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G’day, this is your intrepid American Canary reporting from the Coal Mine Down Under.
While Americans are trying to make up their minds about the little-league Russian interference in its recent politics, Australia has been fending off the major-leaguers from Beijing. Chinese Communist Party influence operations have swamped Australia in recent years, and from academia to media, business to politics, the CCP has encountered very little organized resistance.
Until now. The Aussies have awakened to the threat, and this week the Turnbull government passed two laws through Parliament aimed at turning the tide against China’s campaign of espionage and interference.
It’s hard to name a precise turning point because there have been several. Some hearken back to outgoing U.S. Ambassador John Berry’s pointed remarks in late 2016, while others recall the 2017 television report by Four Corners and Fairfax Media — one which now finds itself the subject of a pair of lawsuits under Australia’s alarmingly expansive defamation laws.
Those with more recent memories may point to this year’s long-anticipated publication of a book by progressive academic Clive Hamilton. In Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, Hamilton begins his account with the shock he experienced in 2008 when unexpected throngs of pro-regime counter-protestors pushed around a small band of Free Tibet activists in Canberra during the passing of the Olympic Torch on its way to Beijing. An outraged Hamilton wondered where all these people came from and at how they had the audacity to stage such a display in his own country’s capital. After taking his reader through a litany of examples of Chinese interference in Australian public and private institutions, he bookends the saga with another personal story about how three different publishers were pressured to reject his book for fear of lawsuits (before a conservative member of Parliament effectively took the threat off the table by entering the manuscript into the Parliamentary record). In a book launch event I attended a couple of months ago, Hamilton scoffed at how his supposed friends on the political left and in Australian academia abandoned him, while at the same time crying crocodile tears over the threat to “free speech” which the legislation finally passed this week is alleged to pose.
In fact, it may be that the heavy-handed opposition to the legislation by the CCP and its acolytes actually boomeranged (sorry … couldn’t resist) and carried the anti-interference legislation through in the end. Though it can be extremely clever and patient in its gray zone, win-without-fighting influence operation campaigns, Beijing has recently become much bolder, leading it to forget that aggressive tactics and bullying can be a two-edged sword when dealing with democracies. The cumulative effect of tactics like blatantly buying the influence of a prominent member of Parliament and angrily calling an Australian news program to demand it censor its programming (“You will listen. There must be no more misconduct in the future!”) over time finally appears to have tipped the scales.
This doesn’t mean Australia’s struggle is over. Far from it. The Middle Kingdom did not come to dominate the Asian geopolitical landscape by quietly slinking away after a bloody nose, and as Australia’s top export market by far China still wields a very big stick. There are always consequences for pushing back, and you can be assured we have not seen the end of economic coercion, lawfare, and other tactics to show Canberra and its neighbors that there is a steep cost to be paid for poking the dragon.
That’s why the U.S. needs to pay close attention to what has happened down here. Not only is Australia an ally and a Five-Eyes partner, it is a microcosm of the struggle taking place across this half of the globe. Many smaller countries across the Indo-Pacific have already in large part succumbed to Chinese sharp power while others are contemplating the lure of its predatory economic offerings. China wants the region to know that it is the inevitable rising power and that America’s friends would do well to make the “China Choice“.