The news on Friday morning that Australia is currently being hit by a major cyber attack targeting all levels of government, political parties and businesses has focussed attention on national security. Scott Morrison did not name China; but he revealed a state-based cyber actor” is undertaking the attack. Few nations would have the capability or the malice to undertake such passive-aggressive cyber “warfare”.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute head Peter Jennings said “you can sort of attribute 95 per cent of confidence to it being China’’. If so, a deteriorating situation just got worse.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s bold and thoughtful speech on Tuesday could hardly have been more important for our troubled relationship with China. Yet Beijing’s trumpeting “wolf warrior” official spokesmen have dismissed it as “rubbish”. Nothing more clearly shows up China’s overwhelming culpability for the problems that have arisen and its failure to learn from the heavy defeat inflicted on it by countries from across the world — not Australia alone — in last month’s vote on a coronavirus inquiry at the World Health Assembly.
Ms Payne made it abundantly clear Australia is not going to submit to Chinese bullying or back down over the differences sparked by the inquiry. Beijing would be wise not to underestimate the level of global support Australia has in the standoff.
It would do well, too, not to overlook the strategic significance of Australia’s participation during the next few months in military exercises and maritime surveillance operations by Western allies in the Indo-Pacific, led by the US. With no fewer than three US aircraft carriers already deployed in the Pacific region, Rim of the Pacific exercises, or RIMPAC, off Hawaii in August will see scores of allied warships from dozens of nations, hundreds of combat aircraft and tens of thousands of military personnel join together in a major show of strategic force.
Similarly, as we reported on Thursday, Australia is likely to take part in the big Malabar naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal later this year, joining India, the US and Japan in another display of military strength in the Indo-Pacific. Australia also is set to take part in other naval and aircraft exercises off the US Pacific island territory of Guam.
The importance of these exercises and Australia’s participation in them cannot be overstated. They underline the strength of Australia’s alliances at a time of deepening tensions with China and show the depth of concern that exists in the region and beyond over China’s gratuitous bullying tactics against not only Australia but also other countries.
The extent of that global concern was seen clearly at the WHA. Despite China’s fierce initial opposition to any investigation, Australia’s demand for the inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic was backed unanimously by 145 countries. Even China was left with no alternative but to support the motion. In that defeat lies a stark lesson for China as it seeks to bully Australia by harming our barley and beef exports and issuing concocted and manifestly crazy claims about the potential for violence against Chinese students and tourists in Australia.
Ms Payne warned of a systematic campaign of disinformation by China and Russia in using the pandemic to “undermine democracy and create a climate of fear”. As with the vote at the WHA, Ms Payne was able to cite strong backing for Australia’s position, with a report last week by all 27 nations of the EU having reached a similar conclusion about a vast Chinese and Russian campaign of disinformation in Europe. This, the EU said, was targeted at using the pandemic to “exacerbate social polarisation”. Yet a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman wrongly claims “disinformation is Australia’s expertise, not China’s” and is all about Australia. It’s not: no country in the Indo-Pacific region, in particular, is immune to China’s aggression.
In recent weeks, China has confronted Malaysian and Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea and twice sailed an aircraft carrier close to Taiwan. It has seized draconian new powers in Hong Kong. Violence across its border with India in the Himalayas, with thousands of People’s Liberation Army soldiers reportedly deployed to the area, lends weight to the view of analysts who believe India is seen by Beijing as a future battlefront.
At a particularly vulnerable time for India over the pandemic, China is embarked on a belligerent drive to warn India off cosying up to the US and Australia. It doesn’t want to see New Delhi become part of an anti-China regional containment policy. Given the context of China’s aggressive and growing militarism across the region, Ms Payne was right to commit Australia to a global push to strengthen our engagement with multilateral institutions “to help shape a safer world and make us safer at home”. Amid deepening global concern about Beijing’s arrogant diplomatic delinquency and bellicosity, it is clearly in Australia’s interest to do so.