Australian media in the Asian century

Pompeo and circumstance

Our foreign minister, Marise Payne, flew off to Tokyo for a rare meeting of the “Quad” on Tuesday with counterparts including the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

With only the ABC keeping a correspondent in Tokyo, and budget news crowding out the airwaves anyway, it was down to the recalled Asia hands to keep us posted. The best coverage came from The Australian’s temporarily stranded Beijing correspondent, Will Glasgow.

He quoted the ANU’s National Security College head Rory Medcalf as saying: “The Quad is not just about balancing China. It’s also a way for America’s partners to present a united front in tempering America’s behaviour and keeping it active in the region as a responsible power.”

If so, not much headway was made in the second task. Pompeo did his best to live up to the recent accusation by Chinese vice foreign Minister Luó Zhàohui that the Quad was “an anti-China front line, also known as the mini NATO,” and that it “reflects the cold war mentality of the US.”

Pompeo told Nikkei Asia he had a plan to elevate the Quad into a “true security framework” with the US, Japan, India and Australia, a scenario that would outrage ­Beijing. “Once we’ve institutionalised what we’re doing — the four of us together — we can begin to build out a true security framework,” he said.

 “As partners in this Quad, it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s exploitation, corruption, and coercion. We’ve seen it in the south, in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, the Taiwan Straits.” Pompeo went on to tell the national broadcaster NHK: “This is for the soul of the world.”

But as Glasgow and others reported, none of the other foreign ministers were willing to go along with this, or even say in public that the Quad was targeted against China. As Anthony Kuhn of America’s National Public Radio reported: “If, as it appeared, Pompeo was pushing other members of the Quad to take the US side in a confrontation with China, he did not score any ringing public endorsements, and his remarks clashed with those of his host…Japan’s chief government spokesman, Katsunobu Kato, insisted at a press briefing Tuesday: ‘This Quad meeting is not being held with any particular country in mind.’”

And military matters were the last thing in mind, Kato would have you believe. Japan said that “practical talks on infrastructure, cybersecurity and other areas” would be the next step after this meeting.

India’s Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also declined to name China. “As vibrant and pluralistic democracies with shared values, our nations have collectively affirmed the importance of maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific,” he said.

Payne took until late Tuesday evening, budget night, to issue her account. Response to Covid-19 took up the first two paragraphs, then a long paragraph about sticking to rules and norms, countering disinformation, abstaining from malicious cyber activity, and following the law of the sea. Finally she got around to saying: “We agreed to enhance cooperation to promote a strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific, and work to support a region of resilient and sovereign states that engage each other on the basis of rules, norms and international law.” But then added a rider about the “centrality” of the Association of Southeast Nations, not something that would have been in Pompeo’s mind.

There was no joint statement. With less than four weeks to the US election, the other members of the Quad are not signing up to Pompeo’s new crusade to free China from communism.

Still, Payne did not entirely escape contagion by Pompeo, Glasgow discovered. A summary of her 45-minute bilateral talk with him on the sidelines posted on the US State Department website said “The Secretary and the Foreign Minister also discussed their shared concerns regarding the People’s Republic of China’s malign activity in the region.”

The Quad meeting coincided with the unusual interview (written questions and answers) given to the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith by Fu Ying, the former Chinese ambassador to Canberra and then London. Possibly it was just part of a wider soft-softly approach ahead of the US elections. However, Payne’s cautious report on the Tokyo meeting suggests she for one is not pushing away the olive branch Fu Ying offered. The question, as Geoff Raby outlined here yesterday, is whether the rest of Canberra follows her lead.

Information wars

Ahead of the Quad meeting, reports by Canberra press gallery defence writers gave prominence to the inclusion of counter-disinformation in the Tokyo agenda. This was said to be “a direct response to an explosion of Chinese fake news in the Covid era”, recalling warnings by Payne that it undermining democracy and sowing “fear and division”.

Presumably, public broadcasting would play a large role in such counter-information work. But what a record the four current governments of the Quad have in this sphere.

In Japan, former prime minister Shinzo Abe, with his recent replacement Yoshihide Suga then at his side as chief cabinet secretary, stacked the NHK board of governors with fellow retro-nationalists and putting pressure down the reporting line against stories about the Fukushima nuclear disaster and criticism of more active military activity.

In the US this June, Donald Trump appointed conservative film-maker Michael Pack as head of the Agency for Global Media, overseeing external broadcasters Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe. This followed attacks by Trump saying VOA trafficked in Chinese propaganda and its coverage of Covid-19 was a “disgrace”. An exodus of VOA top editors and foreign language expertise followed.

In India, the state broadcaster Doordarshan has long been accused of tilt towards the incumbent government. In opposition Narendra Modi used to complain about selective editing of his speeches. Now Doordarshan runs all his speeches in full, live, and most of those by state chief ministers belonging to his Hindu nationalist party, the BJP.

And here in Australia? This week’s budget foreshadowed four more years of funding squeeze for the ABC and SBS, amounting to a 3.7 per cent decrease in real terms by 2023-24. Not much scope there for a counter-disinformation strategy, like more Mandarin and Cantonese programming for Chinese-Australians, or renewed services in the Pacific. And aimed at bringing the ABC to heel anyway.

As for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, it won’t have much in the way of in-house resources to spare for counter-disinformation, having its overall budget squeezed again and having to set aside $25 million of that for another Morrison government brainwave: monitoring the foreign connections of states, local councils and public universities to prevent subversion and intellectual property theft.

Counter-Intelligence

Our police and spooks will soon be falling over each other in the hunt for foreign spies in our midst. In extraordinary interviews with several media organisations, Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw revealed his force has set up a unit with currently 65 officers to address foreign interference and espionage.

And it’s got the budget for more expansion. The expansion into counter-espionage came after former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s new laws against foreign interference in 2018. And the AFP quickly turned to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to see how it’s done. “I reached out to Director Wray, the FBI director, asked him for assistance… around training our people and looking at how we could deliver our own package perhaps modelled on the US,” Kershaw told The Sydney Morning Herald’s Anthony Galloway. “He was great, sent his people out, we did that early on in the piece.”

Since it was founded in 1949 the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has been in charge of counter-espionage. Until recent law changes it had no powers of arrest, and was not really expected to yield prosecutions. Foreign spies in embassies were expelled for “activities not compatible with their diplomatic status” and their local recruits kept away from secrets and closely watched.

Now the AFP is in on the game, the focus is swinging to collecting evidence for prosecutions. “While the AFP is currently investigating a number of foreign interference cases based on intelligence from ASIO, Mr Kershaw predicted his agency would eventually be following up its own cases as well as referrals from state police forces,” Galloway reported.

Hence the recent highly publicised raid on NSW upper house MP Shaoquet Mouselmane and his staffer John Zhang, and raids on four Chinese state media journalists.

No charges have yet been laid. As Kershaw said, it’s a difficult area. Foreign spies were different from organised crime and counter-terrorism targets because “they’re fully trained” and “know where to look”.

Kershaw did not reveal how many of his 65 spy-catchers have Chinese or other language skills, but says it’s “not enough” and the AFP will be out to recruit more. I

But as The Australian’s Ben Fordham commented in his interview report: “Australia’s security agencies have long struggled to recruit sufficient numbers of Mandarin speakers of non-Chinese heritage, who are more easily vetted for classified work, making it much harder to crack foreign interference cases.”

It’s all terribly reassuring, and with the FBI providing its expertise. Next we’ll have the states re-establishing their long-dissolved police “special branches” to get into this growth area of law enforcement.

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Hamish McDonald has been a correspondent in Jakarta, Tokyo, New Delhi and Beijing, and was Regional Editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong and Foreign Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He has won two Walkley Awards for reporting from Asia and was made an Inaugural Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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