A Nobel laureate in dark energy scared the bejeezus out of Australia’s university chiefs and intelligence agency officials a fortnight ago.
“I want my pain to be your gain so that you know what we are up against,” astrophysicist Professor Brian Schmidt said.
He warned of an existential threat to free and open academic inquiry and implored them to heed his lesson.
Professor Schmidt began revealing the extent of a shocking data hack of the Australian National University, where he’s vice chancellor.
Many of those in the room at this special cyber security meeting at the University of Wollongong, including more than a dozen other VCs, intelligence agency officials and Education Minister Dan Tehan, were surprised by the extent of Professor Schmidt’s candour.
The ANU has been the target of two significant cyber hacks. The most recent, revealed in June this year, was horrendous; the records of an estimated 200,000 past and present staff and students over two decades were pilfered, including banking details, passport and tax file numbers and other sensitive data.
The cyber assault was highly sophisticated, conducted by so-called “spear-phishing” malware that didn’t require anything to be clicked on or opened.
China is believed to have been the culprit.
The ANU experience — and Brian Schmidt’s plea to VCs — is at the pointy end of what’s being called in government circles “resilience building”; a realisation that Australia needs to fortify its systems; its institutions, communications and cyber oversight to protect its secrets, research and intellectual property.
A warm glow for Australia
It’s not that Australia wants to shut the door to the Chinese, or anyone else for that matter, but how to keep it open with exceptional awareness of what — or who — might want to come in.
Because if this is the new Cold War, as some hawkish observers insist calling it, it’s got a peculiarly warm glow for Australia amongst the chill.
Whereas the Soviet Union kept most of its foreign trade with communist countries, particularly those in eastern Europe, China has applied no such constraints on its opportunities, embedding itself in the global network, doubling its economic might in a mere handful of years.
For Australia, this has been particularly fruitful.
Even in the face of an escalating trade war between China’s leader-for-life Xi Jinping and the equally nationalistic but constitutionally constrained Donald Trump, Beijing’s reliance on Australia to keep its prosperity compact with its population burns bright.
Figures released in recent days show Australia produced 46 per cent of China’s LNG imports in the 12 months to June and 64 per cent of China’s iron ore imports.
“China is in some respects more dependent on us than we are on them,” Ross Babbage, a former analyst at Australia’s Office of National Assessments, told the Australian Financial Review.
As much as this means that Australia’s economic relationship with China has a substantial non-discretionary portion — which is very useful if you’re Josh Frydenberg attempting to conjure a budget surplus — there is a darker consequence to the development fuelled by Pilbara iron ore and North-West Shelf gas.
As the ANU discovered, China’s ambition knows no bounds.
Middle powers need to be on the lookout
The strategic competition between China and the United States comes at a time when US presidential commitment to internationalism is dubious. Middle powers like Australia will have to do more to keep China checked.
Building security and trade alliances with nations like Vietnam, which has been in fierce territorial dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea and where the Prime Minister is visiting for a couple of days, is now considered critical.
Xi’s China, too often unconstrained by international norms and expectations, has exercised coercion, often economic, in a bid to bend others to its ways — especially in the Asia-Pacific.
Scott Morrison is clear-eyed about the challenge and opportunities for Australia in China’s astonishing rise — in mineral resources, its education, investment and research cooperation.
“Why would we want to contain China’s growth? That would be a bit of a numpty thing to do,” the Prime Minister told David Koch in an interview broadcast this week.
But this does not mean he’ll stop insisting Beijing shows greater regard for other people’s property, territory and systems.
“Having achieved that critical mass of economic performance, the rules that apply to all of us, the United States, have got to apply to China as well,” he said.
“And the rules-based order where it comes to how technology is handled, how partnerships are formed, how payments are made … how you reduce emissions, for example, I mean we should all be subject to the same rules now.”
He hasn’t arrived at this position overnight. Mr Morrison co-signed the ban on Huawei’s involvement in 5G last year when he was treasurer.
Australia’s interests are best served by observance of established rules and norms. That’s not a debating point, but a fact.
Ensuring China lives by them is a whole other matter.