Considering its relatively tiny population of just 25 million, Australia punches well above its weight on the global stage. And as Washington maneuvers to check the growth of Chinese military power around the world, Canberra is becoming an increasingly important battleground in the war of influence.
Despite Australia's economic synergies with China, the relationship between the countries has deteriorated as disturbing evidence of political and economic interference carried out by Beijing in Australia has come to light.
China's efforts to infiltrate Australia's political system and its intelligence community is a huge problem, not just for Australia, but for the US and many of its closest allies.
That's because Australia is part of a shadowy and extremely powerful group called the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. Though it's not widely known to the public, Five Eyes, which includes the US, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, is critically important. The alliance is already on edge over the possibility that Moscow may have turned a high-ranking Canadian intelligence official, who may have clued the Kremlin in to Five Eyes operations.
Now, Reuters reports, Australia's domestic spy agency is investigating whether Beijing tried to get a sleeper agent elected to Australia's federal parliament in what Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described as a "deeply disturbing" plot.
The case was brought to the public's attention last night, when the Australian version of "60 Minutes" ran a report about the plot that was put together with several newspaper partners, including the Sydney Morning Herald. According to the story, Melbourne luxury car dealer Bo "Nick" Zhao was offered a "seven figure sum" by a Chinese espionage ring to run for a seat in parliament.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) said it had launched an investigation into the alleged scheme long before the '60 Minutes' report. The agency said it's taking these claims "seriously."
"The reporting on Nine’s ‘60 Minutes’ contains allegations that ASIO takes seriously," ASIO Director-General of Security Mike Burgess said in the statement on Sunday.
"Australians can be reassured that ASIO was previously aware of matters that have been reported today, and has been actively investigating them."
In his statement, Morrison added that Australia isn't "naive" when it comes to the espionage threats it is facing.
"I find the allegations deeply disturbing and troubling," Morrison told reporters in Canberra, adding the government had beefed up Australia’s laws and security agencies to counter foreign interference.
"Australia is not naive to the threats that it faces more broadly," he added, without commenting on the specific allegations.
In response to the growing international threat, Australia has been beefing up its counter-foreign interference efforts, bolstering cooperation between its intelligence agencies when it comes to foreign interference, particularly when it comes to elections.
Underscoring the stakes of international espionage, Zhao, the alleged would-be asset, was found dead in a hotel room back in March, after Australian intelligence reportedly found out about the plot. The circumstances of his death are murky, and incredibly suspicious.
These allegations surfaced just days after the media reported that an alleged Chinese spy, Wang Liqiang, is seeking asylum in Australia for his wife and family. In exchange, he is reportedly providing top-secret information about how Beijing runs its interference operations not just in Taiwan, but around the world. Wang appeared also appeared in the '60 Minutes' report, prompting a flurry of attacks from the Chinese media.
His claims are just the latest reminder that the US and Russia aren't the only world powers that meddle in international affairs.
For what it's worth, Chinese media denounced Wang as a fraudster and insisted that if his claims really had any merit, Australian intelligence wouldn't have leaked them to the media (since a counter-intelligence operation would presumably be more effective if Beijing wasn't expecting it). Australia refused to comment on whatever counter-intelligence efforts may or may not be underway.
According to analysts at Rabobank, there's a chance the international spat between the two countries caused by the Wang's revelations, and now this reporting on Zhao, might provoke Beijing to threaten to stop buying Australian commodities.
Whatever happens, the story illustrates Beijing's extensive reach. There's little doubt Washington will be closely monitoring Australia's response, whatever it might be. After all: An intelligence alliance is only as secure as its weakest link.