Concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s nefariously growing interference into the region (and Australia’s) domestic politics, society and academy dominated the headlines Down Under this past fortnight. The admissions of a former Chinese spy (who defected to Australia) and revelations of Beijing’s plans to ‘plant’ a stooge in the Australian parliament have reinvigorated concerns about China’s behaviour tenfold.

In response, the Australian government has announced the creation of a taskforce led by Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the Australian Signals Directorate and Defence Intelligence to tackle national security threats emanating from espionage and foreign interference in the country. This comes amidst a growing divide within the foreign policy and national security community in Canberra over the nature of the challenge China presents to Australia’s wellbeing and ways to deal with it.

Wang Liqiang, a self-confessed former Chinese spy, defected to Australian authorities in early October and offered detailed information on Beijing’s wide-ranging espionage activities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia in return for asylum. His claims are being investigated and so is his application for asylum in Australia. Alex Joske believes that China is trying to silence Wang by concocting allegations of fraudulent behaviour against him- which, in his view, indicates that he might be telling the truth.

Meanwhile, revelations of Beijing’s alleged plot to place its own candidate, Bo ‘Nick’ Zhao in the Australian parliament have caused a furore. Zhao had informed the Australian security agencies about being approached by a Chinese intelligence operative with $1 million to run for a seat in the parliament- and had later been found dead under suspicious circumstances in a motel in Melbourne in March this year.

 Liberal MP Andrew Hastie has described China’s plan as ‘…a state-sponsored attempt to infiltrate our Parliament using an Australian citizen and basically run them as an agent of foreign influence in our democratic system.’ These revelations drive home the seriousness of what former ASIO head Duncan Lewis describes as China’s endgame being to ‘take over’ Australia’s democratic system through its ‘insidious’ foreign interference operations.

As an interesting aside, New Zealand has placed a ban on foreign political donations over concerns of interference from China.

Even as we read about the CCP’s infiltration of the Hong Kong protests, the people of Hong Kong voted in record numbers to oust pro-Beijing politicians in district council elections held earlier this fortnight. Pro-democracy candidates won a landslide in a remarkable display of the democratic aspirations of the city. Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, who’s close to the CCP, said that her government would ‘listen humbly’ to the people’s views.

The CCP, on the other hand, responded with Foreign Minister Wang Yi stating, ‘Whatever happens, Hong Kong is always a part of China and any attempts to create chaos in Hong Kong or to jeopardise its prosperity and stability will not be successful.’

This week, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne issued yet another sharp statement calling China’s arbitrary detention of Australian citizen Yang Hengjun ‘unacceptable’. Yang has been accused of espionage by China and has been under detention since January this year.

Speaking of detention, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists received a cache of leaked Chinese government documents revealing the operational details of the mass internment camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang. It’s arguably the biggest such leak of classified documents from China since the leak of the Tiananmen papers.

Moving on to another part of the Indo-Pacific, it’s being reported that the Indian Navy expelled a Chinese ‘research’ vessel allegedly conducting espionage in Indian waters near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This comes amid escalating competition between India and China in the Indian Ocean Region, and growing naval synergy between Russia and China, which manifested in the arrival of a Russian training ship in the Chinese-owned Hambantota port in Sri Lanka last week. 

The newly elected President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited India last week, his first overseas visit in office. The Rajapaksas are traditionally seen as pro-China and there’s concern in New Delhi over India’s potentially waning influence in its own backyard. However, in light of the new president’s visit to New Delhi, there’s hope that Sri Lanka would pursue a balanced path. Perhaps as an indication of that hope, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a US $450 million line of credit to fund development projects in Colombo, including $50 million to combat terrorism. 

Japan and India held their inaugural defence and foreign ministers’ ‘2+2’ meeting this week. The two sides discussed plans to increase military and security cooperation including collaboration on weapons and military hardware. Interestingly, Tokyo seemed to flag the possibility that it might not join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership without India’s participation. While that has now been dismissed as untrue, Japan has assured that it will work concertedly to address New Delhi’s concerns vis-à-vis RCEP.

Finally, some key Southeast Asia news- Vietnam released its 2019 Defense White Paper last week, the first such document in a decade. As Prashanth Parameswaran notes, ‘it provides an update into Vietnam’s defense thinking amid changes in the regional security environment and of its own role within it, whether it be its development of international defense alignments as well as broader trends such as the development of the regional security architecture.’ The release of the document, Parameswaran points out, is a ‘significant development in and of itself.’

Significance for Australia

Canberra is divided- the fault lines between the two ‘tribes’ in the federal bureaucracy, the more ‘moderate’ finance and foreign policy folks and the more hawkish and realist intelligence and security crowd are beginning to sharpen, as John Kehoe argues. While the moderates advocate considering the economic costs of standing up to China, the latter warn about the dangers of not doing so, regardless of the short-term pain.  

Kehoe describes this fault line succinctly,

‘The challenge DFAT and Treasury face is that their traditional beliefs that diplomatic and economic engagement with China would lead to more economic liberalisation and political liberation- as it has in other emerging countries- has been proved wrong. Under strongman Xi, China has become more authoritarian.’

In light of this, recent speeches and actions of former Australian politicians raise concerns. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating addressed a strategic forum in Sydney last month and admonished the security agencies, who in his words ‘are now effectively running the foreign policy of the country’, for leading a witch hunt against China. He put the blame of deteriorating ties squarely on the shoulders of Australian bureaucrats, politicians and media, overlooking the fact that China is the driver of the issues they raise.

The problem lies with Chinese Communist Party’s actions, not with those pointing them out. China’s interference in Australia’s domestic politics, aggression in the South China Sea, creation of debt traps through the Belt and Road Initiative and human rights violations in Tibet and Xinjiang are fundamentally against Australia’s national interests and vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Moreover, it’s come to light that former senator Nick Xenophon has decided to represent Huawei as its legal representative in Australia- and claims that he’s exempted from registering on the foreign influence register as he won’t be lobbying politicians for Huawei.

With Keating and Xenophon, and the ongoing divide within the foreign policy and strategic community, policymakers in Canberra have their hands full.

Peter Hartcher puts it well,

‘…his (Keating’s) conception is super-simplistic- China is big and getting bigger so be nice and don’t upset them. The reality is much harder- how do you work with a big economic partner while it’s trying covertly to take control of your country? You don’t succeed by pretending it’s not happening.’

Australia needs to stand united in the pursuit of its national interests, and that begins with Canberra.


Aakriti Bachhawat is a Researcher with the Defence and Strategy team at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.