How China wages an unseen war for strategic influence | FT

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 its foreign policy goals. Read more at

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 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 peace time 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 uh earlier this year china signed a security agreement with the government of manasse govari 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 a solomon and in other parts of the south pacific for that matter back in 2018 the chinese were talking about a very similar security pack with vanuatu and and that

Pact was ultimately scuppered because it was leaked to the media and there was a bit of a ground swell in vanuatu against that kind of agreement with china now china learnt from that uh what they’ve done in the solomons is that they have done a lot better at elite capture what authoritarian elites actually want is remain in power it is not primarily to necessarily

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Improve the fortunes of the country so what china has done with the saga of ira government it has given resources to help the sake of our government remain in power if you go to solomon islands there’s a very heavy chinese presence so for example they’ll spread narratives uh like that china’s domination of the pacific is inevitable uh 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 colonized 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 sogovari 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 is a long way away but it is a part of of the diplomatic chess game that this has engendered and the south pacific it contained some of the last remaining countries in the region that officially recognized taiwan the solomon

Island switched its recognition to mainland china in 2019 and beijing has promised it about 730 million us dollars 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 but now the u.s 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

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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 um 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 is trying to prevent these countries from speaking out against chinese values or chinese behavior now the united front is the main body that oversees campaigns in

Foreign countries but the people’s liberation army to pla it is one of the main entities within china there to support 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 uh 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 uh chinese diaspora in australia is a very big target for the pla and the chinese communist party there’s around 1.2 million australians of chinese descent now if you think about uh why beijing uh 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 as the 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 aspy the australian foreign policy think tank three 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 organizations from within china and then if you look at what kind of content they’re 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 in the same you’ll hear messages like china’s success is inevitable that the chinese communist party is undeterrable that the west is weak then america

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Is divided so all of those elements come together to try to weaken the will of australia to resist beijing’s policies uh in the region and within australia and the primary way it tries to do that is to create this unity um and indecision uh in in 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 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 um the australian government decided to publicize a lot of these activities the point i’m making is that we do have uh

Defenses against these sorts of influence campaigns but if you remain passive they can become quite corrosive they can cause a country to self-censor 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 around our region new zealand will 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 uh 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 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 homogenous societies

You know for example japan taiwan uh i i think it’s harder for china to pursue those sorts of divisive tactics uh simply because uh it’s it’s harder to divide society according to either ethnic lines or or other lines in in in those sorts of cultures thank you very much for joining us john my pleasure thank you for having me

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How China wages an unseen war for strategic influence | FT By Financial Times

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