The defection – or rather the attempted defection - of Chinese consular official Chen Yonglin is proving to be most revealing of the thinking in the Australian foreign policy establishment, and of our government's singular lack of courage. (As I write, there is also news of another defector, Mr Hao Fengjun, who is not a diplomat but apparently a former official of the notorious "610" internal security agency, but here I will confine myself to Chen's case.)
When a foreign diplomat - especially from an authoritarian state - deserts his or her post and seeks political asylum in the West, one would expect our intelligence agencies to seize the opportunity with both hands, because such defections offer the prospect of an intelligence goldmine. Even relatively minor Chinese diplomats sent to states like Australia are highly trusted and well-briefed before they are posted. There is every reason to believe Chen's claim that his duties included the monitoring of Chinese dissidents resident in Australia. Because the Hawke Government opened our doors to many such dissidents in the wake of the slaughter in Tiananmen Square, Australia has a relatively large number of Chinese who would be considered dangerous by the Beijing regime.
Media reports of a thousand "Chinese agents" here are of course typically over the top. There could be that many informers, people sympathetic to Beijing, who pass on information about dissident activities to a very much smaller number of real "agents", who in turn report to Beijing by various means, doubtless including channels running through the Chinese Embassy and consular offices. It is his knowledge of this network that makes Chen Yonglin valuable.
Equally valuable is his knowledge of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, its internal structure, workings, personalities and attitudes. Imagine the consternation in Canberra if an Australian official of similar rank in China defected, taking along detailed knowledge of our Foreign Affairs Department (DFAT) and its relations with allies, as well as whatever classified knowledge he or she might have.
Make no mistake: in Beijing they are horrified by this defection. They know that if western intelligence gets the opportunity to thoroughly debrief Chen it will be a serious blow.
All this being so, Australia's astonishing refusal to grant immediate asylum, forcing Chen to go underground rather than receiving immediate sanctuary (with the concomitant debriefing), requires some consideration.
It seems clear that DFAT and the government are concerned about broader Chinese reactions: in short, they are afraid that accepting Chen will cause China to flex its economic and political muscle. Lucrative trade deals, they fear, will go under. Beijing may take political vengeance by opposing Australian initiatives in various international forums. I have no doubt that the intelligence community is keen to debrief Chen, and has so advised the government. But it appears that DFAT, which has long since raised appeasement of our authoritarian neighbours to the status of a principle - remember our grovelling to Suharto's Indonesia, our complicity in its rape of East Timor? - has seized control of the agenda at the intelligence community's expense. John Howard naturally denies this, but the Government's failure to grant Chen immediate asylum gives the lie to that evasion.
History, however, tells us that such defections, though never welcome to the state whose official has deserted, rarely have major economic repercussions or long-term political consequences. As is still well known, in 1954 Vladimir Petrov, a Soviet Embassy official and his wife, a cipher clerk, defected in Australia. Even in the Cold War environment our government seized the opportunity with alacrity, actually rescuing Mrs Petrov from Soviet goons who were attempting to fly her out of the country against her will. The Petrovs then received every support and protection. For years there was a "D-Notice" urgently requesting the media not to report on the Petrovs' whereabouts in Australia. Our media was not legally obliged to obey this notice, but it did.
In terms of international relations, the Soviets broke off diplomatic relations with Australia for a time. They did not, however, cease to buy Australian wheat and wool. Why not? Simply, because they needed these commodities to sustain their domestic economy.
DFAT and the government fear economic damage if we give Chen shelter and exploit his intelligence value. But we are an important supplier to China, especially in terms of raw materials and energy, and will remain so. China cannot afford to take more than token economic measures against us. Its modernising and expanding economy desperately needs what we can supply. The putative Free Trade Agreement might go on hold for a few months, even a year, but it will be back on the table once Beijing gets over its pique at the loss of face this defection involves.
There is another point. Above and beyond the intelligence gains on offer, there is the question of common decency. Mr Chen has burnt his bridges. If he is forced back to China he will at the very least be jailed and seriously mistreated. Given the chance, the Beijing regime will take a terrible revenge on him. There is a good chance that once they have had their fun, they will simply kill him, judicially or otherwise. He has, perhaps unwisely, entrusted his life to the unreliable hands of the DFAT bureaucracy and Alexander Downer. If they allow him to be taken back to China, our country will stand shamed before the entire world.
Finally, if this is indeed to be the outcome, we can confidently predict that it will be a long time indeed before any other foreigner, perhaps one with even more valuable intelligence to impart, decides that Australia is a safe place to carry through a defection.
There are potent reasons for granting Mr Chen sanctuary here. It need not be called political asylum (no need to rub Beijing's nose in it), just so long as it involves his receiving the best protection that we can provide in return for the valuable intelligence and political background he can supply. It need not even be long-term in Australia: a discreet move after a suitable time to another western nation willing to accept and protect him on the quiet would be perfectly sensible. But to throw this man to the wolves would an act of cowardice so shameful that until now I would not have thought it even remotely possible.