US Can Learn Much From ‘Great Australian China Debate,’ Professor Says

September 11, 2018 Updated: September 11, 2018

WASHINGTON—If Australia can push back against the Chinese Communist Party’s interference and influence to defend its national sovereignty, the United States and other countries can do the same, an Australian professor told a seminar at George Washington University on Sept. 10.

Professor Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University in Canberra, discussed in detail what he called the “Great Australian China Debate,” and what the world could learn from it.

The relationship between Australia and China hit a high point some years ago, when a “so-called” strategic partnership and free-trade agreement were reached, Medcalf said. There was a perception among Australians that China should be thanked for Australia’s economic well-being and for not being fully impacted by the global financial crisis.

However, alongside this, strategic trust had been lagging in the relationship.

Pro-Chinese supporters wave flags during the Olympic Torch relay at Commonwealth Park on April 24, 2008, in Canberra, Australia. Under the coordination of the Chinese Embassy and consulates in Australia, tens of thousands of Chinese students were bused to Canberra to “defend the sacred torch,” a demonstration that alarmed many Australians. The Chinese language “Australian New Express” newspaper, owned by Chinese-Australian billionaire Chau Chak Wing, announced that it had ordered 1,000 Chinese national flags from China to counteract “anti-China” protests from Tibetans and other “anti-China” forces. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

After a “reality check” in recent years, Australian policymakers started to realize that China wasn’t going to liberalize. To the contrary, China’s assertiveness, coercion, and military organization would begin to threaten the regional balance on which Australia’s interest depends.

There was also a growing awareness that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had been taking advantage of the openness of Australian democracy to extend its coercion and control, for instance, through Chinese language media in Australia, community organizations, Confucius Institutes, and so on.

The Australian people, Medcalf said, also realized that pushing back against all these penetrations into their society would get more difficult and more disruptive the longer they waited, and that they should be taking national security seriously.

Medcalf gave a lot of credit to Australia’s media and intelligence agency for starting the “China debate.”

On June 5, 2017, a “landmark” investigative report, “Power and Influence: How China’s Communist Party Is Infiltrating Australia,” was broadcast by ABC’s “Four Corners” program. The 47-minute documentary uncovered how the CCP was secretly infiltrating the country. The investigation tracked the activities of Beijing-backed organizations and the efforts made to intimidate critics of the CCP.

The report not only summed up much of the previous China debate, but also had some new revelations and allegations, including how two Chinese billionaires, Mr. Xiangmo Huang and Dr. Chau Chak Wing, were making huge political donations.

“It was an important moment in raising new political awareness and consensus,” Medcalf said. “Both major parties in Australia immediately announced that they would no longer receive donations from the two billionaires.”

Medcalf pointed out that a huge part of the problem in Australia was that Australian political parties had become quite dependent on foreign funding. Over the past decade, and as recently as a couple of years ago, the two largest donors by far to the major parties in Australia, the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, were two Chinese-born billionaires, who had been subsequently named by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.

According to Medcalf, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, between late 2016 and early 2017, already had provided a classified, cross-agency report about CCP infiltration to the Australian government.

Australia’s then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) looks at China’s Premier Li Keqiang as they prepare to leave the ceremonial welcome at Parliament House in Canberra on March 23, 2017. (MARK GRAHAM/AFP/Getty Images)

After many months of the Australian China debate, on June 28, 2018, Australia’s parliament passed sweeping national-security legislation that bans covert foreign interference in domestic politics, and makes industrial espionage for a foreign power a crime. It also serves to offend the nation’s most important trading partner, China.

In his speech to introduce the bill, “National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017,” former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, “Our rejection of covert, coercive or corrupting behavior leads naturally to a counter-foreign-interference strategy that is built upon the four pillars of sunlight, enforcement, deterrence, and capability.”

In response to an audience member’s question regarding whether the current tensions between the United States and China would affect Australia, Medcalf said that while he didn’t think that the United States would push hard for Australia to take security measures against China that weren’t in Australia’s interest, there would be more conversations. Australia will also work in solidarity with other democracies and won’t unilaterally confront China.

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