On September 17, The Times reported that the Chinese government “was responsible for a cyberattack on Australia’s national parliament and the three biggest political parties” before the May 2019 general election. According to a report by Australian’s national signals-intelligence and cryptologic agency, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), the cyberattack
was orchestrated by China’s Ministry of State Security although the attackers used sophisticated techniques to try to conceal their identity. It was suspected that the attackers were looking for information that could prove useful if they were trying to influence or compromise members of parliament.
The ASD report was shared with at least the United States and the United Kingdom, according to Reuters sources. Previously, in February 2019 Australian Prime Minister Brian Morrison had delivered a statement to the Australian House of Representatives reporting on “a malicious intrusion into the Australian Parliament House computer network” and that “the networks of some political parties – Liberal, Labor and the Nationals – have also been affected.” But in the aftermath of the ASD report, the Reuters sources said, the Australian Government had decided “not to publicly blame China, as it was concerned it could hurt Australia’s commercial interests.”
Note: Although China has long been recognized for its use of cyber espionage to support its strategic development goals, Russia thus far has received the lion’s share of global publicity for online efforts to interfere with other countries’ elections. The Times report, however, provides further evidence — along with prior reports of Chinese interference in the 2018 Taiwan election (through social media, disinformation, and funding of candidates), and use of fake accounts in 2019 to foment political discord in Hong Kong — that China has chosen to emulate Russia in incorporating interference in foreign elections as a legitimate strategy to advance its foreign-policy and strategic interests, at least in the Asia-Pacific region.
Moreover, those prior efforts involved territories over which China has long asserted jurisdiction. There is no comparable justification for it to interfere in other sovereign nations’ electoral processes. Countries in and beyond the Asia-Pacific region should therefore regard further electoral interference — whether by state agencies or purportedly non-state actors — as a basis for concerted responses in multiple diplomatic and multilateral channels.