The Australian Parliament is considering—and expected to pass—two controversial bills in its current session. The Espionage and Foreign Interference and Foreign Interference and Transparency Scheme bills will give intelligence agencies greater powers to prosecute foreign agents interfering in Australian decision-making processes, and force individuals and organizations to come clean when they are acting at the behest of external entities.
In principle, these bills are not aimed at any one country. They are designed to strengthen the integrity of the country’s institutions at a time when spying and interference by foreign powers is at unprecedented levels according to the country’s intelligence chief Duncan Lewis. In practice, the urgency to legislate against these activities arises because of increased covert Chinese activities in the country.
The Malcolm Turnbull government has been far more willing to engage with the public and media about foreign interference and covert influence than any other country. Most likely, it figures that sunlight is the best disinfectant. The greater the awareness of such activities, the better institutions and individuals can counter them. That Canberra has stood strong in its determination to pass these bills as soon as possible, despite Chinese threats of diplomatic and economic retaliation, is admirable. It speaks well of Australia’s steadfastness as a democracy despite its economic reliance on China.
For the U.S. and China, there are broader strategic and political considerations arising out of the Australian example. The covert activities on behalf of China are largely overseen by the United Front Work Department, an organization directly answerable to the Politburo. It has been called a ‘magic weapon’ by Chinese President Xi Jinping. One of the purposes of the United Front is to covertly infiltrate and influence policies in many countries—especially in democracies—in a manner favorable to Chinese interests.
Beijing attaches enormous importance to the United Front because it is seen as a powerful means through which to exploit the openness of democracies. The United Front works with other individuals and organizations to infiltrate political and media institutions, seduce business elites and other influential entities, harness the Chinese diaspora, and use monetary or career incentives to win over opinion makers.
The purpose is to make decisive and resolute action against Chinese interests difficult to achieve. The more noise and disagreement against strong action, the better as far as Beijing is concerned. They key concept is paralysis through division.
There are rational reasons for China to follow this approach. It realizes that even as it grows in economic size and importance, it remains a lonely and distrusted rising power with no genuine strategic allies and few partners. Virtually every significant power in its periphery is either a U.S. ally or moving closer to Washington: Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, Vietnam and Indonesia.
As a response, Beijing’s grand objective is achieving regional dominance through a combination of economic munificence and attempts to ease the U.S. out of Asia by degrading and weakening its alliances with democratic countries. The attempt to do so in Asia has had mixed results. For example, China has won hearts and minds in South Korea and Thailand. In Japan, sentiment and policies toward Beijing have hardened despite the occasional burst of superficial diplomatic warmth as is happening currently. There were some successes with the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte although that is beginning to sour.
But Australia was always seen as an easy target. It has no historical or territorial disputes with China. There are few economic disagreements between the two countries. Almost one-third of the value of all Australian exports go to China and the two economies are highly complementary. Australia supplies commodities, agricultural products, education and tourism, and buys cheap Chinese goods which it could not otherwise manufacture itself. In 2014, China agreed to what then Australian leader Tony Abbott described as the most comprehensive trade agreement Beijing had signed with any country.
That China’s bet on Australia has not paid off is an enormous blow to Beijing’s hope to neutralize allies. Canberra’s Foreign Policy White Paper which was released last November doubled down on the importance of the US alliance, partly in response to discomfort with Chinese policies and actions.
Instead of dividing Australia, the Labor Party’s support for the key aspects of the foreign interference and influence bills is growing. All this is occurring under Mr. Turnbull, a former businessman, who Beijing believed would pursue a soft touch with respect to China when he came into power in 2015.
Assuming the bills are passed, US allies such as the United Kingdom and Germany will watch closely to see whether they prove effective against foreign interference and covert influence. China is nervous about current developments in Australia because the latter’s resoluteness is encouraging other democracies to consider strengthening their own institutions no matter the diplomatic cost.
If the Donald Trump administration believes—correctly—the U.S. has entered a new age of political and strategic rivalry with great authoritarian powers, then it should be cheering on the passage of the two Bills Down Under.