Be alarmed not alert! ASPI, a Seven ‘exclusive’ and a think tank gravy train

by Michael West | Apr 24, 2024 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

As Peter Dutton, Coalition media and the security apparatus ramp up efforts to censor the internet, Michael West checks in on anti-China think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. 

Self-described as “Australia’s top security research institute”, ASPI has managed to eke out one report on Gaza since the Hamas attacks of October 7 while churning out 50 reports on China. On that metric alone, ASPI’s raison d’etre is clear, but that has not stopped the think tank from parading itself as “Australia’s top security research institute”.

ASPI’s new chief, Justin Bassi, who replaced Peter Jennings at the helm of the hysterically anti-China think tank last year, recently dropped a line to Seven West Media’s Nightly tabloid claiming ASPI was a vital organ of Australia’s national security. 

It will be interesting to see how this claim plays now that there is an independent review into the funding of think tanks afoot. 

The inquiry has so far received barely any publicity at all. Chaired by former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Secretary, Peter Varghese, the Independent Review of Commonwealth funding for strategic policy work has managed to jag just one mention by the Canberra Times and a Google News search reveals mainstream media has kept schtum. 

The review, announced by the Prime Minister’s Department in February, was set up to determine whether a host of think tanks bankrolled by the Commonwealth are delivering value for money, and whether their research is kosher. Varghese appears not to be a stooge, and the only think tank up in arms about his review is the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

It maintains its line of being an independent research think tank, but ASPI’s Executive Director Justin Bassi may have let the cat out of the bag, lending his voice to a tabloid media report to boast ASPI is a vital cog in Australia’s national security machinery. Which is it? Vital cog or independent think tank?

Ironically, DFAT used to be the final word on foreign affairs in Australia, but these days, you barely hear from them, while ASPI is heard wailing almost daily in the media about the threat of Chinese militarism.   

Vital organ or just organ?

On April 10, Seven West Media’s The Nightly — a free tabloid newspaper and website — ran an “exclusive” story that ASPI had been the victim of Chinese hackers. Bassi is quoted, “[ASPI is a] national security research institute [that] identifies security threats that emanate from China and have the backing of the Chinese Government”. This hardly fits APSI’s constant fiction that it is independent and non-partisan.

Further, it’s confirmation from Bassi that his taxpayer-funded raison d’etre is not to provide meaningful input into the strategic policy debate. Rather, ASPI exists to do a massive hit job on Australia’s biggest trading partner.

Along the way, it collects nearly $5 million annually from foreign governments, mainly the US, and a host of tax-dodging multinational backers, all with a vested commercial interest in curtailing China’s rise as a technological and economic superpower. 

Waving, not drowning

The only named source in The Nightly “Exclusive” is Bassi himself, which begs the question how does any credible news outlet accept that someone is a “victim” when the only source for that claim is the alleged victim himself? In March, the same organ claimed ASIO agents and AFP officers were being surveilled as they sipped jasmine tea at a Chinese-owned café in Canberra.  

As ASPI was so easily hacked by a bunch of Chinese students, what does it say about the integrity of ASPI’s substantially government-funded Cyber, Technology & Security centre? For ASPI, the answer will be clear … more funding!

Wikipedia v ASPI: on sock-puppets and Wiki-sneaks

Adding to the absurdity of this story was the claim that it actually had the name of one the hacking ringleaders but would not publish it in order to protect his identity. The three screenshots of Chinese documents it provides are entirely nondescript and bear no semblance to the supposedly translated quotes in the story. 

Bassi doesn’t cite any actual compromised data, and if ASPI were really a think tank, would it not publish all of its reports anyway? 

On a perusal of ASPI’s financials, it would seem the only real secret ASPI keeps is how, as a Commonwealth company, it doles out $1.5 million to consultants without disclosing who these people are and what they were paid.

ASPI’s greatest ally in parliament is Senator James Paterson, the LNP’s “dial-a-quote” for national security alarmism. He told The Australian any move to temper taxpayer subsidies for Sinophobia “would be interpreted as punishment of ASPI for its criticism of the Chinese government.” 

ASPI’s China commentary bears no hallmarks of constructive criticism, rather obsession. According to its website, in total it has published some 355 China reports and articles – almost one a week since the Covid-19 outbreak – a strike rate which hardly tells a story of rigorous peer-reviewed research.   

The Canberra Times they are a-changin’

With its credibility on the line, and Bassi’s faux pas admission that ASPI is getting paid to do the government’s national security bidding, last week he took to the Canberra Times to set the record straight, that ASPI had indeed been hacked by the Chinese. And where was his proof?

He cited The Nightly tabloid report for which he was the only source.

The glaring omission in his Canberra Times piece was his failure to repeat his previous claim that his organisation was working hand in glove with Australia’s national security apparatus.  

In an oped he doubled down on the ASPI line that it’s independent from government and presented a laundry list of the evils of China, every one of which was sourced directly from an ASPI report.

So blurred in ASPI minds is the line between fact and propaganda that Bassi claimed a 2022 ASPI report “was used by the Australian government in the development of foreign interference laws”. Those laws were enacted five years before that report was produced. 

The report was “peer-reviewed” by five people; four of them work for ASPI and only one is an academic, with substantial links to US government funded China research. Little wonder they’re concerned about the current Varghese Review.   

Kosher research or porky pies?

The view of some sponsors – the Israeli government, its missile maker Rafael Systems and Israeli lobby group the Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), which has partnered with ASPI events – is no doubt that its research is completely kosher. 

The utterly disingenuous IDF inquiry into the tracking and murder of seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen, including Australian Zomi Frankcom, was headed up by Yoav Har-Even; he’s the CEO of ASPI sponsor Rafael Systems. Not a peep from ASPI on those needless deaths and many others. 

Since the October 7 Hamas attacks and Israel obliterating 34,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, ASPI has published one solitary report on Gaza. Unsurprisingly, it lays the blame for the conflict squarely at the feet of Hamas (ergo, all Palestinians are aggressors) and says it’s the Israelis who “live in perpetual fear… [of] being attacked and wiped off the earth”.

Its sponsor, the Israel weapons contractor Raphael, can hardly be displeased with this level of forensic deep-dive analysis.

In the timeless tradition of, “Look, over there!” the ASPI propaganda machine has spewed out almost 50 anti-China reports since October. This doesn’t include the numerous media appearances by ASPI apparatchiks, particularly in the Murdoch-owned The Australian that’s dialled into ASPI nearly 40 times since in the past five months. 

ASPI is hardly likely to be wiped off the earth by the Varghese Review, but it can’t escape Bassi’s clumsy admission that it effectively exists only to prop up the anti-China hawks in our government, that of other nations and of its commercial benefactors, all determined to thwart the rise of China, even at the cost of a major war. 

Israel and Australia’s “transparent” inquiry into the World Central Kitchen killings in Gaza

Michael West established Michael West Media in 2016 to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. West was formerly a journalist and editor with Fairfax newspapers, a columnist for News Corp and even, once, a stockbroker.

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