The real China choice
28 Nov 2019|

The choice for Australia is not the one we’re always being told we have to make—between America and China. It’s the choice between the status quo, a wilful complacency, on the one hand. And, on the other, taking action to preserve our liberties from Chinese intrusion and American unreliability.

At the moment, Australia’s China strategy looks like simple status quo, but it’s actually one of paralysis. Canberra is immobilised by two conflicting policy impulses: the security agencies urge taking a harder line, while the economic and foreign affairs agencies advise against jeopardising Australia’s trade with China by doing so.

What to do? Australia needs to toughen its protections against China’s domineering ways and engage confidently with it for maximum benefit for Australia’s people. It needs an energetic engagement, but an armour-plated one, metaphorically speaking.

Some toughening has begun. Much more remains to be done across the full landscape of Australia’s society, governance and economy. Australia’s democracy is a precious asset, yet it’s wide open to manipulation. What is the use of all of Australia’s defence force personnel and all its ships and planes if the decision-making system has already been taken over by Beijing?

If a foreign power were to command the allegiance of enough key members of Australia’s federal political system, Australia’s sovereignty would already be lost. Invasion becomes redundant, the ADF impotent. And Sun Tzu’s famous dictum realised: ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.’

When the chief of the defence force, Angus Campbell, was this year asked to speak about the nature of war in 2025, it was telling that he devoted his entire speech to political warfare. Authoritarian states, he said, see war as a never-ending struggle. ‘It’s a struggle that has been maintained throughout history, and it’s a struggle that’s happening right now’ in the grey zones of political warfare, said Campbell. The first phase of such war is conducted in information campaigns and political activity.

So they are the areas of most urgent need for action. The first line of protection, according to former ASIO chief Duncan Lewis, is the community. ‘We need a more prepared community’, he says, ‘but we have a way to go yet. ASIO can’t do it by itself. ASIO is very dependent on the community to be alert, but not paranoid.’

Lewis says that the help of the community was essential in defeating terrorism in Australia. The Muslim community, in particular, supplied invaluable warnings to the police and to ASIO and was indispensable to public safety. ‘The Chinese Australian community could and should be as vital in the work against foreign covert influence, including Beijing’s United Front and political corruption.’

Australian governments, federal, state and local, as well as schools, universities and community groups, could do much more to educate immigrants and the wider community alike on the value of democracy and the responsibilities of citizens. At the moment the loudest voices of ‘patriotism’ in Australia are the foreign ones manufactured by the covert arms of Beijing’s influence through United Front organisations masquerading as community, student, business and homeland groups.

Second are political parties. ‘I do worry about the issue of financing political parties’, says Lewis. ‘We need a mechanism that maintains parties free of foreign influence.’ Astonishingly, until 2019 it was legal for foreigners to donate to Australian political parties. The law now forbids foreign donations, but it’s still only the barest beginning.

At a minimum, the system needs to be tightened by these steps. One, ban all cash donations; credit cards and bank transfers can be traced, cash cannot. Two, require immediate disclosure of all donations and the identity of the donors on public registers; there is no argument for allowing long reporting lags to remain. Three, impose caps to limit donations to ‘retail’ size of maybe a few thousand dollars or so, rather than permit ‘wholesale’-sized donors buying outsize influence. Four, enlarge and empower the federal money-tracking agency, AUSTRAC, to enforce the laws and to monitor the sources of funds, to prevent organised crime and foreign sources penetrating the system. Five, create a national integrity commission, or ‘federal ICAC’, to investigate corruption.

Third are MPs and senators. At the moment, there is no systematic scrutiny of politicians to block covert agents of foreign influence from taking seats in parliament. Without due care it can happen and has happened. At the moment, in New Zealand’s parliament sits a National Party MP who once trained Chinese military intelligence officers. He didn’t disclose this salient fact before running for office.

In Australia, Sam Dastyari was cultivated by Huang Xiangmo while a sitting senator. This week’s news that Chinese intelligence operatives offered $1 million to a Chinese Australian car dealer in Melbourne to run for federal parliament as the Liberal candidate for Chisholm shows that the effort continued well after Dastyari was drummed out of parliament.

Australia relies on chance at the moment: the chance that the media might notice a covert agent of influence; the chance that ASIO might be tipped off; the chance that, if ASIO is tipped off in time, its advice will be heeded. Lewis warned the political parties about Huang, but they continued to accept his money regardless.

This haphazard approach must be replaced with a systematic one. All MPs and senators should be required to submit to a formal ASIO security clearance. Most Australians would be shocked to learn that this isn’t already happening.

ASIO should be given the resources and powers to do so formally for all politicians. And if someone running for parliament isn’t prepared to submit to a security clearance, they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to sit in parliament to make laws.

These are all ‘no-regrets’ reforms—ones we should do to improve our democracy in any case, only made more urgent by China’s relentless interference.