Australia’s defense minister has taken some unusual steps to evade Chinese espionage attempts ahead of his journey to Beijing on Tuesday.
Stephen Smith, who is seeking to soothe China’s growing concerns over Australia’s upgraded defense ties with the U.S., and his entourage nonetheless intentionally left behind their laptops, mobile phones and other electronic devices in Hong Kong before their flight to the Mainland. Smith and his staff then took brand new phones with new numbers.
The Sidney Morning Herald newspaper reported that such precautions were undertaken because communications devices had been hacked during previous ministerial visits to China.
The Herald reported such precautions were unprecedented for ministerial trips to nations other than China.
''We all know China, that's standard advice. We know ministers are targets,'' a source told the paper.
''They [Chinese] have the capability and intent [of committing electronic espionage].”
Smith’s behavior is somewhat embarrassing given that the China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA) is planning to allow the Australian minister to fly in a military aircraft to the headquarters of the Chinese Navy’s South China Fleet, which monitors the disputed South China Sea.
Smith explained the need for such precautions, but he also insisted that Australia wants good relations with China.
We place great [importance] on the confidentiality of ministerial communications, Smith said. Whether they're private or government institutions, people need to be aware of the security of their communications. The risk of cyber-attack is real and people have to take the necessary precautions.
Then he added: Australia is positive and optimistic about China's emergence. Australia wants China to emerge as a constructive player in a harmonious global order.
On Wednesday Smith is scheduled to meet with the Chinese defense minister, Liang Guanglie, before flying to Zhanjiang on Thursday to view inspect the South China Fleet.
China is Australia’s number one trade partner, with total trade between them valued at about (U.S.) $84 billion as of 2009.
Beijing and Canberra have also upgraded their own defense ties.
However, given the precautions Smith and his team undertook, there remains great distrust and suspicion between the two Asia-Pacific powers.
China has been accused of hacking the computers of Australia’s Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers in the past.
In the current scenario, Australia has criticized China for a lack of transparency in its military build-up, while the Chinese are alarmed by Australia’s plans to buy nuclear submarines and ballistic missiles.