Australia must stand up to Chinese covert influence

China insists Taiwan is part of its territory and is backing the more pro-Beijing Kuomintang Party which is currently in opposition to beat the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Mr Wang, who claims he used to run campaigns for Beijing against independence and democracy movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, says a Kuomintang official and a Chinese businessman threatened him and offered inducements to make a video statement implicating the DPP in corruption.


The story has been denied by the Kuomintang official and it raises as many questions as it answers. But Australian officials have taken the matter seriously enough to brief Taiwanese authorities about what they know.

It would hardly be surprising that China is interfering in Taiwan’s internal affairs as it often threatens grave consequences if the DPP formally announces Taiwan’s independence from China. But it would be an extraordinary twist if it was trying to do so through Mr Wang, now on Australian soil and seeking Australian protection. It would be yet another sign of China’s extensive covert networks.

China, through its United Front movement, uses front organisations such as student groups and business associations to harass overseas dissidents and anyone in the diaspora who opposes its policies. They target protesters against China’s breaches of human rights in Tibet and Xinjiang, and China’s creeping threat to Hong Kong’s special status and democratic institutions.

Australia has taken the lead in pushing back against Chinese influence of our political system by passing one of the world’s toughest foreign interference laws. Yet the enormous value of the trade and investment between the two countries gives China leverage either directly or through individual Chinese businesses.

When a Chinese businessman hands over $100,000 to a political party it is hard to know whether they are acting in their own interest or at the suggestion of the Chinese Communist Party.

While vigilance is needed, it would be wrong to exaggerate the threat China poses directly to our democracy. In the current case, Australian authorities have briefed Taiwanese authorities. It shows that our institutions are quite capable of standing up to Chinese pressure.

Australia also has plenty of neighbours who share our concerns. This week Indonesian President Joko Widodo travelled to islands in waters disputed by China where Indonesian and Chinese vessels have been in a stand-off for more than a month.

Of course, Australia relies first and foremost on its alliance with the US to manage China’s influence. That is one more reason why Australia should counsel moderation by the US in the current instability in the Middle East. If the US stumbles unnecessarily into conflict with Iran it could distract its attention from our region and stir up anti-US hostility in Muslim countries.

President Donald Trump has mostly confronted China economically by starting a tariff war against what he has called unfair trade policies. Yet in a US election year that campaign might falter. Chinese and US trade negotiators are expected to sign a ceasefire in the tariff war next week which leaves many of the underlying issues unresolved.


It is certainly in the interest of the world economy for China and the US to end the uncertainty but the spread of Chinese influence around the region remains a concern.

Like other countries, China has legitimate interests to defend around the world but its contempt for democracy, its wealth and the dizzying technological tools at the disposal of its secret services increase the challenge of responding to it. Australia needs to work closely with the US and be prepared to take a firm stand in cases, perhaps like Mr Wang’s, where China has gone too far.

The Herald’s editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.


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