China domestic interference,cyberattacks ‘never been more prolific’:Coalition

Coalition home affairs spokesman James Paterson has declared Chinese cyberattacks and meddling in Australian institutions has “never been more prolific”,as top intelligence officials raise fears about state-sponsored hacking group Volt Typhoon.

As Labor spruiked a stabilised relationship with China previously harmed by the Morrison government’s aggressive rhetoric,Paterson said Volt Typhoon had been targeting Australian power,water and transport networks “for the purpose of future sabotage”.

Liberal senator James Paterson says Volt Typhoon has been targeting Australian power,water and transport networks “for the purpose of future sabotage”.

Liberal senator James Paterson says Volt Typhoon has been targeting Australian power,water and transport networks “for the purpose of future sabotage”.Alex Ellinghausen

Australian officials held deep concerns about Volt Typhoon because intelligence suggested the group was “pre-positioning for the purposes of disruptive impact” including sabotage,according to Abigail Bradshaw,head of the Cyber Security Centre at the Australian Signals Directorate.

Bradshaw made the previously unreported remarks at a Senate estimates hearing earlier this month alongside directorate chief Rachel Noble,who said China’s “voracious” appetite to spy on MPs and other high-profile Australians was “growing in its scale”.

The opposition questioned Labor’s “disagree where we must” approach to Chinese relations onday one of Premier Li Qiang’s Australian visit,as the government insisted deft diplomacy did not equate to “kowtowing”.

“It’s up to the prime minister to explain how you can have a stable relationship with an authoritarian power that is determined to threaten our critical infrastructure assets,interfere in our democracy and intimidate Australian citizens into silence,” Paterson said.

The criticism from Paterson,who receives high-level briefings on parliament’s intelligence and security committee,reflects unease in some sections of the Coalition and intelligence establishment about Labor’s posture towards China givenrecent aggressive behaviour towards Australian military personnel,signalson the invasion of Taiwan,and thesuspended death sentence handed to Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton declined to attack Labor when asked about the first visit by a Chinese premier in seven years.

“The short answer is no,” Dutton said on Sky News’Sunday Agenda when asked if he would “shirtfront” the premier in his meeting on Monday.

“To be good friends,you need to have an honest relationship where there are concerns,and there’ll be concerns that the Chinese have that they’ll want to raise with us as well.”

China's second most powerful man,Premier Li Qiang has declared the relationship with Australia is "back on track".

Trade Minister Don Farrell said Labor was overturning blocks on Australian exports by acting more maturely than the Coalition.

“We’ve managed to get all these things without kowtowing to the Chinese government,” he said.

James Laurenceson of the University of Technology Sydney’s Australia-China Relations Institute said China hawks like Paterson were right to call out foreign interference but failed to grasp that “China isn’t just about foreign interference or military threats”.

“They are also about trade,family and friendship ties,and global challenges like climate change. And the way you manage all that is through calm and professional diplomacy of the type being shown during Premier Li’s visit,” he said.

“[ASIO boss] Mike Burgess has remarked that while attempted foreign interference is common,successful attempts are not.”

But Mike Pezzullo,the former secretary of the Home Affairs department,cautioned against the government’s often-repeated lines on China-Australia affairs.

“Abstractions (such as ‘stabilised relations’ and ‘disagree where we must’) have become the framing references for our China policy,” he wrote in arecent article for pro-US think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“These are talking points that do not add to public understanding. Discourse matters. Emphatic language,involving detailed public explanation,is required. China well understands ‘discourse power’,where the production and management of discourse legitimates the authority of the[Chinese Communist Party].

“There is now a risk of a new ‘imagined China’ emerging and embedding itself in official thinking. Instead of continuing to work to rally like-minded nations against Chinese coercion,as we did in 2021,the alternative approach of quiet engagement – assuming that if only we moderate our language,then somehow Chinese belligerence will dissipate,and relations will be ‘stabilised’ – might yet entrench a dangerously benign view.

“This approach implies that the challenge is not structural,but rather cyclical,and that we can,through adroit diplomacy,enlarge the space for ‘co-operating where we can’,while minimising the space for ‘disagreeing where we must’.”

Pezzullo wassacked last year after this masthead reported his text messages with a close ally of Scott Morrison,lobbyist Scott Briggs,which breached the public service code of conduct.

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Paul Sakkal is federal political correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald who previously covered Victorian politics and has won two Walkley awards.

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