Chinese and Russian brinkmanship cut from the same cloth

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A damning critique of China’s covert plan to place organised criminals as agents of influence in the Pacific and the revelation that Russian authorities are stonewalling on providing details of hackers who stole Medibank data are salient reminders of the new ways Beijing and Moscow make it harder but even more important for Australia to chart a path between compromise and contest.

The latest movements in Chinese and Russian brinkmanship are on display in exclusive interviews for The Age and 60 Minutes by Nick McKenzie with police chiefs belonging to the secretive Five Eyes Law Enforcement Group – compromising Australia, the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand.

In one disclosure, the reluctance by Moscow to assist Australian Federal Police in investigating the Medibank hack flies in the face of the Russian ambassador’s criticism of the AFP six months ago for failing to provide the Putin regime with Australian intelligence about the hackers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. Credit: AP

The AFP quickly provided detailed intelligence, including individuals and groups it believed were involved, but Moscow has done nothing. “Police to police, it’s a one-way street at the moment,” AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw told McKenzie.

Russia’s recalcitrance raises questions about its membership of Interpol, the organisation predicated on international police co-operation. Its seeming intransigence risks the appearance of aiding and abetting. But the failure to assist on the Medibank matter, while perhaps unsurprising, will be keenly watched by boardrooms around Australia as they weigh up the issue of paying ransom to hackers.

Just over two months ago, our three-part series Red Alert identified China as far and away our most dangerous security threat, with an expert panel warning of the prospect of war with Beijing within three years.

Now the Five Eyes Law Enforcement Group has revealed just how far down the road China has travelled with its Pacific ambitions.

The police chiefs said their investigations and intelligence had linked the Chinese government to an extraterritorial campaign of covert interference and intimidation and that Beijing now posed the gravest threat to the security of Australia and its allies.

FBI deputy director Paul Abbate said his organisation was tracking relationships between the Chinese Communist Party and organised criminals operating in Pacific island nations who had corrupted local politicians.

Further, he accused Beijing of using organised crime to destabilise Australia and its allies, blaming the Chinese government for failing to curb the huge flow of fentanyl to North America.

However, Kershaw, the AFP commissioner, refused to name China or comment about Beijing’s expansion in the Pacific. This could be due to sensitivities about the Albanese government’s effort to salvage relations with Australia’s biggest trading partner.

It might also stem from the need to juggle the AFP’s relations with Chinese anti-narcotics authorities as triad crime gangs continue to import vast quantities of illegal drugs into Australia. Or naming China could risk jeopardising the countering of alleged foreign interference by it.

Whatever the reasons, the reluctance to name China in these things is becoming increasingly untenable. The Age understands the need for co-operation, but continuing silence does not become our public figures. They, in fact, look silly. The public knows. China knows. We all know.

While we welcome the abolition of the trade sanctions against Australia, and the improved co-operation between Canberra and Beijing on some law enforcement matters, there still has to be a line where we are willing to call out what is right and wrong.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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