle strategic outlook of a generation ago can help us now. Australia needs a harder-edged approach to China because it has become a dominant factor in Asia-Pacific security and has taken on a much less benign persona.

I agree with Carr’s fourth step, ‘close down the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China’. But the assessment that the Council is simply ‘a charitable organisation … and an umbrella organisation for the Chinese community’ is truly laughable. This group is linked to China’s United Front Work Department, reporting to the Chinese Communist Party’s politburo. The Council routinely advocates policy positions congenial to China, such as on Beijing’s sovereignty over the South China Sea. We should hope to see a significant reduction in the numbers of Australian politicians guilelessly turning up for banquets and photo opportunities with this charity.

Carr’s fifth step, to stop the ‘unsubstantiated and racist-edged’ ‘fear campaign about Chinese students’ could only benefit if he took his own advice to drop the stridency. There is plenty of evidence on the record about the mobilisation of Chinese student groups to act as rent-a-crowd backdrops for visiting Chinese dignitaries. The real racism here is to assume that being Chinese makes it acceptable to let foreign students be manipulated for political purposes. How is that tolerable under any circumstances?

Step six – ‘hose down the US embassy’ – is even more absurd. There hasn’t been a peep out of the US embassy during any of this debate. Carr reaches back more than two years to reports of embassy unhappiness at the 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company in late 2015. Notwithstanding claims at the time that this was a carefully considered Australian decision, leasing the Port of Darwin was the outcome of a combination of bureaucratic carelessness and strategic myopia. Given that their Marine Corps uses the port, the Americans rightly felt snubbed not to be briefed.

In one respect the Port of Darwin lease was helpful, because it triggered the introspection that lead to today’s anti-subversion legislation. (Well done, Defence!) Throughout all of that—and unlike the Chinese embassy—the US embassy kept a low profile. I recall one public intervention by the former US Ambassador, John Berry, expressing his amazement about foreign donations to Australian political parties – a sensible enough position.

Carr’s final step to reset relations with Beijing is to ‘accentuate the positive.’ Well, we can be sure that Carr’s Australia China Relations Institute, flush with its initial funding of $1.8 million from Mr Huang will continue relentlessly to do just that. But no amount of fixed smiles and happy-happy talk can paper over the strategic challenges of dealing with a Beijing that’s feeling its oats and determined to press its interests, if necessary at the expense of all others.

In this tough strategic world Australia has little choice but to look to its own interests, stick to its guns and push back against any efforts to weaken our political foundations. Would any self-respecting sovereign country do any less than that?

Originally published by: The Weekend Australian on 16 Dec 2017