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15 July 2020


South Australian Senator Rex Patrick today called on the Australian Government to force a large reduction in China’s diplomatic and consular presence in Australia.

“Australian national security concerns require the numbers of Chinese diplomatic and consular staff in our country be radically reduced”, Senator Patrick said.  

“With 148 diplomats and consular staff, China has by far the largest number of operatives here in Australia, considerably more than any other country. This poses a significant security problem. China’s representation here should be reduced by a least two thirds.”

Diplomatic and Consular Lists published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade show that China currently has 148 diplomats and consular personnel in Australia. The United States has 108, Japan 55, the United Kingdom 32, Canada 29, France 24 and New Zealand just 22 official representatives.

China’s 148 diplomats and consular officers are also supported by a large support staff at their Canberra Embassy and consulates in state capitals.

Senator Patrick said: “It’s a striking fact that China has been allowed to quietly expand its diplomatic and consular presence to the point where it is larger than that of our principal ally, the United States, and significantly greater than the representation of our other close partners, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Japan.”

“China’s representation is clearly in excess of legitimate diplomatic and consular requirements.”

“Afterall we have a diplomatic relationship characterised by China frequently resorting to public abuse and Australian ministers being ignored by their Chinese counterparts.”

“We have a trade relationship in which China is selectively targeting Australian industries for arbitrary and punitive sanctions.”

“People to people ties are going backward with the Chinese Government actively discouraging Chinese students and tourists from considering Australia as a future destination.” 

“The Chinese Foreign Ministry and their Embassy in Canberra have issued bogus warnings that it is unsafe to visit or study in Australia.”

“The Chinese Government’s current policy approach will clearly starve their 148 representatives in Australia of legitimate diplomatic and consular work for months and years to come.”

“However it is also a matter of record that the Chinese Embassy and consulates directly support espionage and political interference operations in Australia.”

In February this year the Director-General of ASIO, Mike Burgess, warned that Australia faced an ‘unprecedented’ foreign espionage and interference threats: “Espionage and foreign interference are affecting parts of the community that they did not touch during the Cold War.  … There are more foreign intelligence officers and their proxies operating in Australia now than at the height of the cold war and many of them have the requisite level of capability, the intent and the persistence to cause significant harm to our national security.”

“It’s an open secret that Chinese intelligence activities in Australia have expanded massively over the past two decades”, Senator Patrick said, “and while there has been much public focus on cyber espionage, China’s clandestine efforts continue to rely heavily on traditional human intelligence operations, much of it under the cover of diplomatic and consular activity.”

“It is well documented, including from the revelations of former Chinese diplomat Chen Yonglin who defected to Australia in 2005, a large proportion of China’s diplomats and consular staff are officers of the Ministry of State Security, the Intelligence Departments of the People’s Liberation Army, and the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party, or are active collaborators with those intelligence agencies.”

“A large reduction in China’s representation would have a major impact on Chinese espionage and political interference in Australia”, Senator Patrick said. “Priority should be given to declaring known and suspected intelligence officers persona non grata, but in any case a large reduction in numbers should be achieved.” 

“Although large reductions of diplomatic and consular personnel are rare, they can significantly disrupt espionage and other covert activity. This was the case with the United Kingdom’s ‘Operation Foot’, the expulsion of 105 Soviet diplomats in 1970, and the United States’ expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in 2016.”  

“The Australian Government should require a large reduction in China’s representation, preferably by more than two-thirds to bring China’s diplomatic and consular numbers to a level below that of Japan.” 

“It can be anticipated that China would respond to a forced reduction in its diplomatic and consular presence by requiring a comparable reduction of Australian representation in China.”

“Given the current and likely future state of the bilateral relationship, this should not unduly disadvantage Australia. Australia’s diplomats already have great difficulty in obtaining access to China’s highly secretive government agencies and other institutions. Recent Australian diplomatic reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak in China was overwhelmingly reliant on publicly available information.”

“The present COVID-19 crisis gives Australia with an opportunity to reset diplomatic and consular representation to levels that would be more consistent with Australia’s national security and the future of Australia-China relations. Reduced Chinese representation would greatly assist ASIO’s counter-espionage efforts and help get our spy catchers on the front foot in combatting covert interference. The Australian Government should bite the bullet and take long overdue action.”