China’s Foreign Ministry has escalated its attacks on Australia, accusing the Federal Government of conducting espionage in China and calling tabloid claims of Australian spying the “tip of the iceberg”.

On Monday, the Chinese Government-owned Global Times published a story alleging that Chinese authorities had disrupted an Australian spy operation two years ago.

The nationalistic paper also posted pictures of items which it said had been seized, including cash, a compass and a map of Shanghai.

Australian government officials ridiculed the claims in private, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison dismissed questions about the article by saying: “I wouldn’t be relying on Chinese state media for your sources.”

But late on Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian threw the Government’s weight behind the Global Times story, saying there was “irrefutable evidence” of Australian spying in China.

A map of Shanghai's train system, a compass, a notebook, USB stick and cash in US and Chinese currency.
The newspaper said these items were seized in a Chinese operation against Australian spies.(Global Times)

“The Five Eyes intelligence alliance has long engaged in cyber espionage, spying and surveillance on foreign governments, companies and individuals. This is not a secret to anyone,” he said.

The Five Eyes network comprises Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand and is used to share information and intelligence.

The latest verbal assault from Beijing comes as the relationship between China and Australia continues to deteriorate sharply.

Ten days ago, Mr Morrison declared that Australia was facing intensifying cyber attacks from a “state-based actor” which was putting pressure on public services and critical infrastructure.

Mr Morrison did not publicly name the country responsible, but officials told journalists that China was almost certainly the nation behind the online assault.

Scott Morrison looks to the right as he stands in front of a blue background mid-speech. An Australian flag is also behind him.
Mr Morrison said a state-based actor was directing cyber attacks against Australia, but didn’t say who.(AAP: Mick Tsikas)

And last week, Australian authorities raided the office of New South Wales Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane as part of an investigation into allegations of Chinese Government interference in Australian politics.

But Mr Zhao said there was no “solid evidence” of Chinese Government interference in Australia, and accused the Morrison Government of hypocrisy.

“But they play the part of the victim, peddling rumours and stoking confrontation by staging a farce of the thief crying ‘stop thief’. They have long crossed the line.”

Mr Zhao’s comments were also sent to Australian reporters by the Chinese Embassy in Canberra.

The Morrison Government’s immediate response to the allegations was restrained.

“Consistent with long-standing practice by successive governments, we will not comment on intelligence matters,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.

“Australia’s intelligence and security agencies are committed to protecting our national security, including the important work of countering the serious threat of foreign interference.”

A composite of the Chinese and Australian flags on cracked ground.
There’s concern “hostage diplomacy” might be the next step as Australian and Chinese relations sour.(ABC News: GFX/Jarrod Fankhauser)

But the increasingly hostile language from the Chinese Government has fed into growing anxieties in Canberra that Beijing is preparing to take further steps to punish Australia.

In late 2018, Chinese authorities arrested Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, seemingly in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is facing charges in the United States.

Anne-Marie Brady from the University of Canterbury said it was possible that Australians living in China could also be caught up in so-called hostage diplomacy.

“There is a real risk that you can be caught up while being completely innocent of illegal activities.”



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