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.”