Sydney Morning Herald, with Dr Andrew Foxall, 3 June, 2018
Don’t be fooled by last week’s China Zhejiang–Australia Trade and Investment Symposium in Sydney. For all the positive spin put on the event, Canberra is increasingly wary of the influence Beijing reaps from its investments.
But China’s influence doesn’t flow solely from this. It uses a combination of diplomatic and political pressure, manipulation of its diaspora, illicit financing of political parties, and propaganda. According to some, Beijing spends up to US$10 billion ($13 billion) a year on its overseas operations. If this sounds familiar, it is because these are tactics taken straight from the KGB playbook Russia has followed for well over a decade.
Russia’s aim has been to portray itself as a great power on the world stage. Its tactics are often crude and short-term. China’s, by contrast, are slow-burning and systemic. Beijing’s ultimate ambition is to create a Sino-centric regional order, based around tianxia – an imperial concept that puts China at the centre of nations. This strategy is in full force in Australia.
The effects are striking. Former Labor foreign affairs minister and one-time NSW premier Bob Carr is facing demands that he be expelled from the party because of his deep links to China; he directs a think tank founded with a donation from a Chinese billionaire with close Communist Party links and is alleged to have enlisted Labor senator Kristina Keneally to use estimate hearings to ask pro-China questions. Last December, Sam Dastyari resigned from the party over his dealings with a Chinese billionaire.
Other opportunities to exert influence abound. China is Australia’s biggest export market, and Beijing is currently hampering imports of Australian wine and delaying a big meat-export deal. One-third of all foreign students at Australian universities are Chinese, and the families of Chinese students who have criticised their country while studying here have received warnings. China is now using lawfare and illegal occupation of the South China Sea in order to exert pressure on Australia and other countries who depend on its sea lanes.
Speaking last year, Malcolm Turnbull said that “our system as a whole had not grasped the nature and magnitude of the threat”. He was talking about the Chinese threat in Australia, but he could just as easily have been talking about the West as a whole.
In New Zealand, Jian Yang, a Chinese-born sitting MP, was investigated last year by the national intelligence agency in connection with the decade he spent teaching in military and intelligence academies in China – a fact missing from his CV. In Britain, China has developed arrangements with two major British newspapers, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, and pressured Cambridge University Press into censorship. Elsewhere, it has leant on a number of Western capitals to conform to its view of Taiwan as a province of China.
On the face of it, the threats posed by Beijing should be manageable; each relates to a particular issue that falls under the responsibility of a particular ministry of government. In reality, however, they are difficult to deal with. For the Communist Party, there is no distinction between its business executives, spies, police chiefs, media stars, crime bosses and its politicians. The same people play multiple roles. Everyone, ultimately, is on the same team. The similarities between China and Russia are obvious.
In a report released last week by The Henry Jackson Society, a London think tank, Robert Seely, a British Conservative MP, argues that the Kremlin is waging a “new kind of conflict … in which military and non-military tools are combined in a dynamic, efficient, and integrated way to achieve political aims”. In this conflict, Russia “makes use of at least 50 tools of state power”, ranging from assassinations and blackmail to cyberattacks and disinformation.
Although Seely calls this “contemporary Russian conflict”, he notes that the tools are also being used by other authoritarian states – including China.
Highlighting the threat is a start; the real question is how to deal with it. Unlike elsewhere, the debate about Chinese influence is at full blast in Australia. Duncan Lewis, the head of ASIO, recently told lawmakers in Canberra: “Hostile foreign spies are currently conducting harmful activity … on an unprecedented scale.” In response, Canberra is mulling tough counter-measures, which would require anyone acting on behalf of a foreign state to publically register their activities – akin to the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the US.
But, as Seely’s report makes clear, the questions raised by the behaviour of China and Russia are much broader. They relate to how Western states collectively defend themselves in an age when authoritarian states turn the freedoms of open societies against those same societies.
China is playing a game of divide-and-rule between Western countries as well as inside Australia. Its aim is to weaken individual countries – and, in doing so, make them vulnerable to Beijing’s influence. But as a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance and a NATO partner, Australia should remember that it has powerful friends.