A SECRETIVE lobbying agency dedicated to strengthening China’s Communist Party’s influence by recruiting “friends” in the West is increasingly becoming a source of suspicion in Australia, according to an expert.

China’s United Front Work Department, which is under the control of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, officially focuses on building support for the party in China and abroad. The ultimate goal of the Leninist-style operation — recently referred to as a “magic weapon” by president Xi Jinping — is to influence the West and isolate enemies.

It’s also tasked with coercing elites outside the party to ensure of their political loyalty.

Following Labor Senator Sam Dastyari’s forced resignation from senior parliamentary positions over links with China and accusations the popular politician was “under a foreign influence”, Sydney’s Lowy Institute East Asia program director Merriden Varrall warned there was reason to believe the department was ramping up secret operations in Australia.

Dr Varrall said the department had been given a budget boost in recent years to increase its power and coerce Chinese citizens at home and abroad “to their perceptions”.

“It brought 40,000 extra employees on board,” she said.

“The primary focus is on Chinese citizens around the world who may not be absolutely supportive of the Chinese party’s position.

“They want to use that to more broadly influence the agenda in other countries like Australia to expand their influence.”

China’s International Department vice-minister, Guo Yezhou, last month said in a statement released at the National Party Congress that “the (party) has been making friends from far and wide, many of whom have become confidants”.

Mr Yezhou said the party had called on these “friends” to support Beijing’s position on the South China Sea.

“To counter the initiation of the so-called ‘South China Sea Arbitration’, we, through party-to-party channels, helped political parties and friends from all social sectors of various countries get to the truth based on facts and reasoning,” he said.

Dr Varrall said there was one conclusion to be drawn from the information at hand: “The United Front is stepping up its operations in Australia”, she said.

“We can presume its that because we can add up the increase of investment in the United Front and combine that with what we’re seeing elsewhere.

But a hallmark of the United Front, is that “it’s hard to find out what it’s up to”, making its activities difficult to verify, according to Dr Varrall.

“The United Front is so multi faceted and flexible. It’s hard to see, it’s hard to spot, it’s hard to pin down,” she said.

The United Front has nine departments, focused on everything from influencing Chinese citizens abroad to particular countries including Tibet, according to Dr Varrall.

“The United Front uses a wide variety of tactics to influence people,” she said.

“Its particular skill is working out what particular tactic is going to be most beneficial on each individual. They don’t have limits on how they’re going to achieve goals. They use coercion or threats where needed, including tactics on family members to intimidate, or friendly chats if they think that will work. There’s no limit.

“It doesn’t matter how long a person is outside of China, the party wants their loyalty to the motherland.”

Dr Varrall’s comments come after it was revealed Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten has asked Senator Dastyari to quit his senior positions in Parliament’s Upper House as the embattled politician faces questions about his dealings with China.

Senator Dastyari was reported to have warned Chinese Communist Party-linked businessman Huang Xiangmo that his phone was likely being bugged by intelligence agencies during a meeting in the businessman’s Sydney mansion in October 2016.

Addressing the Senate earlier Thursday, the senior Labor figure admitted he had breached Labor Party policy in making comments about the South China Sea, but blamed a memory lapse for his “mischaracterisation” of those comments.

“In June last year, I held a press conference where I made comments that were in breach of Labor Party policy. I have never denied this,” the emotional Senator said this morning.

“The price I paid for that was high but appropriate. More recently, my characterisation of that press conference was called into question.

“A recent audio recording shocked me as it did not match my recollection of events. I take responsibility for the subsequent mischaracterisation.

“When a public official makes a statement that contradicts events there are consequences. For me, the consequences were being called last night by Bill Shorten and being asked to resign from my position in the Labor Senate organisational leadership.”

Senior Coalition figures have called for Senator Dastyari to face more serious consequences, saying giving up his deputy whip job and chair position over a committee, was “not enough”.