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Op-Ed: Espionage – The new spy plague in Australia reflects real tension

Important – In all fairness to the many analysts and commentators on new intelligence threats;
The various criticisms are still very carefully phrased and not over the top in terminology.
Official reports are subject to expert critical scrutiny.
Miscalls, melodrama, and mistakes aren’t exactly popular with government or hard-case Australian Defence Force military recipients.
Unlike global media, rabidly expressed assessments and disinformation aren’t welcome in the intelligence community. Quite the opposite; you’re considered more than a bit of a moron to make unqualified, unsubstantiated comments, let alone official assessments.
Please read the links for the expert reactions to the new risks identified by Defence.

The Department of Defence report issued a new “blunt” assessment of security risks, citing a very high level of threat from “foreign intelligence services”, unofficially meaning China. The big defence program at the heart of this sudden outbreak of bluntness is Australia’s big 90 billion dollar submarine program under contract with high-end French contract supplier Marine Nationale.
This very technically sensitive new program is a magnet for espionage and information theft. Australia uses NATO-compliant military hardware and software. The naval program includes a lot of new tech at various levels. If Australian security isn’t up to scratch, information about those technologies becomes vulnerable. The new tech includes upgrades, retooling, and other useful information to foreign intelligence. The expectation of foreign contractors and governments, naturally is that our security will be adequate to prevent information being provided to foreign intelligence.
It’s a tricky situation, and it accurately reflects the realities of current regional tensions. Australian intelligence analysts and critics call the language in the Defence report “unprecedented”. That doesn’t mean nobody knows about it; it means that it’s a new level of official threat assessment these experts haven’t seen before. (Nor, incidentally, has the government; this report is plain language, unambiguous, and obviously needs decisive action.)
Defence has not singled out China or any other foreign actors in the intelligence problem. This isn’t tact; it means other threats are quite as much under consideration, too.
That said, the unofficial view is that China is a logical suspect. Search “China espionage” and you’ll find pages of allegations and responses to perceived threats across a spectrum of nations and issues.
There are multiple reasons for the Australian perspective. Australian and Chinese relations couldn’t be much worse right now. Trade problems, rhetoric, and the US alliance with Australia are the big issues. The global cyberwar has its major players, and China is very much the usual suspect in any cyberespionage.
There are also grounds for believing that real spies are on the ground. (That’s hardly new. It means that active agents are officially considered real risks to security in context with this report.) A recent defector to Australia claiming to be a Chinese spy hasn’t done much to reduce that belief, either. For example – A new Chinese consulate has sprung up in Adelaide, right near the main naval construction sites. Some critics say the consulate is “overweight” with too many people for its basic needs onsite.
This doesn’t mean other countries aren’t doing the same things, but China, as usual, is the main focus of attention. It also means that any action to curb possible espionage is a very high-profile issue for the government. Shutting down the consulate, for example, would definitely get a strong reaction from China, further worsening relations and inviting retaliation.
A major factor – Australia’s obligations to allies
United States defence interests in the region are also obvious targets for espionage. Those interests have been progressively upgrading since the Afghanistan war, and the South China Sea has added impetus to a significant reconfiguration of US defence assets in the South Asian area.
With both nations now stuck with the messy fallout from China’s recent aggressive behaviour in the region, intelligence sensitivities are at a high level. Our obligation is to deliver effective intelligence and countermeasures to espionage in response to emerging threats and risks.
Multiple issues, like China’s controversial leasing of a port in Darwin, Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, and escalating heat in military confrontations, don’t make intelligence operations any simpler. They certainly don’t make them simpler for government responses.
The tough calls will have to be made, sooner or later, publicly or otherwise. It must be said that after decades of quite good relations with China, this new situation is to put it mildly unwelcome and disturbing.
Australia, yet again, is an unwilling microcosm of the global espionage and cyberwar situation. The difference is that the scale of espionage is apparently increasing, and the risks therefore much higher.

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Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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