Not since the Petrov affair in 1954, when a KGB officer sought asylum in Australia with details of Soviet spying activities, has a case been as potentially significant for Australian security as that of Wang Liqiang, the man who purports to be a Chinese spy.
We are using the word “potentially” in the Wang case because his accounts of Chinese espionage activities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia need to be fully assessed before a more complete judgment is made about the veracity of his claims.
Nine Newspaper journalists have conducted due diligence on the Wang case over some months and concluded publication is justified. But gaps remain in the defector’s narrative.
These include the reasonable question of how a young man with a fine arts degree and a skimpy background allegedly in Chinese intelligence has suddenly come forward with a cache of information that sheds light on nefarious activities.
Vladimir Petrov was a long-serving KGB colonel inured in that organisation’s dark arts. By his own claims, Wang was an errand boy for Chinese front companies seeking to extend Beijing’s influence in Hong Kong and Taiwan by covert means.
His account of his activities, including his participation in the rendition of a Hong Kong bookseller to the mainland, needs to be tested further.
In Hong Kong, doubts are being cast on Wang’s claims.
If we use the Petrov defection as an historical benchmark for what is happening now, the essential difference is that back in 1954, at the height of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union was not a dominant player in the Asia-Pacific, nor was it a significant Australian trading partner.
Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union seemed far away. The Chinese were locked in behind a bamboo curtain from which they would not emerge for a quarter of a century.
The phrase “domino theory” – the idea that communism in one country would spread to make communist governments in other countries – had barely entered the public discourse.
Fast forward to now. China is a surging influence in the region. It is Australia’s dominant trading partner.
These factors vastly complicate Canberra’s response to Wang’s defection.
Not in dispute is China’s willingness to resort to clandestine and ruthless means to advance its interests in the region and in Australia itself. Attempts to “buy off” Australian politicians to encourage a sympathetic view of China’s ambitions is merely one part of the story.
As was the case in the 1950s at the time of the Petrov defection – amid concerns about communist influence in Australian politics – the atmosphere now is conducive to threat scenarios involving a foreign power.
China hysteria is not absent from the public discourse.
Whether the Wang defection comes to be regarded as a bad pivotal moment in Australia-China relations with lingering consequences remains to be seen.
But just as at the time of the Petrov affair when security agencies emerged as key players in conservative attempts to pin a communist tail on a Labor donkey, Australia’s security establishment is asserting itself as it has not done for years.
In 2019, the so-called security establishment extends far beyond a narrow band of government agencies like the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) that engineered Petrov’s defection.
It now includes a panoply of think-tanks heavily invested in “threat scenarios”. These voices feed into media that are, understandably, receptive to alarmist scenarios.
Whether you believe this contributes to a better understanding of the challenges involved in dealing with Chinese ruthlessness in advancing its interests is a matter of opinion.
In any case, Australian governments of all political stripes are now obliged to manage real-world and real-time threats to Australian security from a country that appears to have little regard for a so-called “rules-based international order”.
If there is a rule of thumb in dealing with China, based on my own experience as a correspondent there for nearly a decade, it is that Beijing will seek to get away with whatever it can in pursuit of what it considers to be in its own interests.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response to the Wang defection has been proportionate.
If this attempted interference is proved – if it is indeed provable – this would rise to the level of an unacceptable attempt to subvert Australia’s democratic processes.
In the meantime, the political class, including the media, needs to hasten slowly in its assessments of the merits of claims and counter-claims about Chinese influence. The national interest will not be served by overreacting.
Authors: Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University