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Fears over the ‘extreme’ threat foreign spies pose to Australia’s naval shipbuilding projects has prompted a call to close the Chinese consulate in Adelaide.
Independent South Australian Senator Rex Patrick says the step is necessary after Defence Department concerns emerged about “highly active” foreign agents seeking information about the nation’s shipbuilding plans.
“It is not in Australia’s national security interests for China to maintain its Consulate-General in Adelaide in close proximity to Australia’s major naval construction projects at Osborne and Australian Defence science and Technology research capabilities at Salisbury,” Senator Patrick said.
No other country has as large a diplomatic presence in SA, with Italy and Greece having just one and two professional consular staff and China having around 10, he said.
Defence’s security assessment was “a matter of deep concern”, Senator Patrick said, particularly given United States reports about Chinese consulates being involved in espionage activity.
SA federal Labor and Liberal MPs raised concerns about the number of staff at the Chinese consulate but stopped short of calling for it to be shut.
Liberal Senator Alex Antic said the number of staff “appears to be excessive” for consular requirements.
He said the security of Australia’s shipbuilding projects “must be prioritised over and above the risk of offending the sensibilities of the wolf warrior diplomacy of the Chinese Communist Party”.
SA Labor MP Nick Champion said there was no problem having a consulate in Adelaide but it was “a very large consulate for a small city”.
He said the numbers should be reduced by negotiation.
It comes after the Defence Department raised concerns about foreign spies seeking naval shipbuilding intelligence as a reason to block the release of briefings about future submarine maintenance under Freedom of Information laws to Senator Patrick.
In a response to the FOI request, the department said: “Foreign Intelligence Services are currently assessed as posing an extreme threat to Sovereign Capability and Commonwealth Strategic Interests.”
“These adversaries are highly active in pursuing access to information relating to Australia’s current and future maritime capabilities in order to advance their own interest and undermine Australian capabilities.”
Federal Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said Australia had “high standards in place” to protect naval shipbuilding projects from espionage, interference, or cyber threats. He warned Senator Patrick to not to play politics with “sensitive national security issues or sensitive diplomatic relations”.
Senator Patrick also called for the SA Government to review its relations with China, saying it had been “no less active” in courting Beijing than Victoria.
A state government spokeswoman said: “We work closely with the Commonwealth Government to ensure high security standards are met.”
“They take the lead in these matters as they run the naval shipyard, DFAT, the intelligence services and are ultimately responsible for diplomatic relations.”
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