While American attention remains focused on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, Australia — perhaps the United States’ closest ally — is debating the designs that a different country altogether has on its political system, economy and public opinion. That country is China.
Starting last week, Fairfax Media (led by the Age in Melbourne and the Sydney Morning Herald) and the “Four Corners” program of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. launched an investigation into Chinese attempts to buy influence in Australia. The reports, which are continuing, indicated that Chinese agents were monitoring Chinese students in Australia and applying pressure on their relatives back in China if they participated in demonstrations against China. Scholars of China were being spied on, too. When one Australian academic, Feng Chongyi, was detained by Chinese secret police during a trip to China in March, Chinese agents made it clear that they were watching not just him but also his wife and daughter in Sydney.
Donations from pro-Beijing businessmen and businesses to the political campaigns of Australian senators were also documented in the reports. Readers and viewers also learned that state-owned Chinese media companies or businessmen loyal to Beijing have taken over Australia’s once vibrant Chinese-language media. In one case, Chinese-owned businesses were instructed by the Chinese government to stop advertising in one of the few remaining independent Chinese-language newspapers. Pro-Chinese media outlets in Australia were also involved in organizing pro-Chinese demonstrations.
As Australia’s domestic spy chief Duncan Lewis warned Parliament, foreign interference in Australia is occurring on “an unprecedented scale.” Lewis noted that if it continued unchecked, it had “the potential to cause serious harm to the nation’s sovereignty, the integrity of our political system, our national security capabilities, our economy and other interests.”
Should Americans be concerned, too?
China’s influence in Australia is far more significant than it is in the United States. China is Australia’s most important trading partner, and Australia’s exports of iron ore and other commodities to China were a key reason that Australia dodged the global recession of 2008. About 1 out of 10 university students in Australia comes from China while in the United States it’s about 1 in 60. Australian campaign financing rules allow foreigners to donate to political campaigns, whereas foreigners are technically banned from donating in the United States. Today, China is the largest overseas birthplace for Australians after the United Kingdom and New Zealand. There are more than 900,000 Australian residents claiming Chinese origin; as a percentage of the population, that’s more than four times the number of Chinese in the United States.
Nonetheless, Australia’s challenge today is going to be America’s tomorrow. And how Australia manages its relationship with China could provide lessons for the United States as it, too, grapples with an increasingly complex relationship with a rising China.
Like Australia, the United States faces nettlesome questions when it comes to China. How does an open society manage its relationship with an authoritarian state of China’s reach that has no compunction about dispatching its police officers on tourist visas to harass, monitor and even arrest Chinese overseas? How does a nation founded on the free flow of ideas and capital deal with another nation intent on leveraging those freedoms for geopolitical, military and economic gain? How can the principle of reciprocity be introduced into a relationship with a state such as China that has gamed the international system for so long and with such success? And how can Australia and the United States avoid the paranoid hysteria of the past about China, while being vigilant against the issues that it presents?
We can debate whether China’s challenge to the United States is more serious than that of Russia. What is clear, however, is that Chinese President Xi Jinping is only too happy to watch Americans fret over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motives and not his.
James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, was in Australia last week as reports of China’s influence-peddling campaign emerged. In a speech on June 7, Clapper seemed to be of two minds when comparing China and Russia. He noted initially that he considers China “more benignly than I do Russia.” The ties between China’s economy and that of the United States and Australia serve “to moderate China’s behavior,” he observed. But then Clapper recited a list of concerns about Chinese espionage and foreign meddling, which made the challenge from Beijing seem anything but benign. “We, and you, I think, need to be very wary,” he said.