Australian intelligence community is manipulating its China policy in the shadows following the US steps

By GT staff reporters Source: Global Times Published: 2020/9/21 0:09:58

Chinese and Australian national flags are seen at an event in Sydney, Australia. File photo: Xinhua

Australia's Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton refused to confirm that the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) had "interrogated" four Chinese journalists in June over a raid on their home in Australia, but said the agency had carried out "actions." In the past few years, Australian security and intelligence agencies, ASIO in particular, have been greatly exposed in the media. They have played a prominent role in Australia's foreign exchanges, especially in the deterioration of Australia-China relations.

Last year, Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating even used the word "nutters" to lambast Australia's spy bosses. Observers believe that Australia's security and intelligence agencies have moved from behind the scenes to the front. "It's not normal for the intelligence agencies to dominate Australia-China relations," a German scholar told the Global Times.

The ridiculous "wolverines"

"The role of Australian intelligence agencies has changed dramatically in recent years, jumping to the front to intervene in national policy," Chen Hong, a professor and director of the Australian Studies Center at East China Normal University, told the Global Times.

In recent years, especially on the issues related to China, those agencies sometimes have jumped out to speak actively, including about China's current and former leaders. The government intelligence background in the past adds "authority" to their voice. 

One of them is Andrew Hastie, a Liberal MP described by Britain's Guardian newspaper as "a notorious hawk on China."

He was denied a visa to visit China in late 2019, with another Australian MP, James Paterson. Chinese embassy in Australia said in a statement that the Chinese people do not welcome those who make unwarranted attacks on China. A few days ago, a so-called Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China issued a statement claiming that China was bullying Australia, in which Hastie is the Australian representative.

Hastie is Chair of Australia's Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. Last August, he wrote that Australia's sovereignty and freedom could be at risk from China's rise, even comparing the way the West now treats China to France's failure to contain Nazi Germany's "appeasement policy."

In Australia, the Committee has a special position as a bipartisan mechanism in parliament that receives regular briefings on China from ASIO. Hastie has stood at the front of the stage many times to manipulate anti-China issues since he became the chair of the committee. Australia's ban on Huawei as a supplier of 5G equipment was pushed by his committee.

Intriguingly, Hastie and others (Liberal MP Tim Wilson; Senator James Paterson, Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching, and so on) formed a "Wolverine Caucus" to "speak out against China's expansion of power."

The name wolverine is related to the 1984 Hollywood film Red Dawn, in which a group of American teenagers rise up against Soviet invasion and defeat their enemies, nicknamed the wolverine. As for a representative of the public opinion elected by the country imitating the American teenagers in the movie, some Australian scholars commented that they really don't know whether to laugh or cry.

On September 4, a Reuters article on Sino-Australian relations also referred to the "wolverine" of bi-partisan lawmakers in the Australian parliament. The article said the sharp decline in relations between the two countries in recent years has been led in part by a coterie of Australian officials, some with security and intelligence backgrounds.

Last August, when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison chose Andrew Shearer, who is known for his pro-American and anti-China stance, as the cabinet secretary, there was a lot of talk in the Australian media that the Australian government had sent a signal to further align itself with the US as the confrontation between the US and China escalated.

Andrew Shearer, deputy director-general of the Office of National Intelligence, worked as a senior advisor at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) from 2016-2018. He previously served as a national security advisor to former Australian prime ministers, John Howard and Tony Abbott. 

Testifying before the US House Armed Services Committee in 2017, Shearer, a supporter of Australia's military alliance with the US, declared that China was "intent on undermining the liberal world order and the institutions that underpinned it."

Shearer has become a powerful voice on China policy in the prime minister's inner circle and has urged closer engagement with Japan and India, according to Reuters.

Some retired intelligence officers are also keen on making noises. Duncan Lewis, former head of ASIO who retired last November, told the press that China was trying to use espionage and influence to take over Australia's political system. In response to his comments, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, "We have made many responses to similar statements from Australian sources, and I am tired of repeating."

Mike Burgess took over Duncan's place. In last August, when Hastie's comments sparked controversy, Burgess said that foreign interference and espionage threats were "very real and very serious."

Australian media said Burgess was a special man who often spoke publicly, even through social media. Burgess specifically noted about the so-called "China threat" when he was the head of Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), Australia's top technical intelligence agency.

Mysterious organizations on stage

The large Australian intelligence system is mainly composed of six central intelligence agencies, namely the Office of National Intelligence Office (ONI), Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organization (AGO), Defence Intelligence Organization (DIO), and four other departments (the Australian federal police, Australian border troops, etc.).

ASIS is a veritable "stealth" outfit. It was founded in 1952 and was mentioned by a member of Parliament in 1975 by accident. The government admitted its existence two years later.

ASIO, Australia's oldest intelligence agency, was founded in 1949. At that time, Britain and the US, according to the Venona Plan, cracked the exchange of cables between the Soviet KGB and secret intelligence agents in foreign embassies, believing that "Soviet espionage activities were rampant in Australia," so they suspended the sharing of intelligence with Australia, forcing Australia to establish ASIO.

The well-known ASIO has been under the spotlight over the past few years for its frequent moves on China-related issues. In June 2017, ASIO released what it called a classified dossier, opening the door to accusations of China's "infiltration" of Australia. A few months later, the agency said in its annual report that "foreign powers are engaged in a massive and relentless espionage against Australia."

Some analysts said that after the ASIO report was released, the Australian defense and security agency became a key advisor to then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and took over the China policy.

It is not just ASIO that has become active, the public image of Australia's intelligence community is gradually becoming clearer.

The Australian Institute of International Affairs published an article in June 2019 entitled "Out of the shadows: Australia's intelligence leaders speaking out" mentioned that on 29 October 2018, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) ended seven-decades of relative secrecy and closed communication with a tweet reading "long time listener, first time caller". 

At the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's annual National Security Dinner, ASD Director-General Mike Burgess didn't prevaricate or skirt around the agency's role "on security grounds", instead talking expansively about it.

With the motto "Reveal their secrets, Protect our own", ASD, one of Australia's most secretive organizations, is responsible for foreign signals intelligence and cyber warfare. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) colloquially referred to the ASD as "licensed to hack" and disclosed that ASD was key to the result that Australian government banned Chinese company Huawei from supplying equipment for Australia's 5G network. 

Australia's intelligence agencies are expanding continuously. At the end of 2017, Australia has created a new super-security sector, the Department of Home Affairs. With the purpose to make Australia safer, the department manages a number of functions, including intelligence, law enforcement, immigration and customs border policy.

Previously, most of Australia's intelligence services were based in Melbourne, while its policy department is located in Canberra. With the establishment of the Department of Home Affairs, the cooperation between the two sides has been increasing, which has strengthened the prominent role of ASIO and ASIS in Australian foreign policy making, and also made Australia's security agencies stronger than ever.

The Australian Financial Review (AFR) commented that the banning of Huawei and the passage of new foreign interference laws showed how secretive intelligence agencies are flexing their foreign policy muscle behind the scenes. 

One senior US foreign policy expert has privately said that Australia's intelligence service had more influence than its counterparts in any other country, including the UK's Military Intelligence, Section 5 (MI5) and Section 6 (MI6), according to AFR.

Started as an intelligence-sharing group, the Five Eyes Alliance has been gradually upgraded into an economic and diplomatic alliance, indicating that intelligence has been upgraded into a vast organization involving the multiple branches of the governments, Chen said. "Sometimes it was not necessarily the prime minister and foreign minister who are pushing it, because they would shift positions as parties compete, but intelligence officials are rarely reshuffled and maintain a consistent mindset, playing a key role behind the scenes."

Willing to 'help the US with its dirty work'?

The Deutschland Funk has previously detailed the noticeable difference in ASIO's headquarters in Canberra: thick walls, bulletproof doors and windows, and deep protective trenches. The total cost was 500 million euro (about $590 million). This is a surveillance hub for the US-led "Five Eyes" in Asia. Except for targeting China, under the agreement, Australia is responsible for overseeing all countries from the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific.

According to media reports, Australia's intelligence monitoring stations cover the entire Asian continent, intercepting all forms of satellite communications, phone calls and e-mails.

The Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, which is the US spy hub in the heart of Australia and where Burgess once served, is responsible for monitoring Chinese mainland and Southeast Asia. 

The Guardian once commented that "Australia helped the US with its dirty work". In 2013, Australia was involved in US-led intelligence program code-named "Stateroom". In the same year, Canberra sparked diplomatic crises by tapping the phone calls of Indonesian leaders. 

It is well known that Australia's intelligence services have close ties with the US. Not only has Australia led the way in blocking Huawei, its intelligence officials have also followed the US in actively lobbying for Britain to join the "banning plan". At the start of the year, the Wolverines issued a statement to The Times newspaper in London, voicing anger over the UK government's move to allow Huawei equipment to be part of the country's 5G network. 

Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, indicated that national security "has become a kind of mantra" in current Australian foreign policy making, and intelligence agencies "seem to be the final court of appeal".

Last year, Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating denounced Australia's spy chiefs as "nutters" who manipulated the government's foreign policy.

Chen noted that intelligence agencies in Australia now not only collect and analyze confidential information, but also secretly "release" some information that they can't. "They know something is not true and cannot be said by themselves, so they feed it to Australia's news outlets, and let the news agency tell the story for them," Chen said.

Chen said that last year, the Australian media exposed the incident of "defecting Chinese agent" Wang Liqiang, who was reported to have conducted major intelligence activities in Hong Kong and Taiwan in his 20s. "The Australian intelligence agencies always distanced themselves from the vortex of public opinion, and finally, after the irresponsible reports were published by the Australian media, nothing was done."

According to Der Spiegel, Australia once exported raw materials and beef to China, and China "exported" students and tourists, thus driving Australia's development for decades. But now Australia sees China's rise as a huge challenge. Prodded by US officials, Australia's intelligence agencies have pushed through a series of measures that have become the dominant force in Australia-China relations. Chinese researchers, entrepreneurs and even Australian lawmakers close to China have been accused of spying.

"Australia's foreign policy toward China has got into the wrong place," a Berlin-based international political scholar told the Global Times. "It is not normal for the intelligence agencies to dominate Australia-China relations. European intelligence agencies sometimes publish unconfirmed reports, but they usually do not interfere with normal diplomatic relations," he said.

The scholar said that ASIO and other institutions which are greatly influenced by the US has seriously damaged China-Australia relations. "In fact, Australia itself is the biggest victim, with its economy falling into the worst recession in more than a decade."

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