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30 March 2022

With Grant Wyeth

Budget’s cyber offensive


The Australian government’s 2022 budget has forecast a dramatic increase in the country’s cyber and intelligence capabilities, including enhancing Australia’s ability to “hack back”. The government plans to spend just under $10 billion over the next decade to double the size of the Australian Signals Directorate – creating 1900 new jobs – and to triple Australia’s offensive cyber capabilities.  

This major investment is a clear recognition that cyber security has become central to Australia’s overall defence. Cyberwarfare is highly complex due to it being utilised not only by nation-states, but by criminal and terrorist groups, as well as hacktivists with less discernible motives. Cyber capabilities are also often invisible until put to use, making it difficult for states to understand their adversaries’ capabilities, or predict threats, until an attack is made. 

Attacks can disrupt critical infrastructure, such as power grids, mobile networks, banks, ports and airlines, or can involve data destruction or theft, financial scams, embezzlement and fraud. The Australian Cyber Security Centre – an arm of the Australian Signals Directorate – has estimated that the current annual cost of cyber security attacks to Australian businesses could be as high as $29 billion. 

The enhancement of Australia’s offensive cyber capabilities is an indication that the ability to “hack back” is now seen as a critical element of cyber defence. The United States, United Kingdom, China, Russia, North Korea and Israel all have this potential that Australia is seeking to emulate. Although the nature of these capabilities will not be made public, by signalling its intentions Australia is hoping that deterrence is the best defence. 

Beijing and Honiara

The Australian government has expressed concern about a draft security agreement between Solomon Islands and China that – if signed – may lead to a Chinese military base being built in Solomon Islands, which is at a critical juncture on the maritime route between the Pacific and Indian oceans. 

Yet, the more pressing concern is the potential for this proposed agreement to further destabilise Solomon Islands. The country’s deepening relationship with China has exacerbated tensions between the province of Malaita and the central government. The Malaita premier, Derek Suidani, has been vocal about his displeasure at the central government switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. 

This domestic dispute forms part of a wider grievance about the distribution of resources in the country. Malaita is Solomon Islands’ most populous island, but it is also impoverished. Royalties from the logging industry – boosted by Chinese demand – have bypassed the province, instead benefiting the elite in Honiara. Fuel has been added to the fire with Taiwan continuing to provide aid to Malaita, circumventing Solomon Islands law.  

The violent protests in Honiara last November were built on this web of local and international friction. To Malaitans, the prospect of a security agreement with China could be another sign that the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is prioritising its relationship with Beijing over the welfare of Malaita. 

Last weekend’s announcement that Australia will extend its security presence in Solomon Islands to December 2023 is an indication that further civic unrest is expected. 

Cheng Lei trial

Tomorrow, Australian journalist Cheng Lei will stand trial in Beijing on charges of sharing state secrets overseas. Cheng was initially detained in August 2020, and then formally arrested in February 2021. No details of her alleged crimes have been made public. Prior to her detention, Cheng was an anchor on English-language state broadcaster, China Global Television Network (CGTN).

Cheng’s arrest did not seem to be motivated by a specific demand, unlike the case in which espionage charges were brought against two Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. The Canadians were released when an extradition request from the United States to Canada for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was rescinded. Instead, Cheng’s arrest appears to be part of a broader aim by the Chinese government to extend its reach into the Chinese diaspora. China does not recognise dual nationality, yet the Communist Party considers a person’s ethnicity as taking precedence over their citizenship. Australia’s travel advice for China warns: “If you're a former Chinese citizen, authorities may treat you as a citizen and refuse access to Australian consular services.” 

In this regard, Cheng’s arrest serves a dual function for Beijing – it sends a signal to the Chinese diaspora that foreign citizenship is of limited value and that the allegiances of all ethnic Chinese should be to China, while placing pressure on Canberra to be more deferential to Beijing. 

Under Chinese law, a conviction of sharing state secrets overseas can range from five years to life in prison. The Chinese justice system has a 99 per cent conviction rate. 


From the AFA2 TRUMP IN ASIA

A free book review by Jonathan Head of Blood and Silk

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Weekly round-up

War in Ukraine provides opportunities for deepening Australia–India defence cooperation

“One area in the relationship with Moscow that is now giving New Delhi some food for thought is its overreliance on Russian military equipment … While many view India’s close relationship with Russia and its unwillingness to criticise Moscow as negatives, this moment in international relations offers some opportunities as well as challenges for India’s emerging security and defence partners.” Troy Lee-Brown, The Strategist (ASPI)

Climate change in the Pacific – what Australia needs to do

“Australia’s refusal to take domestic measures to limit emissions and its resistance to international efforts to strengthen emissions reduction commitments have reduced the country’s leverage in the region and made it harder to protect its permanent, and vitally important, economic and geostrategic interests there in the face of competition, most obviously from China.” Peter Hooton, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

An ideological US China policy misreads Indo-Pacific insecurities

“Casting relations with Russia and China as an ideological contest reminiscent of the Cold War undoubtedly makes it easier for the United States to respond by rallying its public and European allies. However, framing US-China competition as the result of China’s authoritarian political system – as opposed to its coercive actions – is unlikely to resonate in the region.” Peter K Lee, Asialink Insights

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The boy who cried wolf

“Australia’s interventions in the Pacific illustrate just how seriously the Coalition government sees the threat of China’s rise. Less well documented are the costs that accompany the perceived gains in security.” David Hundt & Simon Hewes, Australian Outlook (AIIA)

How Indonesian politicians misuse the term “big data” to delay the next presidential election

“The idea to postpone the 2024 election based on people’s aspirations on social media has denied the participation of people who do not have access to social media and, thus, undermines public values of trust, equality, and fairness.” Ika Karlina Idris & Muhamad Risqi Saputra, The Conversation

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