The retired Asio chief Duncan Lewis has reportedly warned that the Chinese government is seeking to use “insidious” foreign interference operations to “take over” Australia’s political system.
Anyone in office could be a target and the strategy’s full impact might not be apparent for decades, Lewis is reported to have told the political journal Quarterly Essay.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Lewis also says members of Australia’s Chinese community need to come forward to help Asio and other agencies, as local Muslims have in identifying terrorist threats.
Chinese authorities are trying to “place themselves in a position of advantage” by winning influence in political, social, business and media circles, Lewis said.
“Espionage and foreign interference is insidious,” he said. “Its effects might not present for decades and by that time it’s too late.
“You wake up one day and find decisions made in our country that are not in the interests of our country.”
Lewis, who retired in September, was the director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation for five years.
In the forthcoming Quarterly Essay interview, the Herald says, he warns that covert foreign intrusion into the heart of Australian politics is “something we need to be very, very careful about”.
His remarks follow claims by the senior Chinese diplomat Wang Xining that the MPs Andrew Hastie and Senator James Paterson have shown no respect for his country.
The pair have been banned from travelling there.
“It is cynical that in a country boasting freedom of speech, different views from another nation are constantly and intentionally obliterated,” Wang wrote in an opinion piece in the Australian on Thursday.
“Understanding truth succumbs to being politically right. A people said to be audacious and adventurous like kangaroos are scared of stepping out of the comfort zone of ideas and thinking.”
Earlier this week the former prime ministers Tony Abbott and Paul Keating also weighed in on China.
Abbott accused China of bullying its neighbours and warned that Australia’s relations with it were unlikely to rise above a “cold peace”.
In a speech to the India Foundation in New Delhi, Abbott promised to champion further engagement with India, suggesting that Australia had “put too many eggs into the China basket”.
Keating suggested on Monday that Australia’s approach to China has been supplanted by the phobias of security agencies and the hysteria of “pious” and “do-gooder” journalists.
He said the Australian media had been “up to its ears” in drumming up anti-China hysteria. He singled out the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, but also criticised the Australian.
The media wrongly equated the actions of individual businessmen or universities with the acts of the entire Chinese state, he said.
The long-term national interest should guide Australia’s approach to China, Keating said, not “pious”, “do-gooder” journalists who were “fed on leaks” from security agencies and failed to appreciate the magnitude of the shifting dynamics in the region.
“The Australian media has been recreant in its duty to the public in failing to present a balanced picture of the rise and legitimacy and importance of China, preferring instead to traffic in side plays dressed up with the cosmetics of sedition and risk.”
Keating, who championed Australian engagement in the Asia Pacific as prime minister, said the US had ceded influence and withdrawn from the region as it returned to an “America-first” posture.
He said Australia must adopt strategic realism in its approach to China and not force upon itself a choice of one great power over the other.