The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has launched a swingeing attack on the Chinese Communist party, accusing it of engineering a series of cyber-attacks on Australian targets, stealing intellectual property and muzzling free speech.
While drawing a clear distinction between “the amazing Chinese diaspora community in Australia” and the Chinese government, Dutton said Australia needed to have a “frank conversation” over China’s global influence: its infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative, expansionism in the South China Sea and growing military and aid presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Dutton’s comments are, by some margin, the strongest criticism of the Chinese government by a serving Australian minister. Dutton said China’s actions on the global stage often conflicted with Australian values and were incompatible with democratic forms of government.
“We have a very important trading relationship with China, incredibly important, but we’re not going to allow university students to be unduly influenced,” he said. “We’re not going to allow theft of intellectual property and we’re not going to allow our government bodies or non-government bodies to be hacked into.
“Our issue, as I’ve said before, is not with the Chinese people, not with the amazing Chinese diaspora community that we have here in Australia. My issue is with the Communist Party of China and their policies to the extent that they’re inconsistent with our own values.
“In a democracy like ours, we encourage freedom of speech, freedom of expression, thought, and if that’s being impinged, if people are operating outside of the law, then whether they’re from China or from any other country, we have a right to call that out.”
Dutton’s comments defending free speech, notably, came on the same day as he condemned Extinction Rebellion protesters in Australia for their continued demonstrations over the climate emergency, saying: “These people are radicals, they’re outliers and … hopefully a lot them are arrested or moved on.”
But tensions between the Australian and Chinese governments are strained over a number of long-running issues.
Canberra has protested over Chinese government interference in Australia, particularly in politics and education, while Beijing has been volubly displeased at Australia’s new foreign interference laws, and the banning of Chinese telco Huawei from building any of Australia’s 5G network, citing national security concerns.
Beijing has criticised Australia’s position that China should no longer be recognised as a “developing” country by the World Trade Organisation but rather as a “newly developed” one.
Australia has also spoken out strongly over the continued detention of Australian writer and democracy activist Yang Hengjun, who has been held in Beijing for seven months and potentially faces the death penalty over alleged espionage. Australia strongly suspects his arrest is politically motivated and that there is no evidence to support the charges.
While it has not been confirmed, Australia’s intelligence agencies also believe Chinese hackers were behind attacks on the Australian National University, as well as on political parties, and the Parliament House computer system.
The government has established a taskforce to safeguard Australian universities from foreign interference, after concerns were raised about Chinese academics collaborating on security, surveillance and defence technology-related projects in Australia.
Dutton’s comments on China on Friday came as the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, visited Suva for talks with his Fijian counterpart, Frank Bainimarama, the pair greeting each other with a hug.
The two prime ministers announced Pacific Islanders living in Australia will be able to bring double the amount of kava – from 2kg to 4kg – into the country under new relaxed regulations. A trial program for the commercial importation of kava – the roots of the kava plant are used to make a bitter, sedative drink that holds strong cultural significance in the Pacific – will begin next year.
“Thank you for the announcement on kava, the whole of Fiji has been waiting for that,” Bainimarama said.
Morrison, accompanied by the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, and the minister for international development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke, will visit the Black Rock military base, a key regional training hub for police and peacekeepers at the weekend.
Australia is funding the development of Black Rock, having effectively outbid China for the right to contribute to the project.
Morrison drove over the Fiji-China friendship bridge on the way to his meeting with Bainimarama, held nearby to a 30-storey tower being built by Beijing, soon to be the tallest building in the Pacific islands.
During the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu in August, Bainimarama said Australia’s heavy-handed attitude during discussions on climate change was driving Pacific countries towards closer ties with China.
Describing Morrison as “very insulting, very condescending”, Bainimarama said: “China never insults the Pacific.”
“You say it as if there’s a competition between Australia and China. There’s no competition, except to say the Chinese don’t insult us. They don’t go down and tell the world that we’ve given this much money to the Pacific islands. They don’t do that. They’re good people, definitely better than Morrison, I can tell you that.”