Australia and China trade spying accusations as New Cold War heats up. Photo: Facebook

SYDNEY — China’s Communist Party mouthpiece has accused Australia of  “waging an intensifying espionage offensive” against Beijing, including spying on students and trying to turn Chinese against their own country.

Citing information from a “Chinese law enforcement agency”, the Global Times said Canberra had set up an intelligence station at its embassy in Beijing that was “the most senior level one in East Asia” and was also used to manage spying operations in countries like Japan, South Korea and Mongolia.

“Australian security intelligence agencies have deployed multiple intelligence officers in the station and they have status as Australian diplomats in China (which means they have diplomatic immunity), and their missions in China also include inciting defections, intelligence gathering and cross-linking,” the newspaper said today (June 29).

The accusations follow Friday’s raids on the Sydney homes and offices of Labor Party legislator Shaoquett Moselmane and his staffer John Zhang by intelligence officers over alleged security breaches in their links to China.

Global Times defended Moselmane in a separate article that described him as a “scapegoat amidst widespread anti-China hysteria in Australia.” It said Australia’s “hawkish policy toward China” has “served the interests and strategies of the US to contain and suppress China’s development.”

Australia-China relations have sharply deteriorated amid claims by Canberra that Beijing is trying to infiltrate the Australian political system, businesses and academic institutions.

Sam Dastyari fronts the media in Sydney on September 6, 2016, apologizes after asking a company with links to the Chinese government to pay a bill incurred by his office. Photo: AFP/William West

In 2018, Australia passed a law against foreign political interference after another Labor legislator, Sam Dastyari, admitted he had been cultivated by agents of China’s Communist Party (CCP). He was forced out of parliament.

Investigations against Moselmane and Zhang, who have not been charged with any offense, will be the first test of the law. The Labor Party, which is in opposition in the state of New South Wales, suspended Moselmane.

The Lebanese-born Muslim has developed close contacts with top figures in China through charity work. In 2015, he was pictured in Shanghai with Jie Ju, who is attached to a forum controlled by the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which supports Communist Party objectives abroad.

He has defended China in speeches and articles for Chinese media, stating in parliament in 2018 that “the only way for China to reach its potential is for China to force a change to the rules and create a new world order.”

Zhang, who was born in China, completed a propaganda training course in 2013 with the Chinese Affairs Office, since merged with the UFWD. He has held senior positions with the Shanghai Overseas Friendship Association, also previously identified as being a front organization for the UFWD.

“China’s power rises, but its political influence overseas has yet to catch up, and still has room for growth. To strengthen our political influence, we must have more politicians like Shaoquett with pro-China sentiments to be our friends,” Zhang said in a personal blog that praised Moselmane.

Shaoquett Moselmane and John Zhang in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Security sources said that both figures had been under scrutiny for some time, but the main focus was on the activities of Zhang. Media reports suggest that the Australian Security Intelligence Service is investigating whether Moselmane’s office was being used for an intelligence operation. 

Moselmane said today he was “not a suspect” in the inquiries. “The investigation is into certain other people, allegedly advancing the goals of a foreign government, namely the People’s Republic of China,” he said.

“Let me tell you, I have done nothing wrong. I have done nothing wrong…I have never jeopardized the welfare of our country and our people.”

A security source said the Global Times article might be intended to divert attention from the Sydney raids, noting that most of its detail was dated.

The newspaper referred to an apparent 2018 spying operation in China “by agents who work for Australian security intelligence agencies” that was foiled by Beijing. It published photos of materials and equipment said to have been seized, including a compass, maps, money and a notebook.

Much work by Australian agents was aimed at “inciting the defection” of Chinese nationals in Australia and abroad. It said that in one instance operatives trained a Chinese individual at the Swan Island intelligence complex “and then sent him back to China for intelligence gathering.”  

Aerial view of Swan Island. Photo: Victoria Government

Swan Island is a top-secret facility south of Melbourne operated by the Australian Security Intelligence Service, the country’s external spy agency, that is also used by specialist police units and military special forces.

“Australian security intelligence agencies have increased their budgets and strengthened the construction of espionage intelligence networks against China,” the Global Times said, quoting an intelligence source.

The newspaper attributed the upsurge to the fact that “China’s rise has put pressure on [Australia]” and Canberra’s membership of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which gave it a duty to share information. Other Five Eyes members are the US, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand.

Australia’s government has not commented on the spying accusations.

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