The man who may become Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister met with Chinese embassy staff and officials three times after Beijing froze the nation out, sparking concern among his own party and spy agencies.
Labor’s Richard Marles even held talks with former ambassador Cheng Jingye – who kickstarted China’s campaign of economic coercion against Australia and penned the notorious list of 14 demands the Communist superpower wanted the country to kowtow to.
Mr Marles’ regular contact with the openly hostile embassy raised eyebrows even within his own party, who passed their concerns to intelligence agencies, according to reports.
The meetings came as Australian ministers were unable to meet with, or even speak to, their counterparts in Beijing and the country launched an unprecedented campaign of economic bullying against Australia.
That included arbitrary tariffs and bans on crucial Australian exports such as barley, seafood, coal and red wine, as well as copper and cotton.
Then Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles meets with deputy head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department Guo Yezhou, during his visit to Beijing in September 2019
In his discussions with the Chinese, the Victorian MP is understood to have inferred that ‘diplomatic relations would improve under a Labor government’, The Australian reported.
By comparison, Foreign Minister Marise Payne has only met with Chinese officials twice since 2018, with her last sit down coming in January, 2020, before Beijing diplomats and embassy staff refused to answer the phone calls of Australian officials.
The diplomatic deep freeze came after the Morrison government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the Covid pandemic in April, 2020.
Beijing reacted with fury to the suggestion of transparency, punishing Australia with punitive measures involving more than $20billion worth of key exports for daring to speak out.
But despite tensions escalating between the two nations, Mr Marles held meetings with Chinese officials – once in 2020 and twice in 2021.
Yet another sit down was also scheduled to go ahead in March 2022 with the new Chinese ambassador, Xiao Qian, but the meeting was postponed.
Sources revealed that the former deputy chair of the joint committee on intelligence and security, Anthony Byrne, and the late Kimberley Kitching, were among those who were alarmed.
A Chinese warship sails into Sydney Harbour on the eve of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 2019
Beijing diplomats and embassy staff have refused to answer the phone calls of Australian officials since the Morrison government called for an independent inquiry into the Covid pandemic in April 2020 (pictured, Chinese President Xi Jinping)
Part of their initial concern focused on a speech he gave to the Beijing Foreign Studies University in 2019, where he said Australia must ‘respect China’.
The Chinese embassy organised the trip and demanded he clear his speech with Chinese officials in Canberra before letting him board the plane.
His address made no mention of the erosion of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong or the horrific treatment of the oppressed Uyghur population.
Daily Mail Australia has reached out to Mr Marles for comment.
His office told The Australian that Mr Marles always had staff members present for the meetings and was never alone when meeting with Chinese officials.
‘Mr Marles has always engaged in professional diplomacy both during his time as a minister and shadow minister- this is not a secret,’ a spokesperson said.
‘Desperate attempts by others to suggest otherwise, are now getting beyond the pale and don’t stand up to the facts.’
Labor’s Richard Marles even held talks with former ambassador Cheng Jingye (pictured), who kickstarted China’s campaign of economic coercion against Australia and penned the notorious list of 14 grievances
Liberal Senator James Paterson, Australia’s Intelligence and Security Committee Chair, said the meetings are no laughing matter.
“The Australian people deserve complete transparency about Richard Marles’ relationship with the Chinese government,” he told Radio 2GB.
“While he was having this extraordinarily high number of meetings with Chinese officials, the Chinese government was economically coercing Australia and refusing to meet with Australian government ministers.
“It really is questions for Richard Marles to answer, and not to flippantly dismiss with jokes about Peking duck.”
The revelations come after Australia’s top spy chief Mike Burgess warned in February there has been an ‘unprecedented’ threat of foreign espionage and interference in recent years.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Director-General said several nations were working hard to influence lawmakers, government officials, media figures, business leaders and academics.
‘The level of threat we face from foreign espionage and interference activities is currently unprecedented,’ Burgess said in the agency’s annual threat assessment.
‘It is higher now than it was at the height of the Cold War.’
China’s ’14 grievances’ with Austraila
1. ‘Incessant wanton interference in China’s Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan affairs’
2. ‘Siding with the US’ anti-China campaign and spreading misinformation’
3. ‘Thinly veiled allegations against China on cyber attacks without any evidence’
4. ‘An unfriendly or antagonistic report on China by media’
5. Providing funding to ‘anti-China think tank for spreading untrue reports’
6. ‘Foreign interference legislation’
7. ‘Foreign investment decisions’
8. ‘Banning Huawei technologies and ZTE from the 5G network’
9. ‘Politicisation and stigmatisation of the normal exchanges and coorperation between China and Australia’
10. Making statements ‘on the South China Sea to the United Nations’
11. ‘Outrageous condemnation of the governing party of China by MPs and racist attacks against Chinese or Asian people’
12. ‘The early drawn search and reckless seizure of Chinese journalists’ homes and properties’
13. Calls for an independent inquiry into Covid-19
14. ‘Legislation to scrutinise agreements with a foreign government’