If ASIO bugged Mr Huang’s phone, and sat on what it knew, the political timing of the latest leak against Dastyari could not have been more deliberate.
The Government has again ducked the biggest issue requiring the philosophical guidance it promised to provide in the Foreign Affairs White Paper for the coming decade – how Australia should respond to the dominance of China and the decline of the United States. What better moment to resurrect the Sam Dastyari affair?
The cash-strapped senator had last year accepted help from a Chinese businessman, an Australian resident, with his unpaid bill: but he got away with a warning, perhaps because that might have led to questions about how many ‘donations’ Coalition members have received for various purposes. Chinese benefactors have generously donated to both major parties, presumably in the hope that the favour will be returned. Similarly, US arms companies display their wares in Canberra airport and their logos at the Australian War Memorial, where their donations are also calculated to deliver tangible benefits.
The problem this time is that Senator Dastyari spoke in favour of China’s position on the South China Sea, and warned the Chinese businessman that his house was bugged. His denials didn’t help, even though what he said about the bugs was probably true. His statement on Chinese sovereignty was an acknowledgement of the inevitable, about which both major parties will have to change their policies sooner or later. Moreover if they know, and don’t object, to the US invigilating all telecommunications in Australia, they might explain who is undermining our national security.
Instead of facing up to new circumstances, as they should have done in the White Paper, the Coalition parties as true conservatives have retreated to the past, rigging up the China bogeyman once again. In his classic book In Fear of China, former diplomat Greg Clark showed in 1967 how and why this was done during the Cold War. Now that the US is losing interest in Asian hegemony, we are doing it again, and dragon cartoons are reappearing in the Murdoch media. This time, the task of containing China has been handed over to Japan, South Korea, India and Australia. China is once again being admonished about the international rules-based order, and threatened with unspecified consequences if it continues to extend and ‘militarise’ the territories it claims in the South China Sea.
No wonder the Chinese Embassy has been instructed to protest. The PRC, as they point out, adheres to international law on the basis of ‘mutual respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs’ and refrains from the threat or use of force. Without saying so, they imply that while Australia, in contrast, has troops illegally engaged in three countries, and regularly joins in provocative US military exercises close to Chinese territory, it should rise to China’s standard.
Two narratives are missing from the current unpleasantness. One concerns China. It includes the pressure some Chinese students and university staff have reportedly experienced; China’s intervention in internet access and in the Chinese press in Australia; the PRC’s hard line on Falun Gong and against democracy advocates in Hong Kong; arrests of Australian businesspeople in China; and episodes like the Chinese objection to Taiwanese participation in a conference in Kalgoorlie. These are issues which adept diplomacy can deal with.
The other narrative concerns Australia. Julie Bishop (ABC RN 7 December 2017) said she didn’t know who had leaked to the media what Dastyari had said about the bugged phone, but it was not the government. If ASIO is not part of the government, it was established by and is handsomely financed by government. It has been given broad powers of invigilation, nominally to catch terrorists, but it often issues solemn warnings about Chinese ‘interference’. If ASIO used them to bug Mr Huang’s phone, and sat on what it knew, the political timing of the latest leak against Dastyari could not have been more deliberate. He had fired over a hundred questions in Senate Estimates at ASIO. Now he has been hung out to dry, and we can expect the Coalition’s ratings to improve and Labor’s to fall, possibly heading off a change of government that many in ASIO would not welcome.
Dr Alison Broinowski is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and a former diplomat.