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Australia’s key law enforcement partners have launched a blistering attack on the Chinese government, saying the state actor poses the gravest threat to the security of Australia and its allies, while alleging that Beijing is also green-lighting organised crime bosses as agents of influence in Pacific Island nations.
The FBI has described US and Australian efforts to ramp up the Western law enforcement presence in the Pacific, marked most recently by the Albanese government’s $317 million “Pacific expansion” funding package for the AFP, as aimed in part at countering China’s own efforts in the Indo-Pacific.
In exclusive interviews with this masthead and 60 Minutes, police chiefs from the secretive Five Eyes Law Enforcement Group, an intelligence-sharing alliance between Australia, the US, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand, described how their investigations had linked the Chinese government to a systemic campaign of covert interference and intimidation in other nations.
The damning critique of Beijing by Australia’s key police allies came as Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw refused to be drawn on the Chinese government’s activities — or even name China — in an interview on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the Five Eyes Law Enforcement Group in Melbourne.
Kershaw’s reluctance to pick a public fight with Beijing is part of a delicate diplomatic juggling act aimed at maintaining police-to-police relations with Chinese authorities to combat drug trafficking while countering alleged foreign interference by the Chinese Communist Party.
Complicating matters, the government is working to salvage relations with Australia’s biggest trading partner after Beijing triggered $20 billion worth of trade strikes on Australian goods during pandemic-era hostilities. Arriving in Hiroshima, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirmed he had been formally invited to Beijing, but said he would not visit until all trade barriers had been lifted.
FBI deputy director Paul Abbate said there was “no doubt” China was the country that presented the biggest challenge to democracy in Australia and its Five Eyes partners. He described “the scope and the scale of the illegal and malign activities that the Chinese Communist Party is carrying out” as unprecedented.
He accused Beijing of involvement in the “sweeping theft of intellectual property, research and development from each of our Five Eye countries” along with industrial-scale cyber hacking and the “transnational repression” of CCP critics abroad, including “physical threats”.
China “poses a grave danger to each of our countries, our way of life, our democracies and the freedoms that we value so much,” Abbate said.
Abbate also said the FBI had “no doubt” the Chinese state was using organised crime groups as agents of influence in Pacific Island nations.
“It’s multi-faceted. They’re [the Chinese government] leveraging these [criminal] groups to undermine, again, our democracy. That’s one facet of it. They’re reaping profits from it at the same time. And then they’re spreading malign influence.”
He described how the FBI had tracked “money flows … from the organised criminal groups” in the Pacific to “individuals within [the Chinese] government”.
Security sources separately said Five Eyes intelligence had identified triad bosses who were working to corrupt powerful officials from Pacific nations through CCP United Front organisations, whose aim is to influence foreign elites such as politicians and business people.
China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, declined a request to be interviewed, but Beijing has previously dismissed accusations it is involved in unlawful conduct as baseless.
Canada’s police commissioner, Mike Duheme, also singled out Beijing for the level of its interference in crime, intelligence and political circles. Duheme said that in Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March ordered a probe into allegations of Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections, there were “ties from organised crime all the way up to the Chinese state”.
Britain’s National Crime Agency director-general Graeme Biggar described “a massive effort from the Chinese state” to engage in cyber espionage. Biggar said while Russian hackers were responsible for much of the world’s “cyber criminality”, Beijing was engaged in a “really significant” campaign “of pure espionage on a normal state level and then industrial espionage to steal intellectual property”.
Britain’s chief counter-terror officer, assistant commissioner Matt Jukes, detailed Beijing’s “concerted effort to influence political figures, intimidate diaspora communities and … forcibly repatriate people who are opponents or to intimidate people whose families are in opposition to the Chinese Communist Party”.
The US, Canada and Britain have all moved against secret Chinese police stations in their countries in recent weeks. Duheme, Abbate and Jukes said they were used by Beijing to track and intimidate dissidents.
Australia’s first two, and only, foreign interference prosecutions involve allegations that Chinese intelligence operatives were directing third parties to carry out clandestine activities on behalf of Beijing in Australia.
But Kershaw has also recently renewed partnerships with Beijing’s security services that have led to multi-tonne drug seizures.
Lowy Institute China scholar Richard McGregor said Kershaw’s “caution in public [on China] is not surprising, as he has always been open about what he believes to be the value of Chinese co-operation in cracking down on the narcotics trade”.
But McGregor said it was certain “that if the FBI has tracked connections between Chinese organised crime and Chinese government-linked bodies in the Pacific, then not only would Australia know about it. We would have been instrumental in uncovering the information”.
Pressed on why he refused to discuss Beijing’s hostile activities in his interview with this masthead, Kershaw cited the AFP’s success in “operationalising intelligence” provided by China’s Ministry of Public Security and revealed he’d recently met with law enforcement leaders and agreed to continue to “exchange intelligence and … respect each other’s sovereignty”.
Abbate accused Beijing of abetting the fentanyl crisis in the US. He said “the Chinese government plays a huge role and serves as a driver” of America’s opioid addiction epidemic by failing to curb the mass export of fentanyl from China.
Officials who briefed this masthead said Chinese authorities shared information with Australia only when it suited Beijing’s interests.
Research fellow from the US think tank the Brookings Institution, Vanda Felbab-Brown, recently told the US Congress: “While China takes counter-narcotics diplomacy in South-East Asia and the Pacific very seriously, its operational law enforcement co-operation tends to be highly selective, self-serving, limited and subordinate to its geopolitical interests.”
Battle for influence
Kershaw would also not be drawn on whether the AFP’s recent Pacific expansion funding in the budget was about containing Chinese influence.
“I think part of it is countering any organised crime group that’s actually eroding away democracy and the economies of the Pacific,” he told this masthead and 60 Minutes.
He made the comments after delivering a speech to the FELEG in which he attacked unnamed “state actors” who “are using and profiting from organised crime”.
Chinese security services have made significant inroads in Pacific Island nations, including Solomon Islands and, until the recent change of government, Fiji. The FBI and Homeland Security Investigations, the US agency responsible for combating transnational organised crime, both said Beijing was working with organised criminals in the Pacific to advance its geopolitical aims.
In late 2020, the US government sanctioned notorious triad boss Wan “Broken Tooth” Kuok Koi, alleging he was engaging in organised crime in South-East Asia and the tiny Pacific Island of Palau while maintaining close ties with the CCP. Beijing denied the latter claim. US government officials are considering sanctioning other Chinese crimes bosses across the Pacific.
Homeland Security’s acting executive director PJ Lechleitner said the US and its allies “were trying to play a little catch-up” to counter Beijing’s success in the region. He said the Chinese government “leverage those [transnational crime] organisations to basically exploit that and extend their sphere of influence”.
Lechleitner said Beijing-backed organised crime groups had made inroads in some Pacific Island nations by targeting “corrupt governments”.
“They come in, they influence that, they get in with the local governing structure. And then once they’re in, now they can start increasing their influence in that area and control more and more as they go.”
“The transnational criminal organisations throughout the Pacific are into everything, so they’re poly-criminal, meaning they will do whatever to make money. So they’re going to traffic in dangerous narcotics, any kind of drugs. They’re heavily involved in money laundering.”
- Watch the interviews with the security chiefs on 60 Minutes this Sunday from 8.45pm