Caution must come first in relations with foreign interests such as China

Caution must come first in relations with foreign interests such as China, by Paul Maley.

For years Australia’s security establishment has been warning that foreign ­interference in Australia’s affairs was rising, even soaring. The national security community, which has been flat to the boards fighting the Islamist threat, has failed to keep up with a problem that ASIO admitted this week had reached “unprecedented” levels.

Nobody in government is saying it publicly but the focal point of these concerns is China. China’s interference in the internal workings of its friends, neighbours and rivals has grown along with its power and prestige. Beijing has ­become more assertive as the rest of the world, Australia included, has been increas­ingly reliant on it for foreign investment.

To some, Chinese money risks ­enfeebling Australia’s institutions, even the quality of its democracy. Universities depend as never ­before on Chinese students, Chinese investors bring much needed foreign capital, a portion of which is spent on sensitive projects such as electricity infrastructure, and cash-strapped political parties have shown few qualms about ­accepting generous donations.

The mercantilist nature of the China’s corporate sector makes it impossible to say with confidence what the true purpose of these ­investments is or how they may be used in the future. When a Chinese state-owned company bids for a stake in the NSW energy market, does it see a lucrative ­investment or a vulnerability in Australia’s critical infrastructure to be leveraged at some point? If China’s telco behemoth Huawei pursues lucrative National Broadband Network contracts, is it attracted to the return on investment or a future opportunity for surveillance? To China, these questions cut both ways. Beijing sees no difference between one of its Confucius Institutes operating out of the University of Sydney and an Alliance Francaise 5km down the road.

Except there is a difference. China sees its vast global diaspora as a strategic asset that can be used to further its interests. To a greater or lesser ­extent most countries do this. The Saudis, the Iranians, even the ­Malaysians keep a close watch on their expatriate communities or, in the case of the Israelis, use them as a recruiting pool for espionage. But Chinese interference is more effective. Its diaspora is larger, its aims are broader and its government officials looking to shape opinion or curb dissent have more levers to pull to influence Chinese Australians, most of whom have relatives or business interests back in China. …

There is a sense of frustration within ASIO that the present flurry of government anxiety about foreign interference postdates by several years ASIO’s own numerous warnings about the ­nature and scale of the problem. In 2008 ASIO watched with amazement and alarm as Beijing used its embassies and consulates as operational hubs to mobilise an estimated 10,000 Chinese students in support of the Chinese torch relay that was making its way around Australia ­before the Beijing Olympics. …

Australian National University professor and former Office of ­National Assessments analyst Rory Medcalf says there has been a “creeping realisation’’ across government in the past 12 to 24 months that foreign ­interference has become a major problem. …

There is little doubt Beijing ­actively seeks control over Chinese student associations and that it uses the Chinese student community as a means to monitor and control dissent. Pressure on academics also seems to be growing. In August Sydney University IT lecturer Khimji Vaghjiani was forced to issue a grovelling apology after ­inadvertently using a map that ­depicted Chinese-claimed territory as belonging to India. …

It is in the realm of political ­donations where Chinese influence is the most pernicious. In 2015 ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis reportedly warned the main parties about accepting ­donations from Chinese businessmen with close links to the Communist Party. Huang Xiangmo and Chau Chak Wing donated more than $6.5m to the Liberal and Labor parties.

The government looks set to crack down on, if not ban, foreign ­donations to Australian politicians and perhaps associated entities such as activist groups such as GetUp!, which maintains close relations with the ALP. … As it stands, Australia is virtually alone within the Anglo­sphere in allowing large donations from foreigners.

hat-tip Stephen Neil