China is seeking to "take over" Australia's political system with an "insidious" and systematic campaign of espionage and influence-peddling, Canberra's ex-spymaster said in an interview published on Friday.
Duncan Lewis, who resigned in September after five years at the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), said China could target anyone in political office, with the impact potentially not known for years to come.
"Espionage and foreign interference is insidious. Its effects might not present for decades and by that time it's too late," Lewis was quoted as telling the Sydney Morning Herald in his first interview since leaving office.
"You wake up one day and find decisions made in our country that are not in the interests of our country," he said.
"Not only in politics but also in the community or in business. It takes over, basically, pulling the strings from offshore," he added in the interview with the newspaper's foreign editor.
Lewis singled out incidents of Chinese agents making large contributions to Australian political parties as part of a wide-ranging influence-peddling campaign that also targeted media and the country's universities.
"It's quite clear to me that any person in political office is potentially a target. I'm not trying to create paranoia, but there does need to be a level of sensible awareness," he said.
The former spy chief said the help of Australia's large ethnic Chinese community was "vital in the work against foreign covert influence" much like Muslim-Australians who have aided in the fight against terrorism.
While running ASIO, Lewis, who also held senior military positions and served as Australia's ambassador to Belgium and Nato, frequently warned of the dangers of foreign espionage, but avoided singling out China for criticism.
His latest remarks are sure to rile Beijing, which has angrily denied allegations its ruling Communist Party was covertly meddling in Australian affairs.
Earlier this month, China barred a planned visit by two MPs from the governing Liberal party over their criticism of Chinese activities in Australia and across the Pacific.
And a group of Australian universities last week announced measures to combat foreign interference in key areas of research collaboration, cybersecurity, and international partnerships – a move seen as targeting China.
China is also widely suspected of being behind major intrusions into the computer systems of Australia's parliament and a university with close ties to the government and security services. (AFP)