Australia and the US need to step up co-operation to safeguard their health and research computer networks and to counter disinformation as China goes on the cyber offensive during the coronavirus pandemic, a think-tank says.
The two countries should also bring Japan in to work more closely on development in the Pacific, particularly given America’s foreign aid efforts may be focused on Latin America and Africa, according to the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University.
The centre released its report on Tuesday during what would normally be the run-up to the annual ministerial talks between Australia’s foreign affairs and defence ministers and their US counterparts, but which have been put on hold because of the pandemic.
The report comes days after Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed cyber attacks committed by a state-sponsored actor on all levels of Australian government, businesses and other organisations had intensified in recent months. While Mr Morrison did not name the culprit, officials believe China is behind the attacks.
Australian health and research data has become a particularly attractive target, and last month the FBI accused China of trying to hack into universities and drug companies working on possible vaccines.
The study centre’s report says state-backed actors and cyber criminals were pursuing financial gain, intellectual property and geopolitical leverage.
“As some of the most innovative and promising vaccine candidates are under development in Australia and the United States – both of which
have been targeted by state-backed hackers – Washington and Canberra
have a pressing mutual interest in protecting the healthcare industry’s data, research and intellectual property,” the report said.
“Sharing threat and actor intelligence, exchanging data on the nature of
attacks and phishing attempts, and encouraging industry to reveal known vulnerabilities is critical to building resilience in the cyber domain – particularly where medical infrastructure is concerned.”
The report also says Australia and the US should work together to counter Chinese disinformation, which has seen Beijing, including through its so-called “wolf warrior diplomats”, use social media and state-run media to disseminate false narratives, such as blaming the virus on the US Army, and fabricate stories about Western nations’ responses to the pandemic.
“China’s use of disinformation against Australia has concentrated on discrediting Canberra’s foreign policy independence in an attempt to weaken public support for the alliance,” the report says.
“By sowing doubts over Australia’s motivations for adopting policy positions which overlap with US interests, Chinese disinformation plays on domestic sensitivities about Canberra’s proximity to Washington.
“Crucially, this tactic aims to erode support for Australia’s China policy and drive a wedge through the alliance by amplifying the view that the United States is responsible for the deterioration in Australia-China ties.”
The report recommends that Australian and US officials dedicated to combating foreign interference share information so they can rapidly co-ordinate a response to Chinese propaganda, including publicly calling it out.
“Specifically, strategies to counter disinformation should focus on: shining a light on the tactics being employed; sharing information with media, business, civil society and public stakeholders; crafting truthful counter-narratives and persistent, on-message communications; and co-ordinating these efforts with allies and partners,” it says.
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According to the study centre, Australia would need to intensify its foreign aid partnership with the US to ensure the latter remains committed to the Indo-Pacific, which is rapidly emerging as a geostrategic battleground for influence between China and the West.
“There is a risk Washington’s international COVID-19 response will distract from its regional priorities,” the report notes, saying the US had larger financial commitments in Latin America and Africa.
Including Japan in a trilateral partnership would make sense because of the high regard it it held in the region.