Buoyed by its rather spectacular failure to ink a deeply flawed extradition treaty with China, the Turnbull government has once more charged fearlessly into fresh deals with the country’s authoritarian dictatorship on another fraught area: cyber crime, as part of a new ‘security’ dialogue.
The dialogue was held between the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Meng Jianzhu, China’s security tsar who heads up the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Political and Legal Affairs, an immensely powerful official who ranks in the handful of leaders just below the seven man ruling CCP Politburo Standing Committee.
In decidedly (and quite curiously) triumphant language “Australia and China Agree to Cooperate on Cyber Security” the PM’s press release bleated that there had been that most slippery of things “key outcomes” in the inaugural Australia-China High-Level Security Dialogue, a new addition to annual bilateral talks.
As well as cyber crime, the talks also promised a renewed effort to sign the extradition treaty that its critics argue would punch another hole in Australia’s fraying commitment to the rule of law.
Mr Meng’s ‘Commission’ (or Zhongyang Zhengfawei) is that body in China which sits above its decidedly non-independent legal system, prosecution department and police force and effectively dictates to them who they will and won’t detain, arrest and charge at each of China’s cascading tiers of government: national provincial city and county.
Australian technology businesses who want to do business in China should take careful note of this non-distinction between the ruling party and the legal system.
Failure to do so, especially for Chinese-Australians, can result in alarmingly long prison sentences for not doing anything much wrong except cutting party bosses and their mates out of business deals.
“On cyber issues, Australia and China agreed that neither country would conduct or support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets or confidential business information with the intent of obtaining competitive advantage,” the release said.
Yet China’s invidious record says otherwise.
China has been documented by Western governments and their security agencies – including Australia’s – as well as by investigative media reports, to be a sponsor of cyber crime on an industrial scale.
Its companies have been guilty of systematic, wholesale intellectual property theft on a breathtaking industrial scale. But the PM believes, it seems, all this has quite suddenly changed. Or does he?
For Australian spy agencies, the fear of China is so deep that advice to the Federal Government (of Kevin Rudd) saw the China’s leading technology equipment manufacturer Huawei Technologies banned from tendering for any part of the National Broadband Network.
Australian security experts were afraid, apparently, that the private group with the very private share registry may do its government’s bidding and somehow insert ‘backdoors’ into the network technology of the NBN, allowing China top spy with impunity on increasing numbers of Australians.
Despite hinting, while he was in the Communications spokesperson when the Coalition was in opposition, that he may review Huawei’s position, Malcolm Turnbull never did.
It is worth noting here that Huawei denied point blank this was the case and fell over itself to provide assurances that it would, indeed could, not do such things – including the hiring of former Victorian Premier John Brumby, now chairman of the Australia China Business Council, former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, now High Commissioner to London and former Admiral John Lord to lobby successive government from Rudd onwards. (The lesson here is surely that taking the fistful of yuan offered by large Chinese companies only leads to better jobs and increased influence.)
But those successive governments, including the one now stumbling along under Mr Turnbull, have remained unmoved.
So why, one might well ask, was one of the big ‘wins’ of the recent troubled trip of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, a renewed joint effort on cyber issues.?
The only real answer is that this is still more smoke and mirrors, a triumph of public relations spin or rather – and let’s call a spade a spade – bullshit, over any real policy and a further illustration of the Turnbull governments’ (like those of successive governments since 2007) to pull together any truly cohesive, whole of government policy towards China.
One minute China is being warned about its behavior in real world security situations like the South China Sea or North Korea, the next it is being praised for doing things it does not, and has no intention of doing. – like cyber. Schizophrenic, that’s the word.
Given we all know that China ain’t gonna stop cyber spying anytime soon – and neither, in its own far more modest way, is Australia (just ask East Timor) then surely something more concrete could have been the focus of the talks.
For instance, striking a deal for Australian technology companies so they are not, as sop many US technology groups in software hardware and digital media are not blocked from competing in the Chinese market.
In this way, now the Trans Pacific Partnership is dead (well, if you listen to Trade Minister Steve Ciobo and his counterparts in places like Japan it is, rather just resting) Australian should be able to take advantage of China’s penchant for dividing to conquer
But such meetings tend only to result in twaddle.
To wit, one of the other ‘outcomes’ – not real results but sound bites that can be published to make it look as though there may be real results, albeit sometime in the future, was this:
“The two countries also agreed to establish a mechanism to discuss cyber security and cybercrime issues.”
Confused? So it’s the government it appear one would have though that the dialogue the government has been so keen to boast about was just that mechanism. Apparently not.
Meanwhile, the thousands of government employed and backed Chinese hackers dedicated to cyber spying will be merrily going about their business.