30 March 2022
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.