Prime Minister Scott Morrison has dismissed bold allegations from Chinese state media which claims Australia is ramping up its spying efforts against Beijing.
China’s tabloid the Global Times, run by the Chinese communist party and repeated critic of Australia in recent months, has accused Australia of “waging an intensifying espionage offensive against China”, including sending spies into the Asian powerhouse, according to a Chinese law-enforcement agency source.
When questioned at a press conference in Sydney on Monday about the claims, Mr Morrison refuted the credibility of the publication.
“I wouldn't be relying on Chinese statement media for your sources for questions,” he said.
Diplomatic ties continue to come under heavy pressure as the two nations are embroiled in an ugly back and forth, triggered by Mr Morrison’s calls for an independent review into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Communist Party of China’s mouthpiece also claims Australia is instigating defections, spying on Chinese students and feeding "fake news" to the media to hype up theories about Chinese spying.
The Global Times published photos of "spying materials" including a compass, a USB flash disk, a notebook, a mask, gloves and a map of Shanghai, said to have been seized from arrested Australian agents in 2018.
It also pictured what is understood to be bugging devices at the Chinese embassy in Canberra which had been embedded in concrete, and are believed to be from the embassy bugging scandal of 1995.
“Australian security intelligence agencies' espionage activities against China can be traced back to the 1980s-1990s,” it explained.
The story claimed Australia “is not content with merely being a loyal follower of the US” to explain an alleged new focus on espionage.
“Canberra wants to enjoy the benefits brought by the rise of China; on the other, Australia is a typical "Indo-Pacific nation" and wants to use US President Donald Trump and his administration's Indo-Pacific strategy to make itself more important to the US and the West in a competition with China,” it said.
”This is why Australia is nervous, panicking and self-contradicting when dealing with China.”
Expert predicts ‘something nasty’ to come
In a concerning move, the publication warned “Chinese counterespionage agencies will take more vigorous countermeasures to crack down on Australian espionage operations”, according to the source.
The ABC’s China correspondent Bill Birtles said on Monday the “extraordinary” article brings a “new low” to the relationship between the countries.
“This is some of the most strident, most attacking language I have seen Chinese state media deploy against Australia and there has been plenty of vitriol launched against Australia in the past few years,” he said.
Clive Hamilton, who is public ethics professor at Charles Sturt University and author of Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, said China’s “extensive” espionage operation, both cyber and on the ground, eclipsed any operation Australia led.
“[The Global Times’ claim] is fanciful, it’s almost laughable,” he told the ABC.
And while he said labelled the move as “amateurish and ridiculous”, he said it could “foreshadow something nasty to happen”.
“I think there is a far more sinister message that is being sent by the article in the Global Times,” he said.
“I think there's a real possibility that some Australians might be targeted. I'm quite worried about that.”
Story comes after infiltration claims
Mr Moselmane was last week kicked out of the Labor Party and faces a suspension from parliament.
Prof Hamilton said he believed a “propaganda campaign” could be developed as a way of hitting back at the ASIO and AFP for the raids on Mr Moselmane.
Mr Moselmane called an impromptu press conference on Monday to say the authorities' investigation related to other individuals who may have sought to advance the goals of the Chinese government, but did not extend to him.
“I am not a suspect in this investigation,” he said.
He stood down as assistant president of the NSW upper house in April after praising Chinese President Xi Jinping's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying Mr Xi had demonstrated "unswerving leadership" and decisiveness.
But on Monday he stood by those views, saying they were also promulgated by the likes of US President Donald Trump and the World Health Organisation.
"The federal agents have a job to do and it is imperative that they do their job without state and federal political interference. I am under no illusion that this is a serious investigation, the first of its time, precedents will be set," Mr Moselmane told reporters.
China’s latest media attack also follows speculation it was behind a “sophisticated” cyber attack on Australia.
Mr Morrison declined to say who Australia believed was behind the attacks, however the Australian Strategic Policy Institute is standing by its accusation that the attack was "95 per cent or more" likely to have been launched from China because of its scale and intensity.
China has denied any part in the attacks, saying such suggestions are "baseless".
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