Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, left, gestures to Chinese President Xi Jinping at last year's G20 Leaders Summit. Hangzhou, China, September 4, 2016. (Wang Zhao/Pool Photo/Associated Press)

Australia’s most enduring conspiracy theories surround the inexplicable disappearance of a serving prime minister, Harold Holt, while swimming in 1967. The most elaborate theory holds that he was whisked away by a submarine sent by China, for whom he was ostensibly a spy. An alternative proposition is that the Central Intelligence Agency, concerned that Australia might pull support for the United States-led Vietnam War, had the prime minister killed.

While fantastical, these theories point to some deeply ingrained Australian anxieties about the intentions of larger powers toward their nation. And, indeed, Canberra’s present day leader, Malcolm Turnbull, has recently faced a very real challenge involving allegations of Chinese espionage (among other subversive influences) and threats to US interests in Asia. These could dramatically complicate the nation’s—and region’s—strategic calculus in years to come.

At the start of June, a joint investigation by Australia’s national broadcaster and several newspaper journalists outlined what they claimed was “a concerted campaign by the Chinese government and its proxies to infiltrate the Australian political process to promote its own interests.” Beijing has since pushed back against the allegations, with its ambassador to Canberra, Cheng Jingye, saying they are fabricated and designed to “instigate China panic.” Read more