The Debate

China’s Influence Operations in Asia: Minding the Open Door Challenge

While attention to Beijing’s conduct is important, addressing the permissive conditions that create an enabling environment for its activities should remain front and center.

China’s Influence Operations in Asia: Minding the Open Door Challenge
Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

One of the notable features of this year’s iteration of the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military and security developments to Congress, released earlier this month, is the inclusion of a special section on what has been termed Chinese influence or interference operations. While the focus on Chinese influence operations is significant within the broader context of greater scrutiny in the United States on this question, beyond China’s behavior, it also ought to further catalyze a broader conversation about the permissive conditions that create a broader enabling environment for the conduct of Beijing’s activities as well as how to deal with this aspect of the challenge.

Foreign influence operations – which can be broadly defined as the coordinated utilization of capabilities to affect changes in the perceptions, practices, and policies of foreign target audiences – in and of themselves are neither new nor not unique to China. But growing concern about aspects of the Chinese state and its broader conduct, as well as a series of recent incidents which have spotlighted the more illicit and coercive aspects of alleged influence operations – be it election interference, the bribing of key influencers, or the manipulation of media environments – have contributed to increasing the spotlight on this subject. The focus on Chinese influence operations is also occurring amid a confluence of broader trends, including intensifying major power competition, deepening ideological struggles between democratic and authoritarian forms of governance, and rising scrutiny on the digital domain, all of which have been particularly worrying for open societies including the United States and its allies.

Earlier this month, this aspect of Chinese power was in the spotlight again with the release of the 2019 iteration of the Pentagon’s report on Chinese military and security developments, which included the topic of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence operations as one of two of its designated special topics. While the treatment of the topic of influence operations is quite brief, its inclusion is nonetheless significant amid growing calls for greater transparency about this subject. It also provides some important insights into how the Pentagon is thinking about Chinese influence operations, whether it be the situation of this within the People Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) development of its Three Warfares Strategy in operational planning – psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare – as well as the fact that there is some level of coordination involved with actors such as the United Front Work Department, the Propaganda Ministry, and the Ministry of State Security.

While the report naturally focused on China’s approach to these influence operations, when considering the broader issue of Chinese influence operations it is also important to keep in mind the broader regional environment within which Beijing is conducting these activities, which is another critical variable with respect to understanding and managing this challenge. In several parts of Asia, there are permissive conditions that serve as enabling environments for China to conduct the very influence operations that some regional actors are concerned about – an “open door,” put more simply. At times and to varying degrees, the “open door” for these Chinese influence operations are even facilitated by elements of the elite, broader society, and even parts of the government, whether deliberately or unwittingly.

Examples of this open door challenge abound, even though their manifestations may differ across various parts of the region. In the Pacific, the incidents in cases such as Australia and New Zealand has spotlighted vulnerabilities democratic countries have that can provide room for Chinese influence operations to take shape, including the lack of rules and regulations governing financing and transparency in politics and media. In Southeast Asia, Cambodia and the Philippines offer two examples of where governments that lean towards China have paved the way for Beijing’s growing influence in these countries, which can then open the door for greater forms of influence operations further down the line in terms of elite and wider public opinion as well as in specific areas such as technology and information networks, including 5G.

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Being aware of both the presence of this open door challenge, as well as how countries are managing it, is not a mere academic exercise; it can also impact how policymakers diagnose and then contend with the issue of Chinese influence operations moving forward. Part of this involves focusing not just on discrete illicit or coercive actions by China, but also understanding how elements of Chinese influence operations tie into broader, legitimate initiatives by Beijing, with a case in point being Beijing’s building of the media community within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which seeks to form partnerships with regional media organizations to shape narratives on the initiative. Another aspect of this is granular attention to the sorts of efforts regional states are taking to address the issue of Chinese influence operations and their efficacy, be it the wider conversation Singapore has been trying to have on the issue or the policy changes Taiwan is considering. There is also room for the sharing of best practices among like-minded democratic countries about how to fashion a more whole-of-society approach to build resilience that involves not only governments but also business, academia, media, and civil society more broadly.

To be sure, understanding and managing the open door challenge aspect of China’s influence operations goes far beyond the scope of the Pentagon’s recent report on Chinese military and security developments. But as the conversation on Chinese influence operations continues to evolve into the rest of 2019 and beyond, it will be important to continue to look at this not just from the perspective of individual instances of what China is doing, but how Beijing is evolving its approach more generally, the environment it is operating in, how regional states are responding, and how like-minded countries can better manage the more concerning aspects of this behavior going forward. That more comprehensive approach is not only a more accurate and holistic reflection of the challenge that concerned countries face, but can also help sieve out helpful recommendations as to how to manage this challenge moving forward.