Australia spy chief warns of espionage as US-China rivalry grows

More Australians are targets of spying ‘than at any time in Australia’s history’, says the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

epa08024691 (FILE) - Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Director General Mike Burgess appears before a Senate Estimates hearing at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, 21 October 2019 (reissued 25 November 2019. According to media reports, Australian authorities are investigating an alleged Chinese attempt to plant a spy into parliament. EPA-EFE/MICK TSIKAS AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) director-general Mike Burgess said the amount of espionage and foreign influence operations focused on Australia was unprecedented [File: EPA-EFE/Mick Tsikas]

The Indo-Pacific region is witnessing “great power competition” between China and the United States, while a “thirst” for covert information has driven espionage and foreign interference operations targeting Australia, the country’s intelligence chief has warned.

Australia now faces unprecedented threats with more Australians being targeted by foreign agents than ever before, Mike Burgess, the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) said late on Tuesday.

“With the power of the United States, our primary ally, contested by the rise of China” and with territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the Korean peninsula, Burgess said Australia was a focus for intelligence actors from inside and outside the region who want to “advance their interests and undermine Australia’s”.

“The variety of governments conducting espionage will surprise you,” the ASIO chief said in his annual threat assessment for Australia.

“They are using espionage to covertly understand Australia’s politics and decision-making, our alliances and partnerships and our economic and policy priorities,” he said.

Australians who are the focus of foreign intelligence operations include judges, media commentators and journalists, Burgess said, adding that a small number of “judicial figures” have been subjected to “suspicious approaches”.

“Based on what ASIO is seeing, more Australians are being targeted for espionage and foreign interference than at any time in Australia’s history – more hostile foreign intelligence services, more spies, more targeting, more harm,” he said.

“From where I sit, it feels like hand-to-hand combat.”

Foreign interference operations are also being used to “monitor, threaten and even harm members of diaspora communities”, he added.

ASIO, he noted, had seen a rise in the online targeting of people working in Australia’s defence industry since September 2021, when US President Joe Biden, the then-United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a three-way agreement known as AUKUS to provide Australia with a fleet of submarines powered by US nuclear technology.

“As we progress AUKUS, it’s critical our allies know we can keep our secrets and keep their secrets,” Burgess said.

“Third-party companies have offered Australians hundreds of thousands of dollars and other significant perks to help authoritarian regimes improve their combat skills,” Burgess said.

He said that in some cases, authorities have been able to stop those with military expertise from travelling overseas to provide training but in others, legal ambiguities have impeded law enforcement’s ability to intervene.

Australia’s defence minister Richard Marles announced recently that Canberra would tighten the law to prevent former members of the Australian security services from sharing their expertise with foreign governments.

Australian, Canadian and UK defence officials have all voiced concerns in recent months that China is attempting to poach military expertise such as fighter jet pilots.

Washington is currently attempting to extradite from Australia a former US Marine Corps pilot Daniel Duggan on an indictment that he conspired with others to provide training to Chinese pilots in 2010 and 2012.

Source: Al Jazeera, The Associated Press