A former senior Defence official and diplomat is calling for urgent action to protect Australians in China, in response to the ABC’s revelations Australian police identified a Chinese consular official in a foreign interference investigation.
The ABC has revealed search warrants identify Chinese consul to Sydney, Sun Yantao, in connection with an investigation by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and spy agency ASIO into an alleged plot by Beijing to infiltrate the New South Wales Labor Party.
Mr Sun is responsible for managing relations with the Chinese diaspora and pro-Beijing organisations in Australia, and coordinating with China’s foreign influence agency, the United Front Work Department.
Former diplomat and senior Defence official Allan Behm, who was also a federal government foreign policy adviser, said the move would worsen the diplomatic crisis between Australia and China.
« The Australian Government needs to act right now, » said Mr Behm, who is head of the international and security program at the Australia Institute.
« It needs to warn Australians who are in China that they must be extremely careful — that they must do nothing that attracts attention or that might otherwise provoke the Chinese Government.
« If they have no real reason for conducting business in China at the moment, they would be pretty well advised to return to Australia. »
Speaking to ABC News, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said the investigation was focused on Australian citizens, suggesting consular officials such as Mr Sun would not be prosecuted.
« My understanding is that investigations that might be underway relate very much to potential foreign interference activities by publicised figures, who have been identified in the media, who are Australians, » he said.
The joint investigation by the AFP and ASIO centres on John Zhisen Zhang, a policy adviser to NSW Upper House Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane.
The ABC revealed last night Mr Zhang’s emails, messages and records of phone calls with top-level Chinese diplomats had been accessed by authorities when they seized his laptops and phones in raids in June.
The investigation is understood to have fed into the deepening diplomatic crisis between Australia and China, which earlier this month saw two Australian journalists, the ABC’s correspondent Bill Birtles and Australian Financial Review journalist Michael Smith, evacuated from China.
Australian TV anchor Cheng Lei was arrested in Beijing last month and has not been seen publicly since.
Mr Behm, a former adviser to Labor’s Penny Wong when she was foreign minister, said the latest developments in the foreign interference investigation represented a « very significant moment » in the relationship between the two countries.
« Australians who are resident in China, they could also become subject to all sorts of investigations and visits, » he said.
« The Chinese Government doesn’t sit down when other governments undertake what it regards as provocation. So we can expect that they will retaliate in one form or another. »
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He believes identifying Mr Sun in the AFP warrants represents a major step by Australian authorities, but questions whether the Federal Government has a diplomatic strategy to manage the potential fallout.
« It is a very big move to identify by name a Chinese diplomat, particularly the consul in Sydney, in a warrant, and it’s an even bigger moment when that warrant becomes public information, » he said.
« I doubt that there was very much at all by way of serious diplomatic consideration given to this — it looks very much like action without a plan.
He realised he was no longer safe in China. Read Birtles’ account of the night he had to pack up his life and leave the country.
« At the moment, Australia’s diplomacy with respect to China is absolutely in the pits. It is high time that the Australian Government listened carefully to its diplomats and actually builds a proper diplomatic policy and a strategic plan in the management of our relationship with China. »
The Chinese consulate-general in Sydney has reacted angrily to the news of its consul Mr Sun being named in the AFP warrants, saying in a statement that accusations it « engaged in infiltration activities are totally baseless and nothing but vicious slanders ».
« The Chinese consulate-general … always observes international law and basic norms of international relations while exercising duties in Australia, » it said.
Last week, ABC Investigations reported senior Chinese media officials in Australia had been targeted and the visas of two leading Chinese scholars had been revoked as part of the investigation.
The homes of four Sydney-based Chinese journalists were also raided in June, prompting Chinese state media to declare Australia had « severely infring[ed] on the legitimate rights of Chinese journalists ».
On Tuesday it was revealed the man at the heart of the investigation, Mr Zhang, had accused Australian authorities of breaching Australian and international law by intercepting his communications with China’s top-level diplomats and their families in Australia.
Mr Zhang, who has advised Mr Moselmane since 2018, formally complained to Australian Federal Government ministers his phone and computer were searched at Sydney Airport in January after he and his family arrived back from China, as well as in June during raids on his home and office.
Those devices contained emails, messages and records of calls with Chinese diplomatic and consular officials and some of their family members.
Mr Zhang’s written complaints accuse the ABF and AFP of breaching two of the most sacred international treaties enshrined in Australian law — the Vienna conventions on diplomatic and consular relations — which protect the communications of diplomatic officials.
The AFP suspects Mr Zhang and his alleged accomplices broke Australia’s foreign interference laws, alleging they chatted with Mr Moselmane in a « covert » social media group and concealed they were collaborating with China’s leading espionage and foreign influence agencies.
Mr Zhang could face up to 15 years in jail if charged and convicted of foreign interference.
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AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)
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