The ASPI interference machine: China is everywhere

Aug 7, 2023
Screen Tech

It’s hard to credit, but the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) continues its incessant grumbling about forms of interference across a number of areas of Australian political and economic debate. What stands out in this method of noisy declaration is the tactic of sidelining legitimate public debate. Such interference supposedly impairs the credibility of the argument, given that the argument is also being advanced by sinister external forces. Blame Johnny Foreigner, and you have scored a few points in your favour.

The usual gorilla in the analysis is China, and the US-funded bridgehead in Canberra wants you to know that those devils in Beijing are having enormous sway in influencing Australian debates. There have been such top-of-the-pop hits as Taking the Low Road, a February 2022 publication featuring the entire Australian continent bloody red with spangled gold stars. “What emerges,” write Peter Jennings and Bertil Wenger in the report’s preface, “is an astonishing breadth and depth of PRC engagement.” Such engagement had entailed “covert attempts to influence some politicians and overt attempts to engage states, territories and key institutions in ways that challenge federal government prerogatives and have brought the two levels of government into sharp public dispute.”

Much of this has lashings and dollops of irony, given that ASPI, along with its twin at the University of Sydney, the United States Studies Centre, constitute agents of overt interference in Australian domestic and foreign policy, ensuring that Canberra stays on the straight and narrow. Not a week goes by without some moral effusion about the need to stay the course with the United States, even into suicidal conflicts, or to defeat those dark enemies of authoritarianism who dare play in Canberra’s backyard. But pointing out such facts mean, according to the ASPIstas, that you must be on the take from some foreign power.

On July 24, Albert Zhang and Danielle Cave seemed rather pleased to have identified a number of alien accounts across a range of platforms allegedly hailing from an illicit PRC source. “ASPI has identified a multi-language network of coordinated inauthentic accounts on US-based platforms including Twitter, YouTube, Facebook (archived), Reddit, Instagram (archived) and global sites that we assess are likely involved in an ongoing Chinese Communist influence and disinformation campaign targeting Australian and foreign policies”. These include “amplifying division over the Indigenous voice referendum, and sustained targeting of the Australian parliament, Australian companies (including the big-four banks) and our organisation, ASPI.”

Such commentary has the intentional effect of neutralising critiques (“disinformation” is a favourite) while inflating the credentials of the critic’s sponsor. It seeks to libel legitimate criticism of, for instance, ASPI itself (as an unabashed distributor and disseminator of Made in America gum and rhetoric), not to mention legitimate ripostes to any number of domestic problems. Call it the slut putdown: to dilute, and ultimately vanquish the strength of an argument, accuse the person, notably if that person be a woman, of having loose morals and tendencies towards nymphomania.

Zhang and Cave go on to reproduce examples of what the authors describe as a “CCP-linked account with AI generated profile image quote-tweeting criticism of AUKUS, with replies from legitimate accounts.” The tweet from one “Heather Garcia” goes on to note that “Members of the ALP are mobilising a rebellion in their party against @AlboMP’s #AUKUS deal that sells out of Australia’s sovereignty and pushes us towards war with our biggest and best trading partner.” Far from being disinformation, it is true that various ALP branches have expressed consternation at AUKUS and its insatiable militarism.

Admittedly, the language in some of the posts has the smell of orchestration, a talking point rather than a true flash of insight. But ASPI’s remarks on them effectively denude the veracity of the replies, an effort to cut off the debate. Those engaging with such assertions are not to be taken too seriously. One such respondent, “Ian Gordicans” (incidentally, also an image), finds little sense in AUKUS as a security arrangement, let alone the value of “nuke subs”. “Apparently we’re building defence assets to protect our sea lanes from attack from our biggest trading partners who uses those sea lanes to get to us? Pretty much like shooting yourself in the foot.”

The topics being engaged with under the supposed direction of CCP influence are varied and troubling to ASPI. The “campaign” seeks to amplify “negative messaging upon a broad range of topics, individuals and organisations, including, for example, the Australian Security Intelligence, PwC and journalist Stan Grant.”

Then come those apparently unpardonable slights against Australia’s big four banks, an unhealthy financial oligopoly that has Australian customers by their throats and the financial system teeteringly vulnerable. “Major Australian banks are a key focus for many accounts in the campaign, including the Commonwealth Bank, the National Australia Bank, ANZ and Westpac. This includes claims that Australian banks aren’t serving regional Australia and First Nations customers.”

As with all oligopolies, prices only ever rise in hearty agreement from its members. Services can be reduced at a moment’s notice, and bank closures implemented. But for ASPI, calling this sort of behaviour out, along with the PwC consultancy scandal or shining a sharp light on ASIO, is very much against the Australian spirit of independence. If there is some detectable Oriental devilry going on, then it must be wrong or at the very least, wrong-headed.

Whatever can be said about China’s role in influencing the Australian political and policy landscape, it is dwarfed by the strivings of US administrations that are garrisoning the island continent in anticipation for war. Australian sovereignty has become a museum piece, with its last vestiges of life happily, and treasonously, extinguished on July 29 on the occasion of the AUSMIN 2023 talks. With Australia now a forward base for US militarism, the attempts by any other powers to even sway a single argument, let alone a single policy, will be comically ineffectual.

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