24 June 2020
At 8.43 a.m. last Friday, Scott Morrison’s office announced that the prime minister would be giving a press conference at Parliament House in seventeen minutes. This was unexpected, as Morrison was due to travel that morning to the seat of Eden-Monaro, to support the Liberal candidate in the upcoming by-election. At 9 a.m., Morrison appeared before the media to announce that Australia was “currently being targeted by a sophisticated state-based cyber actor”. Asked if China was the culprit, he said he would not name the suspect because the threshold for publicly identifying a country is “very high”. He gave little detail about the method of attack or the organisations targeted, and said his announcement was prompted by the growing frequency of attacks over recent months, not a specific incursion.
These evasive announcements of cyberattacks are becoming something of a charade. Soon after Morrison’s press conference, unnamed officials confirmed to the media that the culprit was believed to be China, as everybody had assumed.
There are potentially valid reasons for refusing to publicly blame China. Doing so would inflame existing tensions, and put public pressure on Canberra to respond directly to the attacks, leading to further retaliation from Beijing. Ultimately, it is difficult to judge whether Morrison’s decision was justified, because so little is known about the attacks. One problem with such announcements is that they rely heavily on public trust – maybe too heavily, given the misuse of that trust in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
Morrison’s remarks shed little light on the cyberattack, but revealed much about Australia’s relationship with China. If the suspected culprit had been North Korea or Iran, two of the few countries capable of conducting sophisticated cyberattacks, Morrison would have been more likely to name them. Unlike China, these countries are considered to be immediate adversaries, and confirming their culpability would further justify Australia’s treatment of them as belligerents. In 2017, for instance, Malcolm Turnbull confirmed that Australian intelligence agencies believed North Korea was responsible for the “WannaCry” ransomware attack, which affected hundreds of thousands of computers around the world. The American and British governments also blamed North Korea.
Despite growing friction with China, Australia has not followed the United States’ lead and explicitly labelled China as a strategic rival. It does not want to risk its trade interests, and it has much less capacity than the United States to compete with China as a commercial, military or technological power. But Australia is also reluctant to pretend that all is well with the relationship.
China’s recent efforts to restrict its purchases of Australian beef and barley, its warnings to its citizens about the risks of Australian racism, and these apparently intensifying cyberattacks all demonstrate that the relationship is strained and that Beijing is willing to strike aggressively and unlawfully. But China’s methods of targeting Australia all have a similar quality – deniability. China denied it was behind the cyberattacks, and that its trade sanctions were retaliatory. Its warnings about Australian racism have not prevented the travel of Chinese visitors, which is barred, in any case, by COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Clearly, this is an unhealthy relationship, involving feints and counterattacks that are often shadowy and unacknowledged. It looks like a rivalry that neither side wants to admit to, which at least suggests that both countries think they stand to gain by maintaining a somewhat functional relationship. So, despite their steadily deteriorating ties, there is a glint of hope. Perhaps both sides believe the relationship is salvageable, and that it need not be defined entirely by their sizable differences.