The Chinese Communist Party was behind a massive cyber attack on the Australian national parliament ahead of May's general election, Reuters reported on Tuesday.
The country's cyber intelligence agency, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), found that Beijing was responsible for the attack on the parliament and the three largest political parties, the agency cited five separate sources as saying.
Their findings pointed the finger straight at the Ministry of State Security in Beijing, they said, but were kept secret to avoid hurting bilateral trade ties and damaging the economy.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner and buys the lion's share of its iron ore, coal and agricultural goods, as well as sending more than a million tourists and students to the country annually.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office declined to comment on the report.
Australia-based scholar Feng Chongyi hit out at Canberra's continued focus on trade and economic ties with Beijing at the expense of human rights or the national interest.
"They have been doing 'quiet diplomacy' via low-key, behind-the-scenes negotiations rather than open confrontation via foreign ministers and embassies, asking China to stop such actions," Feng said.
"They have been taking this route and using this strategy for decades," he said. "They think it is more effective and less risky, even when there's a serious issue at stake."
Hungry for overseas intelligence
He said he doesn't expect China to desist from cyber attacks any time soon.
"It has a very wide range of clandestine government departments, and they have an appetite for anything and everything once they have gained access to a network, including technology, economic data and personnel files," Feng said.
He said the current anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong has made China even hungrier for intelligence from overseas.
"There are a lot of Australians living in Hong Kong, and the Australian government takes the situation in Hong Kong very seriously," Feng said.
China’s foreign ministry denied involvement in any sort of hacking attacks.
"When investigating and determining the nature of online incidents there must be full proof of the facts, otherwise it’s just creating rumors and smearing others, pinning labels on people indiscriminately," it said in an e-mailed comment.
"We would like to stress that China is also a victim of internet attacks," it said.
The attack in May was said at the time to be sophisticated and probably carried out by a foreign government, and resulted in urgent warnings to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate to change their passwords.
Chinese codes and techniques
Hackers also accessed the networks of the ruling Liberal party, its coalition partner the rural-based Nationals, and the opposition Labor party, where they gained access to policy papers on tax and foreign policy, as well as private e-mail correspondence between lawmakers, their staff and other citizens.
The attacks used code and techniques known to have been used by China in the past, Reuters said. It was unclear how long the hackers had access to the networks.
The report comes after Australia last December tightened rules on foreign lobbying and political donations, while broadening the definition of treason and espionage, while the United States has legislated to make it easier for the government to block certain kinds of investment.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has also accused Beijing of interfering in the political and economic life of the U.S. by "rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state and federal officials."
Meanwhile, the Five Eyes nations have been exchanging classified information on China’s foreign activities with other like-minded countries since the start of the year, Reuters reported last October.
Officials told the agency that the enhanced cooperation amounted to an informal expansion of the Five Eyes group on the specific issue of foreign interference, with expanding influence from Beijing as the main focus.
China has rejected accusations that it is seeking to influence overseas governments and that its investments are politically driven.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.