Some of Australia's most high flying business leaders were feted in China by an ''influence'' platform of the People's Liberation Army, a Fairfax investigation has revealed.
Andrew Forrest, who touted his talks with Chinese business leaders last month as a lesson on how to do friendship with China, was joined by the heads of four of the five big banks, Qantas, the Business Council of Australia and a former Australian ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, who is a director of Mr Forrest's iron ore company, Fortescue Metals.
It is understood that none of the Australian business leaders was aware that the ''social organisation'' facilitating their access, The China Association for International Friendly Contacts (CAIFC), was a platform for ''influence operations'' by the Liaison Department of the General Political Department of the People's Liberation Army.
The department, which was once known as the Department of Enemy Work, specialises in ''carrying out work of disintegrating the enemy and uniting with friendly military elements'', according to a 2003 manual seen by Fairfax.
The department's director, Xing Yunming, was photographed with Mr Forrest's entourage but did not disclose his identity in the PLA, where he holds the rank of lieutenant general.
Mr Xing's identity and the role of his department will be outlined in a forthcoming report by Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington think tank.
Chinese military strategists have taken a keen interest in Australia's discussion of China in the recent Defence white paper and also the stationing of US marines near Darwin, as the strategic rivalry between China and the US continues to grow.
They are also watching Australia's approach to Chinese territorial disputes and other ''core interests'' like the ruling status of the Communist Party and treatment of the Dalai Lama.
Last month's talks, involving Mr Forrest and some of the biggest names in Chinese finance, took place at a side-summit at the Boao Forum for Asia.
The idea was initiated by the respected publisher of Caijing magazine, Wang Boming, at the same forum a year earlier.
In July last year Mr Forrest, ANZ chief executive Mike Smith, Business Council chief Tony Shepherd and Mr Raby were taken to meet the then vice premier, Wang Qishan, in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound.
It is understood they were not aware of the CAIFC affiliations of the director Mr Wang, vice chairwoman Deng Rong (the eldest daughter of Deng Xiaoping) and executive deputy director Xing Yunming, who were all in the room at the time.
According to 2003 PLA Political Work Guidelines, PLA liaison work involves a broad range of foreign exchanges and operations which include ''carrying out work of disintegrating the enemy and uniting with friendly military elements''.
CAIFC, the platform, has taken a leading role in maintaining good relations with retired officers in the United States and, increasingly, Britain.
Last month's summit was attended by Westpac chief executive Gail Kelly, National Australia Bank's Michael Chaney, Macquarie Bank's Nicholas Moore, ANZ's Mike Smith, Qantas' Alan Joyce and other senior business leaders.
The summit enabled the Australians to engage meaningfully and convey concerns and aspirations directly to Chinese decision-makers.
Mr Wang, in particular, offers a gateway into reformist circles in the Chinese elite, while Ms Deng represents the most prestigious family in modern China.
CAIFC's gate-keeping role, however, and PLA intelligence links raise questions about how China might seek to allocate access to its enormous economic opportunities in ways that influence the policy-making climate in Australia.
Mr Forrest, who declined to comment, told journalists at the time that being ''a caring friend'' in China required more than seeking favours.
He conveyed the view of the summit co-chairman, banker Li Ruogu, that Chinese people did not have an ''expansionist'' or ''aggressive'' outlook, while later clarifying that he was referring to investment rather than military proclivities.