Morrison vows to tackle Chinese interference
Scott Morrison and national security chiefs have briefed state and territory leaders on the threat level of Chinese interference, ahead of a major address by the Prime Minister to a US strategic forum warning of the unprecedented militarisation of the Indo-Pacific, cyber attacks and an “assault” on liberal democracies.
Mr Morrison’s speech comes as the government moves to ramp up the nation’s cyber defences, offensive capability and protection of critical infrastructure through its Cyber Security Strategy, which is expected to be approved by cabinet this week.
In a virtual speech to the Aspen Security Forum in the US on Wednesday, Mr Morrison will say Australia will not be a “bystander” in the Indo-Pacific region and will put the nation at the centre of a global security and economic network of “like-minded” economies.
He will warn of the increasing level of foreign interference and proliferation of cyber attacks and the need to expand Australia’s trade relationships beyond its reliance on China.
“Today, the Indo-Pacific is the epicentre of strategic competition,” Mr Morrison will tell the US think tank led by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
“Tensions over territorial claims are growing. The pace of regional military modernisation is unprecedented. Democratic nations face new threats from foreign interference. Cyber attacks are increasing in frequency and sophistication. Disinformation is being used to manipulate free societies. The trade rules that have allowed us to prosper have not evolved to meet new challenges. And economic coercion is increasingly employed as a tool of statecraft.”
Mr Morrison will tell the forum that the “liberal rules and norms of the American Century are under assault” but will call on other democracies to step up and act more cohesively.
“A critical priority is to build a durable strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific,” he will say. “For more like-minded nations to act more cohesively, more consistently, more often. To align. I assure you that Australia is not being passive; we’re acting to shape that tomorrow right now.”
Mr Morrison will say Australia has “welcomed China’s rise as a major economic partner” but cautions that “with economic rise comes responsibility”.
“China has a role to enhance regional and global stability, commensurate with its new status,” he will say.
“Such a role is about the broader global and regional interest, rather than a narrow national interest or aspiration, because global expectations of China are now higher — as they always have been for the US.”
Mr Morrison says China and the US have a special responsibility to uphold the “common set of rules” that underpin international society.
“It means a commitment to rules-based economic interaction. Neither coercion nor abdication from international systems is the way forward,” he will say.
The Australian can reveal that national cabinet leaders were provided a rare national security briefing last Friday that focused heavily on China, as state and territory governments deal with the growing threat of cyber attacks and foreign interference. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who was preparing to move his state into a stage four COVID-19 lockdown, was the only national cabinet leader not to attend the high-level security hook-up.
The Prime Minister’s office would not be drawn on the briefing or the detail of what was discussed.
In June, Mr Morrison warned that Australian governments, critical infrastructure and companies were being targeted by a “sophisticated state-based cyber actor” but did not name China.
Amid calls to bolster Australia’s cyber defences, federal cabinet is expected to approve the government’s Cyber Security Strategy on Wednesday — two-weeks after receiving 60 key recommendations from the expert advisory panel led by Telstra chief executive Andy Penn.
Mr Morrison will use his speech to call on nations to take a “more pragmatic and rounded approach to our global and regional relationships”.
While not naming China — which has slapped tariffs on Australian barley and suspended meatworks exporters after Australia pushed for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus — the Prime Minister will say that unity can be undermined if “positive political and security relationships are accompanied by abrasive or confrontational trade relationships”.
He will stress that Australia is “not being a bystander” or “leaving it to others” in the Indo-Pacific region and describes international institutions as being most effective when they are “driven by, and responsive to, the society of states”.
“When global institutions and their bureaucracies become unaccountable, when they become vulnerable to manipulation, when they lose the confidence of their membership, they fail in their task to help sovereign nations agree ‘common sets of rules’ to guide their relationships,” he will say.
In addition to increasing Australia’s defence posture, the Morrison government will shift to funding and implementing its national cyber security strategy ahead of the October budget.
The Australian understands the strategy will focus on expanding Australia’s capacity to engage in offensive cyber warfare.
It will also address the need to consider tougher legislative powers around consumer data and enabling security agencies to more effectively support the private sector against cyber attacks.
Earlier this year Mr Morrison announced a $1.35bn decade-long funding increase for cyber security amid industrial-scale targeting of Australian interests.
The strategy will also examine the need to better define critical infrastructure. Mr Penn’s final cyber security strategy advisory panel report, which listed 25 high-priority recommendations, called on the government to review its classification of critical infrastructure to capture “all essential systems and functions in the public and private sectors and supply chains”.
Banking and finance, government, communications, energy, food and grocery, health, transport and water are currently listed as the nation’s eight critical infrastructure sectors.