China’s hackers targeted our MPs. We need to talk about this relationship | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker

At least six Australian parliamentarians from both major parties have been targeted by Chinese state-sponsored hackers from the notorious APT31 group, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China has announced.

The revelation follows announcements by the alliance—an informal, cross-party grouping of parliamentarians from dozens of countries—about a wider Chinese cyber campaign against politicians and public figures in Canada, New Zealand, France, Germany and other European nations.

The people targeted are primarily critics of Beijing’s repression and international belligerence, sending the clear signal that those who speak out against malicious Chinese activity and support policies to counter it can expect a sustained campaign to silence, intimidate and discredit them.

Yet what is our own national message? That isn’t clear. At times, Australia and other democracies call out China’s most egregious behaviour—including its conduct in cyberspace, aggression in the South China Sea, human rights abuses and unfair trade practices. But across the board, we’re hesitant, inconsistent and faltering.

These cyber attacks show that this approach is not working. Our narrative is unpersuasive and we need a new approach involving clarity and resolve, backed up by strong security capabilities.

This is necessary to deter aggression, as Europe learnt the hard way by trying to benefit from Russian energy and finance while ignoring the threat from Vladimir Putin to the extent that deterrence failed.

But it’s also necessary as an act of political leadership to prepare the nation for the most uncertain and dangerous strategic period in generations, which is already underway.

In terms of substance, successive Australian governments have rightly concluded that we need to take firm policy measures in response to China’s malign behaviour. It has led, for instance, to the understanding that economic and national security interests cannot be separated. But while Australia has done well institutionalising that basic strategic calculus across the national security establishment, it has been inconsistently spelled out to the Australian public.

We are in a digital age in which the information environment is more contested than ever. If the government isn’t providing a meaningful narrative to the public, then it will get its answers elsewhere—including from untrustworthy ‘news’ sources curated and manipulated by our strategic rivals on platforms such as China’s TikTok.

So what does effective political leadership on such a complex challenge look like?

Many countries publish a national security strategy. That’s useful provided the unclassified version is not scrubbed clean of anything that can inform the public of the real nature of the threats.

While part of the bureaucracy folds itself into a pretzel so as not to upset China, Beijing inevitably takes offence at even the mildest statement of condemnation, so the lesson is that speaking truthfully to the public is the best course.

Whether it’s through a strategy or some less formal narrative roadmap, democratic governments need to align their public messages with the realities that are in front of us all.

The problem with the persistent ‘stability’ narrative in Australia’s relationship with China is that it fails this test by encouraging us to look back to when the relationship was more stable and easier to manage.

The real cause of instability is, of course, Beijing’s destabilising behaviour, resulting in not just diverging interests but structural cleavages.

Any rhetorical framework that downplays these differences—either inadvertently or through deliberate risk-aversion—benefits Beijing’s strategic interests.

Do the terms of future stability depend on tolerating Beijing’s intimidation of its critics? If we are unclear about that because we hope to create some calmer patch of diplomatic waters in which to chart a new course towards this poorly defined stability, then Beijing will be emboldened.

More open acknowledgment of Australia’s strategic vulnerability is needed to establish a China discourse in Australia that is broadly free of partisanship and also openly accepts the long and potentially painful road ahead for Australia and the region.

Much of this is exhausting, and there is no shame in Australian political leaders admitting that. Some public expression of the depth and breadth of this workload would probably do everyone good.

Speaking frankly to the nation to bring it along on the necessary journey, and sending suitably strong signals to Beijing, are not two separate channels of communication. They’re inseparable.

Authoritarian regimes such as those in Beijing and Moscow are masters at identifying and exploiting national division. In our wonderfully messy democracies, differences are perennial, but they need to arise from robust debate over well-understood facts, not from strident ignorance supercharged by disinformation.

Beijing will be deterred and dissuaded if it sees strong signals, backed with strong capabilities, from a nation that, despite the healthy dissent that comes with democracy, shares some core resolve about what its red lines are. And having another nation intimidate our citizens, including the people we’ve elected to represent us, because they’ve spoken their minds on issues of principle such as human rights or sovereignty, should be a red line.

A national conversation on the China challenge would help ensure Australia does not miss the opportunity being presented by other democracies waking up to the threat, in particular the clear step change in parts of Europe. Few of the problems China poses can be solved by Australia alone and, while the US will remain our most vital strategic ally, this race will be won through a broader collective.

As a nation, we need to embrace the concept of strategic reliance. Investing in trusted partners such as the US and UK through AUKUS strengthens our sovereignty, whereas those advocating for an ‘independent’ foreign policy would actually increase our vulnerability.

This era of global instability means we must adapt as the world evolves and get used to feeling strategically uncomfortable more often. Stability rhetoric harking back to a less complicated strategic outlook and a more comfortable time in our China relationship must not become a psychological maginot line for political leaders discussing the future of Australia-China relations.

These principles of transparency and consistency for security in a digital era are essential.

Evolving our national conversation to respect legitimate debate while accepting we need to strengthen our story to deter those who would harm us is political leadership personified, and we need to get it right before it’s too late.


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