China's unseen war for strategic influence
Whether through security deals with the Solomon Islands or seeking to control the Chinese diaspora in Australia, Beijing puts huge resources into trying to influence how other countries view China. The FT's global China editor James Kynge talks to John Lee, fellow at the Hudson Institute and former national security adviser to the Australian government, about how China seeks to influence elites and create division in society in order to further foreign policy goals
Produced and edited by Tom Griggs. Filmed by Rod Fitzgerald in London and Chippenlane Studios in Sydney. Graphics by Russell Birkett. Additional footage by Getty and Reuters.
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China puts huge resources in money and personnel behind boosting its strategic and political influence around the world. This can be seen in China's recent military exercises around Taiwan. But many of its influence operations are much less dramatic. They're conducted in the shadows, involving subtle and largely secret moves to expand Beijing's strategic reach.
With me to discuss this is John Lee, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in the US. He's also served as a senior national security adviser to the Australian government. John, thanks for joining us from Sydney. Could you start by telling us about the role that the People's Liberation Army plays and why it refers to these campaigns as political warfare?
The People's Liberation Army is not a normal professional military that you might see in the United Kingdom or United States or Australia. The army is loyal to the Chinese Communist party. And the Chinese Communist party sees itself as engaged in a political and military warfare with the west, particularly the United States.
Now, military warfare hasn't started. We haven't had a war with China for quite a long time. But political warfare is seen as the same thing, but not using military assets.
So if you think about warfare, warfare is really about getting your enemy or your opponent to do something they wouldn't otherwise do. You can do that through the use of force. But the Chinese Communist party thinks about warfare as something that you do, whether it's in peacetime or wartime. And this leads to the whole conversation about influence operations and information operations.
Thanks, John. So that's the background. Let's talk, if possible, about a concrete case. Earlier this year China signed a security agreement with the government of Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, a country which is not too far from Australia's own northeastern coast. Would you say that influence operations played a role in preparing the ground for this initiative?
China has long wanted a security pact or military assets in the Solomons and in other parts of the South Pacific, for that matter. Back in 2018, the Chinese were talking about a very similar security pact with Vanuatu. And that pact was ultimately scuppered because it was leaked to the media. And there was a bit of a groundswell in Vanuatu against that kind of agreement with China.
Now, China learned from that. What they've done in the Solomons is that they have done a lot better at elite capture. What authoritarian elites actually want is to remain in power. It is not primarily to necessarily improve the fortunes of the country.
So what China has done with the Sogavare government, it has given resources to help the Sogavare government remain in power. If you go to Solomon Islands there's a very heavy Chinese presence. So, for example, they'll spread narratives like that China's domination of the Pacific is inevitable. The best thing you can do is come to a beneficial arrangement with China now before it's too late.
You'll also hear lots of narratives about how the Chinese have never colonised the Pacific or Asia, for that matter. Now, these aren't just nice-sounding bits of propaganda. They are all designed to feed into the way strategic elites in countries, including the Solomons, think about the Chinese presence.
So you mentioned there about China providing resources to the Sogavare government. And this chart shows how China's loans and grants to the South Pacific region, including the Solomon Islands, have grown over the last decade. China's desire for greater influence in the region fundamentally links back to the Taiwan issue that I mentioned at the start, because China has a policy of isolating Taiwan diplomatically in order to encourage or coerce it into becoming a part of mainland China. The South Pacific's a long way away. But it is a part of the diplomatic chess game that this has engendered.
And the South Pacific, it contains some of the last remaining countries in the region that officially recognise Taiwan. The Solomon Islands switched its recognition to mainland China in 2018. And Beijing has promised it about $730mn in financial aid. But the latest deal is called a security pact and the terms of that deal have been kept secret.
The US and its ally, Australia, are concerned that it's the first step towards the establishment of a Chinese military base in the South Pacific. And that's something that China denies. Now, the US ability to project power through a network of military bases in the region considerably exceeds that of China. But Washington has said recently that it would not rule out the use of force if China was to set up a military base in the Solomon Islands. What do you make of that threat?
That sort of comment has to be understood in the context of a potential war in the western Pacific. What the United States is essentially indicating is that in the wartime situation, it would target Chinese assets no matter where they were. So it's essentially trying to tell these smaller countries, if you don't want to be caught up in strategic competition, don't allow the Chinese to put security and military assets on your territory.
Switching to Australia, you're very much on the front lines of this, John. You've witnessed Chinese influence campaigns in Australia, I think. Could you sketch out for us where the battle lines, as it were, of these influence campaigns have been drawn? And what kind of role does the People's Liberation Army play, as you explained earlier, in this kind of political warfare?
If you think about what China is trying to do in countries like Australia, and indeed in many other American-allied countries in the Asian region, it's trying to prevent these countries from speaking out against Chinese values or Chinese behaviour. Now, the United Front is the main body that oversees influence campaigns in foreign countries. But the People's Liberation Army, the PLA, it is one of the main entities within China there to support the United Front. There's not much of a separation between the United Front and the PLA in the sense that the PLA does both the normal military activities you would expect, but also does the influence activities, which is guided by the United Front.
And so what kind of examples of this kind of influence campaign can we see in Australia?
The Chinese diaspora in Australia is a very big target for the PLA and the Chinese Communist party. There's around 1.2mn Australians of Chinese descent. Now, if you think about why Beijing is interested in targeting the Australian Chinese diaspora, because it's trying to create this unity within Australia. It sees the multicultural nature and open society of Australia as a potential weakness, as a potential avenue of influence.
Now, if you look at the Chinese language media in Australia, and Chinese language media is very important because most mainland Chinese Australians, obviously, speak Mandarin. It's their first language. And most of them consume Chinese language media. They don't tend to consume a lot of English language media.
Yes, I've looked into that. And according to a report from ASPI, the Australian foreign policy think tank, 3 of the 24 Chinese language media groups in Australia are known to get funding from the Chinese Communist party. And about half have links to the United Front. Has this influenced the way in which these media groups cover stories, specifically those about China? Do they, for instance, present the Chinese Communist party point of view when it comes to issues that Beijing really cares about, like Taiwan?
Their content is derived from state organisations from within China. And if you look at what kind of content they are trying to spread, the content, it's not just things about China's preferred position on Taiwan or the South China Sea, but it is to spread narratives like the Chinese Communist party and the Chinese people are one and the same. You'll hear messages like China's success is inevitable, that the Chinese Communist party is undeterable, that the west is weak and America is divided.
So all of those elements come together to try to weaken the will of Australia to resist Beijing's policies in the region and within Australia. And the primary way it tries to do that is to create this unity and indecision amongst Australian elites and amongst the Australian government.
So would you say that these influence campaigns are effective? Using Australia again as an example, I mean, if you look at the trajectory of Australia's relationship with China over the past four to five years, you'd have to say that relations have deteriorated sharply. So in a sense, is China actually scoring an own goal in these influence campaigns?
These influence campaigns are very effective if the country decides to remain passive. So if you look at Australia prior to around 2016, I would say that China was very effective. The way we talked and the way we thought was actually quite conducive to what the Chinese Communist party wanted. Now, what changed? The Australian government decided to publicise a lot of these activities.
The point I'm making is that we do have defences against these sorts of influence campaigns. But if you remain passive they can become quite corrosive. They can cause a country to self-censure. They can cause a country to become more indecisive about taking on some of the more forward-leaning policies of China. So it does require an act of will and a preparedness to absorb cost inflicted by China.
I look at some other countries around our region. New Zealand would be one. Many countries in Southeast Asia would be another. I think that the influence campaigns have taken quite deep root and will take quite a bit of political willpower to challenge and change things around.
So finally, John, would you say that Australia, being in the Asia-Pacific region, has made it an early example of how a Chinese influence campaign could look when China really decides to turn up the pressure? And if so, does the Australian example have relevance for other countries around the world?
Australia is certainly a very good example for an American ally which is also an open, multicultural society. When you look at more homogeneous societies, for example, Japan, Taiwan, I think it's harder for China to pursue those sorts of divisive tactics, simply because it's harder to divide society according to either ethnic lines or other lines in those sorts of cultures.
Thank you very much for joining us, John.
My pleasure. Thank you for having me.