Reports emerged this week revealing the Australian Signals Directorate determined that China’s Ministry of State Security was behind the cyber attack on Australian Parliament earlier this year, which the federal government decided to keep quiet in order to protect trade relations with Beijing.
The question then needs to be asked...
If state-supported cyber attacks against Federal Parliament, just before the election, doesn’t justify push back against China, what will?
Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at Australian Strategic Policy Institute, is of the opinion that Australia needs to react strongly to the attack, including publicly accusing China of being responsible for the breach.
“I think we need to hold them to task, and we need to do it publicly,” Davis told Defence Connect.
“The moment we start pulling our punches for fear of angering Beijing is the moment they win. We’ve pulled our punches too often in the past where we haven’t brought attention to what China is doing, and that has to stop, because if we don’t bring attention to it, we weaken ourselves needlessly.”
Public accusations levelled at China for the cyber attacks would create a “very real prospect of damaging the economy”, according to one of the sources that blew the whistle on the ASD’s reported findings.
But pandering to China for fear of economic windfall is not a game Parliament should play, according to Davis.
“I think they’ve gone a fair way already. A cyber attack on Australian Parliament and key political parties, by the state of China, not just some hacker in Beijing or Shanghai, is certainly not a friendly act,” Davis said.
“They have gone a fair distance already, and I think Australia has to decide how they push back. They certainly should push back.”
Davis conceded that while it’s unlikely the Morrison government would publicly accuse China of conducting the attack, it may have sent a confidential “cease and desist” type of message to Beijing, with the acknowledgement that they are aware that it was they who were responsible.
“Whether China pays attention to that cease and desist is another issue altogether.”
Davis also suggested that Australia, and the ASD, should aim to strengthen their cyber defences alongside the USA, to ensure such an attack is harder to conduct.
While the findings of Beijing’s culpability haven’t been made official, the reports of China’s involvement was provided by five sources with “direct knowledge of the findings”.
But with the ASD suggesting after the attack that the breach would have had to have been conducted by a foreign power, due to the strength of cyber defences Parliament has had in place for the better part of the decade, it’s a small list of countries with the capability to conduct such an operation, and the list grows smaller when considering which of those nations would have the motive to commit the action.
Just over a fortnight ago, the outgoing director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Duncan Lewis, issued a stern warning to the country, noting foreign interference as the biggest threat to our shores.
“It’s my view that currently, the issue of espionage and foreign interference is by far and away the most serious issue going forward,” the retiring director general said.
“Terrorism has never been an existential threat to established states – for weaker states, yes, but for a place like Australia, terrorism is not an existential threat to the state. It is a terrible risk that our populations run and it is a very serious matter which must be addressed every day: the counter-espionage and foreign interference issue, however, is something which is ultimately an existential threat to the state.”
Davis told Defence Connect that he strongly agrees with Lewis’ warnings to Australia, noting that the public should be wary that the real threat to our nation is the interference in our democratic process, and not terrorism.
Foreign interference is also a clearly recognised issue by Parliament, as shown in their own words in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.
“The government is concerned about growing attempts by foreign governments or their proxies to exert inappropriate influence on and to undermine Australia’s sovereign institutions and decision-making,” the Foreign Policy White Paper reads.
“Such attempts at foreign interference are part of a wider global trend that has affected other democracies. Foreign interference aims to shape the actions of decision-makers and public opinion to achieve an outcome favourable to foreign interests.
“Likewise, ensuring Australia’s business interests and intellectual property are not subject to theft through espionage is important to our national interests. The government endeavours to prevent state-sponsored actions that harm our economic and commercial interests.”
So, with such a “strong” stance on foreign interference, at what point does our relationship sour with China after such actions?
It undoubtedly puts the federal government in a difficult position, with the stranglehold China has on our economy as our largest trading partner.
China also categorically denied the accusations, providing a statement to Australian media that “the Chinese government resolutely opposes and combats any form of cyber attacks according to law”, and “urged some people not to spill dirty water in China in everything they encounter and not to be keen on making false news for the sake of sensationalism and eye catching”.
It’s a complicated position for Australia, very much a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. However, it’s cause for concern if the government lets China “get away with it”, because it only welcomes further negative interactions as Beijing figures out where the the nations’s leaders draw the line.