Media in the Asian Century

Jul 3, 2020

Not the cyber Pearl Harbour

The past two weeks have been rich pickings for Australia’s strategic affairs community including the journalists connected to it. With only a few exceptions among outliers, sceptical analysis has been lacking amid a wave of endorsement of government announcements.

If Xi Jinping has moved away from Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to keep a low profile while building your strength, the words of Teddy Roosevelt – Speak softly and carry a big stick – don’t seem to resonate with Scott Morrison much either. With him, it’s loud talk and a schtick, in the Yiddish sense of a stage routine.

Morrison’s sudden announcement on June 19 that Australia was under a “cyber attack” by a “sophisticated state-based cyber actor” was taken with all due seriousness by mainstream news media, but within hours shown to be something less than a cyber “Pearl Harbour” or War of the Worlds.

Guardian Australia’s John Taylor reported

the attackers used “copy-paste compromises “ to exploit well-known vulnerabilities that businesses and government departments should already have patched. When these attacks did not work, the attackers tried traditional “phishing” approaches. So it was not very sophisticated, according to UNSW cyber-security professor Richard Buckland. “It’s well-resourced in a large scale but I haven’t seen anything yet that’s super secret or super sinister,” he said. “They’re using known techniques against known vulnerabilities and following known processes.”

In the Canberra Times, Sally Whyte

quoted the cyber expert Greg Austin, an Australian with the International Institute of Strategic Studies, as pointing out the attacks had been under way for some months, and Morrison’s announcement revealed “the continuing inability of Australian government departments to remedy known vulnerabilities.” The government was now repeating an advisory first made in March.

A cyber-warrior sweatshop?

But not to worry, we are arming to meet the cyber challenge, as Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announcing on June 30 – with advance notice to morning newspapers – that $1.35 billion would be spent over 10 years on a new cyber defence and warfare program with the Australian Signals Directorate, ready to give the hackers a dose of their own medicine if required.

The coverage was respectful, and no-one seemed to ask how with a salary budget of $47 million a year Defence would find 500 ace cyber professionals ready to work for an average $94,000 a year in highly-restricted Canberra bunker, when outfits like Atlassian are offering starting salaries to IT graduates at around $80,000 a year and paid an average $170,000 a year, plus stock options, and a campus-like environment in a metropolitan city. The Australian effort looks light on, compared to the $4 billion Singapore is investing in cyber security.

Meanwhile over at DFAT, the diplomats will set up a new anti-propaganda unit to counter fake news on social media. This will impose “reputational damage” on the perpetrators in retaliation, according to Morrison.

Military intelligence…

If this was not enough, Morrison and Reynolds came out the next day with an update on the 2016 Defence White Paper, raising the projected defence spend for the next decade to $270 billion from the previous $195 billion. The major new item was the acquisition of a new type of stand-off missile to be fired from aircraft, with a range of 370 km as opposed to 120km for the existing missiles.

The new weapons are clearly cruise missiles, but this did not stop Sydney’s Daily Telegraph from headlining its story “ScoMo goes ballistic.” As with such defence estimates, it was not immediately clear how much of the increase was due to foreign exchange movements, and how much was actually new capability. There were no new “platforms” (ships and aircraft) and possibly fewer. However Defence seems to have realised that it needs stocks of fuel and ammo in Australia rather than the US, and satellites that it can control.

What came through in most reporting was a raised perception of conflict risk, probably through a great power clash. Somehow this created a need for Australia to acquire new, longer range strike capability, without waiting for the new submarines, though such clashes seem most possible in distant theatres such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Morrison declared it was getting as dangerous as the 1930s, a big call that was approved by Greg Sheridan in The Australian and Jennings at ASPI. Of course Beijing hasn’t helped by its actions in Hong Kong and the Indian border, but it’s not quite the Austrian Anschluss and Sudetenland.

Jennings was in hot demand for opeds to explain all this, and the modern major-general Jim Molan got the same oped in both the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald, explaining that budgets didn’t matter when it came to national security. Allan Behm’s new paper for The Australia Institute, putting the case for continued and informed engagement with China, got no attention in the media apart from Industry Super’s New Daily website. A similar argument by former DFAT and ONA head Peter Verghese, for the China Matters institute got even less media attention (and the News tabloids and Sky TV keep sniping at China Matters).

A government that runs down language education, diverts students away from humanities, and forces the National Library to restrict its Asian materials, is already starting to reap what it sows, as Behm points out.

Moles in Macquarie St

In another Friday special, ASIO and AFP agents raided the home and parliamentary office of NSW state Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane on June 26 to look for evidence he was involved in a influence operation by China. They also searched the home of his part-time staffer John Zhang, who migrated from China in 1987, and is said to have done a propaganda course in a Chinese Communist Party school.

Intriguingly, the Age investigative reporter Nick McKenzie, who has led the hunt for united front operatives, just happened to be outside Moselmane’s home at 6.30am along with a crew from Nine’s 60 Minutes as the raid occurred. Their footage of agents was widely shared, with faces obligingly blurred. Dutton and Attorney-General have not so far called in the AFP to investigate this breach of security.

Moselmane, who moved into the state parliament from Rockdale local council in a factional deal that gave him his upper-house seat and someone else the lower-house seat, had been recently demoted because of his effusive praise of Xi Jinping’s efforts against Covid-19, and had been accused in media reporting of closeness to CCP united front organisations.

He denied all this, saying he paid for his annual China trips (or at least the air fare) and they were mostly about directing wheelchairs to handicapped children. Moselmane also said he had been assured he was not seen as a Chinese agent, but a possible target. With his terror-stricken leader Jodi McKay suspending him from the Labor caucus, and possibly to vote for his expulsion from parliament, Moselmane quite understandably feels he’s being “lynched.” Even being a “useful idiot” can be dangerous, it seems.

But is this a case of killing a chicken to frighten the monkey, as the Chinese say? For some time, McKenzie and News Corp journalists have been raising a hue and cry over a Chinese Australian woman, Nancy Yang, helping Victorian premier Daniel Andrews connect his state to Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, reporting that she went to the same “propaganda” school as Moselmane’s staffer Zhang. Morrison and allied conservatives would dearly like to take Andrews down. Would they sic ASIO onto him?

More white lies

Even one of the most informed critics of the Victorian BRI connection, the China scholar John Fitzgerald, took issue in Crikey on June 24 with the way some media are blithely describing certain Chinese Australian community groups and individuals as tools of the united front.

Nancy Yang was an electoral officer in the Andrews government, and also a board member of the Chinese Community Council of Australia Victoria (CCCAV), which The Australian called  “the foremost United Front organisation in Victoria”.

Fitzgerald, author of the book Big White Lie about the White Australia policy, points out this council rejected efforts by wealthy businessman and undoubted United Front figure Huang Xiangmo to finance and take control of an event in 2017 marking the imposition of a discriminatory head tax on Chinese gold-diggers 160 years earlier, leading up to an apology by Andrews on behalf of Victoria.

Another Chinese Australian, Jean Dong, has run the Australia-China Belt and Road Initiative group, and called “China’s Aussie influencer” by The Australian.

“As for the BRI, it beggars belief that Dong and Yang exercise anything like the influence that old Labor Party factional heavies, deal-making lawyers, former premiers and even retired Liberal Party heavyweights pulled in getting Victoria to sign on to the BRI,” Fitzgerald wrote.

“There a number of lessons to be drawn here,” he added. “One is that mainstream media needs to get its stories right or risk damaging the reputations of countless Chinese Australians who routinely volunteer to work in community affairs for the public benefit.  Second, whatever the circumstances, journalists should stop laying the blame for ill-judged decisions taken by powerful white men on young Chinese-Australian professionals. Give them a break. A third is that Australia’s city, state and national governments need to invite more independent Asian Australians on board to help manage relations with the proud, resurgent, and wilfully interfering communist government of China — not just because justice demands it but also because they are likely to have a far better idea of what is going on than the rest of us.”


In the previous column, I recalled the ANU’s East Asia Forum as having described Morrison’s early calls for a Covid-19 inquiry as “boofhead diplomacy”. It was actually “stumble-bum diplomacy”.


Asian reactions to Bolton’s book

Even allowing for its vengeful bias, John Bolton’s “tell all” book has provided a most valuable insider view of President Trump’s dysfunctional foreign policy operations. So much of which is based on his determination to “cut deals” through his idiosyncratic style of personal engagement with foreign leaders.

This has led him to believe that he has “special relations” with many of them. Bolton lists many examples of where Trump has rejected or modified policy advice to avoid upsetting these “friends”. Hardly surprising as he was unable to block its publication, Trump has slammed it as being full of untruths and inaccuracies.. Bolton has told ABC Sunday: “The president isn’t worried about foreign governments reading this book. He’s worried about the American people reading this book.”

Those foreign leaders in Asia named in the book have been placed in a dilemma about if and how to respond. Most have chosen not to intervene directly leaving it to aides and the media to comment.

Australian media coverage of this has been very limited.

For China , obviously much of the Bolton claims will be welcomed for the damage it does to Trump and the global reputation of the US. But even here there are claims about President Xi which will pose major concerns – especially the reported private exchanges with Trump which Bolton claims led to a deal to drop the massive case the US had mounted against the Chinese communications company ZTE in return for China purchasing large quantities of agricultural imports from the US. Trump is alleged to have tried to convince Xi that the latter would be extremely important in his re-election campaign. The policy debate within the White House on this, as described by Bolton, is purely Byzantine and must be manna from heaven for the Chinese.! But Global Times and Xinhua have been guarded – while reporting fully on Bolton’s attacks on the ROK President Moon!

For the ROK, Bolton’s boasts about the persistent interference he ran on the US-DPRK summits, and relationship more broadly, came as no surprise. But the level of vitriol Bolton dumped on President Moon and his active attempts to open up dialogue with the North attracted a sharp response from the Blue House. Bolton’s assertion that Trump’s main aim was denuclearisation of North Korea while Moon’s was reconciliation cut into the ROK domestic political debate by providing support for the conservative opposition party’s policy for the North. Though Bolton’s description of his and others’ attempts to reduce Trump’s extraordinary demands on the ROK contribution for the US forces stationed in Korea will have been encouraging.

For Japan, Prime Minister Abe would have been happy with Bolton’s comments on Abe’s personal relations with Trump – as also with Bolton which went back many years. Japan also welcomed Bolton’s hard line on the DPRK. However, there were two very sensitive areas for Abe namely: the details of how Abe was set up for his abortive visit to Iran as a Trump intermediary; the revelation that the figure Trump was hoping to extract from Japan for the US troop presence in Japan was a staggering US$8 billion.

For Taiwan, there were concerns of a different nature , best summarised by a Taiwan political commentator : “From Taiwan’s perspective, Bolton is a rational and cautious person and it’s sad to see the dismissal of an anti-China, Taiwan-friendly policy hawk. Taipei has viewed him as an important check on an impetuous president’s doctrine. Trump’s abrupt firing of Bolton did not just startle Taipei, many Taiwanese worry about who will replace him. If his replacement is a stooge, the result could actually be worse.”

In India’s case, Prime Minister Modi receives scant attention but will hardly be happy with Trump’s throwaway line when he rejected urging from Secretary of State Pompeo that India should be granted a waiver on its oil imports from Iran. Interestingly, Trump stood firm and said that “Modi will be okay” but offered no further explanation!

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