A Dead Spy, Chinese Hackers and the Australian Commando Warning Israel

Chinese companies are building Israeli tunnels, ports and more. The government is keen on investment from Beijing, but Australian MP Andrew Hastie says there’s a limit

Andrew Hastie in Afghanistan
Andrew Hastie

The Australian intelligence community is going through a stormy period. At the eye of the storm is a deceased young businessman of Chinese descent – and Andrew Hastie, chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Hastie is considered a good friend of Israel, especially of its intelligence and military establishment. Still, he wants Israel to take a much greater role against what he calls “the Chinese threat.”

In March, Bo “Nick” Zhao, a 32-year-old luxury car dealer, was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room. Zhao had strong political ambitions. Last month, Australian media outlets reported that Chinese intelligence was secretly grooming Zhao to be elected to parliament and work as a mole for Beijing.

Chinese intelligence reportedly offered him 1 million Australian dollars to become the perfect spy. Zhao declined and informed Australian’s domestic intelligence agency; it appears Beijing accused him of treachery and had him killed. A coroner is now investigating the case.

Andrew Hastie, 37, was born to a Presbyterian family. He graduated from the University of New South Wales in Sydney after studying history, politics and philosophy, went on to military college and joined the army. During his 14 years in the military, he reached the rank of captain and joined Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment, a commando unit modeled on Britain’s famed SAS . The British SAS was an inspiration for Col. Avraham Arnan, who established the Israeli equivalent – the Sayeret Matkal – in 1957.

In recent years, the Sayeret Matkal and other Israeli special forces and intelligence units have increased their cooperation and information sharing with their counterparts in Western democracies, above all the United States.

Between 2010 and 2012, Hastie fought in Afghanistan and was also stationed in Jordan, a country whose intelligence community also works very closely with Israel. Like his colleagues in the SAS, Hastie isn’t keen to talk about his military experience. But it wouldn’t be inconceivable to assume that he took part in secret intelligence missions.

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After he retired from the army he entered politics and in 2015 won a parliamentary seat for the Liberal (conservative) party. Within a year, he was chairman of the powerful Intelligence and Security Committee.

The ever important 5G network

Hastie has made his mark as an uncompromising opponent of the Chinese regime and its interference in the politics and economy of Australia and other Western nations. Hastie’s crusade is backed by the Australian intelligence community.

“Australian intelligence agencies have told us for the past two years that Australia is the target of unprecedented levels of espionage and foreign interference,” Hastie told me in an interview a month ago, and backed that up in a subsequent email exchange. The interview took place at a Tel Aviv conference held by Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

As a result of his relentless efforts, and with the help of the government and members of the Australian Labor Party, two important pieces of legislation were passed in 2018: the Espionage and Foreign Interference Act and the Security of Critical Infrastructure Bill. The legislation bans foreign telecommunication companies from the country’s future 5G network and beefs up its Foreign Investment Review Board.

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Over the last two decades, China has invested hundreds of billions of dollars to increase its economic, political and military clout all over the world. A turning point was the passing of those two bills, which suffered their share of legal, political and economic battles and threats. Most Western democracies, the United States included, hesitated. They feared China’s long arm.

“This is about building resilience into our system; authoritarian states use economic coercion, political warfare, cyberattacks and espionage to build leverage,” Hastie said. “Democratic countries must take domestic measures to protect against these threats. Australia has led the way in this regard.”

According to him, “Authoritarian states use all instruments of state power to pursue their strategic objectives. Seemingly innocent activities like diplomacy, foreign-investment flows into strategic industries and infrastructure acquisitions like the purchase of ports are not so innocuous. Democracies who don’t pay attention to these activities – and take measures to guard against them – risk becoming tethered to hyper-modern authoritarian states and losing their sovereignty in the process.”

In turn, China’s communist regime led by its president for life Xi Jinping turned Hastie into an enemy of the people and denied him an entry visa. But he has no regrets: “My bottom line is Australian sovereignty – I want to protect our way of life, our freedom of action and our political institutions. That’s my job as a member of the Commonwealth Parliament. I make no apologies for it.”

Private power station

The combination of his childhood upbringing, military past and strong political convictions made Hastie a loyal friend and supporter of Israel. During his recent visit, he praised the intelligence community and spoke in favor of improving the military and strategic cooperation between the two countries. And he didn’t hesitate to urge Israel to take measures to reduce China’s influence in the country.

To the regret of the Shin Bet security service, the Israeli government did the opposite. Encouraged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the past two decades China has increased its presence Israel’s economy including critical infrastructure. It was also revealed that Chinese spies and hackers have stolen military secrets from leading Israeli defense contractors.

This week it was announced that Israel’s first private power station will be built by Chinese companies. More than a decade ago, a Chinese company dug the Carmel Tunnels in Haifa. A Chinese firm is also digging the underground section of the Tel Aviv Light Rail, which runs only dozens of meters from the General Staff and Military Intelligence headquarters. This project is considered by most Israeli military and intelligence experts a major security risk.

No less worrisome is the construction of the new Haifa port near the underwater wharf that houses Israeli submarines that according to foreign media reports can carry missiles equipped with nuclear warheads.

The case of Prof. Shaul Horev illustrates the absurdity of Israeli bureaucracy. Last year, as director of the Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center at the University of Haifa, he criticized the decision to have a new Haifa port built by a Chinese company, which also has a 25-year concession to maintain it.

But surprise, surprise, Horev is also a retired rear admiral who was in charge of the submarine fleet, managed the construction of submarines in Germany, and headed the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. When I recently asked him where he had been when he, in his military and security capacities, didn’t object to the Chinese involvement, he answered: “I didn’t know. It was a project run by the Transportation Ministry.”

Only now, with so many horses out of the stable, have Israeli decision makers begun to wake up. A few weeks ago the cabinet decided to establish a special board led by the Finance Ministry to review “foreign investment policy” – basically a code term for preventing further Chinese investment at strategic sites. Andrew Hastie praised the decision, which pretty much can be filed under “better late than never.”