Spying on voters is an important tool of Beijing’s foreign policy as elections loom across the region
The roots of Chinese spying on Cambodia were traced to the Malaysian elections last May when victory for the scandal-ravaged Najib Razaq (left) was widely expected. The Chinese politburo must now contend with a government led by Mahathir Mohamad (right) and policies which eschew Beijing’s largesse amid fears of Malaysia falling into a debt trap. (Photos by AFP)
Over the next six months, national elections will be held in Thailand, Indonesia, Australia and India, while a mid-term ballot is slated for the Philippines. Polls are normally respected as internal affairs, but meddling by hardliners in the Chinese politburo is challenging old norms.
Ironically, China is the first to complain — and loudly — at the slightest hint of interference in its domestic affairs or within its self-proclaimed sphere of influence.
But as John Selden, the 17th century English jurist and scholar, put it: Preachers say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ It’s an attitude that empire builders have adopted since the dawn of history, and Beijing is no exception in the Belt and Road era.
And there’s a backlash. Military projection in the South China Sea, the prizing open of trade routes and heavy investment by Chinese state-owned enterprises have led to a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment, an issue that politicians are keen to exploit.
Beijing’s prodigious espionage apparatus has grown in tandem with its vast economic and military expansion across the region in the first two decades of the 21st century. It employs a dizzying array of Chinese students on foreign campuses, expats, businessmen and diplomats to do its bidding.
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For the most part, it’s highly secretive cyber operations are run out of Hainan Island, off the mainland’s south coast, and even friendly nations — as Cambodia discovered in the lead-up to elections last year — have also been targeted.
A report released last July by cybersecurity company FireEye offered insights into a Chinese espionage group known as TEMP.Periscope, which has been active since at least 2013 focusing on corporates, governments and maritime interests in Asia, Europe and North America.
FireEye said Cambodian targets ahead of the July poll, which returned the country to a one-party state, included the National Election Committee, government ministries, the senate, diplomats at home and abroad, and independent and pro-government media.
But the roots of spying on Cambodia were traced to the Malaysian elections a few months earlier when victory for the scandal-ravaged Najib Razaq was widely expected.
Najib lapped up billions of Chinese investment dollars and had been promised many more. His ability to play on Malay racism and Islamic prejudices, the formidable political machinery of his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, dirty tricks and cheating should have secured victory.
Or so most people thought, including disbelieving hardliners in the Chinese politburo who must now contend with a government led by Mahathir Mohamad and policies which eschew Beijing’s largesse amid fears of Malaysia falling into another debt trap, like Sri Lanka and Kenya.
Shocked by the Malaysian result, China beefed up its covert ops and Cambodia was next.
Since then, the detection of Chinese spying has been amplified by the Huawei scandal, the arrest of senior executives on charges ranging from fraud to espionage, and U.S. attempts to block its 5G next-generation wireless technology.
Washington insiders fear Huawei’s 5G platforms will be used to advance Beijing’s espionage capabilities. A common practice is to use malware and trojans to infiltrate computer systems.
Thailand, however, has taken a different tack and become a test-bed for Chinese technology, complicating the political landscape for a junta demanding control of a population while promising a return to democracy in elections on March 24.
That has raised fears that the make-up of any new civilian government will have to contend with undue Chinese influence and meddling with the backing of the Thai military, which intends to maintain an overarching influence over government for years to come.
With elections slated for April 17, Indonesia is ramping up its monitoring of spying, particularly on the high seas where Beijing has challenged Jakarta with spurious claims to Natuna Island.
“Indonesia needs to guard 20 million hectares of sea and that is a very important issue for us,” Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan recently said. “We don’t want to have our islands stolen and we don’t want to be occupied by another country.”
The same can be said for India, which has endured a hostile relationship with Beijing since independence in 1947. Its next-generation 5G capabilities will have no Chinese parts after Indian intelligence warned that its troops were being spied upon by Beijing via 42 mobile phone apps.
In Australia, Chinese spying has been so well documented that it can hardly be called “secret intelligence gathering” and, with elections due in the first half of this year, officials are echoing the sentiments expressed in Indonesia.
Duncan Lewis, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, told a Senate estimates hearing: “Hostile intelligence poses a real and potential existential threat to Australian security and sovereignty.”
One top-secret report detailed “brazen” Chinese attempts to influence local politics for a decade, while hackers, blamed for infiltrating computer systems at Australian National University, have also been traced to China.
Beijing was subsequently irked when Australia revamped its espionage laws.
Chinese spying has also become routine for headline writers in the Philippines but, like Thailand, a different slant is emerging ahead of mid-term elections after President Rodrigo Duterte pushed for warmer relations with China at the expense of longstanding ties with Western allies.
That includes a softer approach to Beijing’s maritime ambitions, so any erosion of Duterte’s power base will be cause for alarm within China’s hierarchy.
Beyond the Bamboo Curtain
Beijing’s view of the world is of control and influence, using any means short of war.
It’s a 21st century outlook sharpened by perennial problems at home where Marxist-Leninism is making a comeback with President Xi Jinping jailing dissidents, building concentration camps for ethnic minorities and a social credit system that rewards his sycophants.
Espionage is not unusual and friendly countries often spy on each other.
The U.S. has been caught spying on its allies in Europe, the Russians have also built a notorious reputation for monitoring and meddling in the affairs of others, and even Australia has fallen foul of its neighbors after eavesdropping on government ministers.
China, however, has taken this approach to unprecedented levels, which will be witnessed in the coming months. It’s a bitter placebo for a country that is often miffed by outsiders and the first to whinge. As Selden might have said, it’s hypocrisy at its finest.
Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for ucanews.com. Twitter: @lukeanthonyhunt