A top former intelligence official believes there is evidence that Labor senator Sam Dastyari was deliberately targeted by the China government to advance its interests in Australia.
“There is evidence that he may have been recruited as an agent of influence,” said Ross Babbage, a former head of strategic analysis at the Office of National Assessments, the government’s peak intelligence adviser. “That’s my belief.”
Being an “agent of influence” doesn’t mean the 34-year-old senator was spying for Beijing. Instead, it refers to a global campaign to build long-term support for China and its policies, and collect information, around the world through business and political relationships.
Senator Dastyari resigned as deputy opposition whip last week after it was reported he told a Chinese businessman who has cultivated ties with Australian politicians, Huang Xiangmo, that his phone might have been tapped and he advocated for China’s position on the South China Sea against his own party’s policy.
Mr Huang until recently was president of a lobby group that intelligence experts believe is part of a global campaign run by the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, which seeks to advance the party’s political interests.
Labor leader Bill Shorten visited Mr Huang at his Sydney home in March, 2016, seeking a political donation for last year’s election, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported Monday.
Labor Party officials had been warned several months earlier Mr Huang was of interest to ASIO over links to the Chinese government, the article said.
Mr Huang has previously denied he has done any work for the United Front Work Department.
“Dastyari is clearly developing a close relationship,” with Chinese interests, said Dr Babbage, now an Australia-based senior fellow at a US think tank, the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “But they are very heavily involved in this activity which is part of the United Front Work Department and directly controlled by it.
“It is engaged in international propaganda and international espionage. It is not just political warfare. They are engaged in economic persuasion too. “
Senator Dastyari didn’t respond to text messages on Sunday. When asked by The Australian Financial Review last September if he was a Chinese agent, he laughed off the question.
Generating political capital out of the affair ahead of the high-stakes Bennelong byelection in two weeks, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull implied the senator might be the target of law enforcement agencies.
“You shouldn’t assume it’s not being investigated,” Mr Turnbull said when asked on Sky News Sunday if he would order an investigation into Senator Dastyari’s behaviour.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, which is responsible for monitoring and countering foreign spies, declined to comment.
“He has betrayed Australia’s interest,” Mr Turnbull said. “How Shorten can stick with Dastyari and represent himself as a fit and proper person to be prime minister of Australia is utterly beyond me.
“It’s time for Bill Shorten to show he’s really on Australia’s side and boot Dastyari out.”
Mr Shorten can’t remove Senator Dastyari from the Senate. Expelling one of his allies and a leader of Labor’s biggest faction, the NSW right, from the party would be hugely controversial and could undermine Mr Shorten’s leadership.
A petition on the change.org website calling on the government to charge Senator Dastyari with treason had 2600 signatures a few hours after Mr Turnbull’s comments.
ASIO’s official historian, John Blaxland, reflected the view among experts that Senator Dastyari was being used by the Chinese to influence policy, not steal secrets.
“Some serious influence peddling has been going on and the revelations are a helpful reminder that we should not be naive about the intentions of others to gain and wield such influence,” said Professor Blaxland, the head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.
“But there are no indications his actions involved divulging classified information or material that would be prejudicial to Australian national security.”
Major political donor
Mr Huang has emerged as a major political donor and has close links to the Chinese Communist Party, ASIO believes, according to a report in Fairfax Media newspapers six months ago.
Until recently president of a pro-Beijing lobby group, Mr Huang used the promise of a $400,000 donation to pressure the Labor Party to adopt policies more sympathetic to China, the report said.
Both sides of politics have been willing to accept his money, and Mr Huang has been photographed with Mr Turnbull, and his predecessors Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd.
Senator Dastyari tried to help Mr Huang obtain Australian citizenship, an application that was held up by ASIO, the Fairfax Media report said.
In the future Australians lobbying government on behalf of foreign governments will have to publicly disclose their work under legal changes planned by Attorney-General George Brandis. Political donations from foreigners will also be banned.
Despite the changes, some experts think Chinese efforts to influence Australian policy and public opinion will increase.
“I suspect that will continue and will likely intensify in the future,” said Bates Gil, a professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies at Macquarie University.
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