Is China’s hacking of Australia’s intelligence service a form of coercion?

The Prime Minister and Attorney General of Australia say the report about the departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Australia’s intelligence service   being hacked by China are “inaccurate.” The problem for any reporting on this subject is how hard it is to confirm. A server being accessed surreptitiously to gain information – a “cyberattack” or “cyberhack” in the media’s parlance – looks no different than a server going about it’s business undisturbed. Unless, of course, it’s a disruptive attack, like the sort aimed against US banks and gulf state refineries. Even in that case, it might just look like a terminal of a computer that doesn’t work. In other words, reporters have to rely on many off-the-record conversations and many peeks at documents they can’t quote from, etc, in order to report the story. So there is always the possibility that China, the source of so much cyber espionage, has wrongly been blamed.

…But based on the ABC’s reporting, I don’t think so. China denies it, of course. 

The other major thing that stands out for me is the response from Australia. This ASIO-hack story comes less than two months after China and Australia agreed to deepen their diplomatic relationship in a “historic” meeting. The Australian PM, Julia Gillard, and a large entourage of officials met with China’s new leadership. Bands played national anthems. Business heads met, although it turns out some of them may not have been aware they were being hosted by an arm of China’s intelligence.

In any case, the government’s response that the report is “inaccurate” could just be diplomatic politeness. If it is just politeness, the question is: who are the politicians covering for? Are they covering for a domestic audience, or an international one? If the Chinese were responsible, why would the Australian foreign minister assure that it won’t hurt the Australia-China relationship? It’s almost as if one country already has massive leverage over the other. It brings to mind those words in the Defence White Paper about Australia’s national security interests being based on protecting Australia’s sovereignty – “which includes freedom from coercion by other states.”  

Freedom from coercion a goal in Australia’s 2013 Defense White Paper

Australia has released its 2013 Defense White Paper, and it’s a subtle and contradictory thing. There has been a lot of discussion about what kind of message the White Paper contains, especially compared to the 2009 White Paper that contained more explicit descriptions of threats to Australia in the Asian-Pacific region.

This time around, all of that alarmist language linked to China has been scrubbed. But a couple things stand out.

In the first paragraph of the section three, entitled Australia’s Strategic Policy Approach, the very first line lays out something I’ve seen little discussion in the media analysis.

“Australia’s national security interests are based on protecting Australia’s sovereignty – which includes freedom from coercion by other states – people and assets, building sustainable security in our region, and shaping a favourable international environment.” (Italics mine.)

That line, to me, would be aimed at China more than any other country. Even a causal observer of what’s going on the South China Sea sees bullying from China. And coercion is by no means limited to China’s dealings with developing countries like the Philippines, Vietnam. A more powerful China takes on more powerful, developed countries like Japan, Britain (if this story is true) and arguably the US with China’s industrial scale cyber theft.


There is every reason to believe China would pursue a similar path with Australia, if it hasn’t already in the detention of China-born Australian citizens, for example.

Second, the much-discussed Future Submarine Program to support the creation of 12 new subs has elements of a sort of ‘moonshot’ effort, from my reading, at least. The paper says it represents “the largest and most complex project ever undertaken in Australia’s history.”

Under a section called “Greater linkages between Industry and the Education Sector” the White Paper notes falling enrollments in science, technology, engineering and math courses undermine defense industry capabilities.

To address the skills shortfall the government in the 2012-13 budget has already devoted $54 million over four years to increase study in those areas. Australia’s government is also sponsoring programs to build skills critical for the success of Future Submarine Program.

Note the implicit dismissal of free-trade in this matter. Similar efforts in the US – from outside the government – are underway now, twinning a need for a secure defense industry with the need of rebuilding industry as a whole.

Australia is – obviously – not gearing up for occasional skirmishes on the seas by adding here and there to its fleet. This isn’t a tactical, but strategic paper. What’s missing, as everyone notes, is money.

But Australian defense planners, using very diplomatic language, are laying the groundwork for a longer-term maritime competition in the region. And with good cause: while Australia’s military tolerates some dependence on global supply chain, should the seas surrounding Australia become contested, the country will be well-served if it can shoulder more of its own naval ship production.

The most diplomatic angle to the document is the reframing of Australia’s region of concern.

Australia calls the Indo-Pacific region, rather than the Asia-Pacific region (used in the title of the 2009 White Paper) as its core area of strategic concern. “Over time, Australia’s security environment will be significantly influenced by how the Indo-Pacific and its architecture evolves,” the paper states. Yet, Australia’s re-focus on the band stretching from Japan to India, sends a subtle message to Beijing that Australia doesn’t place itself in the middle of a Pacific-focused China-US cross current. At the same time, the paper explicitly reaffirms the Australian security alliance/reliance with/on the US. A big contradiction, handled very well in the writing of the paper – which itself is a product of the times.

…More on the cyber defense elements in another post.

(photo: Chinese sailors seeing off an Australian Navy ship. Courtesy


What a “force-based” world order looks like

If it’s true the Chinese are giving the British the cold shoulder over Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, it is an example of coercion. When you hear talk of a rules-based order, it’s to prevent a world where this kind of thing is possible. 


Says the Telegraph: 

China wants Mr Cameron to apologise for hosting Tibet’s spiritual leader, who disputes Beijing’s territorial claims on the region. The Government insists there is nothing to apologise for.


There are now fears that the frosty diplomatic relations could put at risk Chinese investment in Britain, which was worth £8billion last year.


Chinese sources have made a veiled threat that for investment in the UK “there needs to be a strong relationship”.