China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Watch China’s Unconventional Levers of Power in World Affairs

Unconventional – and often overlooked – practices form a key part of China’s international influence.

By Robert Sutter for
Watch China’s Unconventional Levers of Power in World Affairs
Credit: Pixabay

Chinese security forces’ recent remarkable escalation of tensions along disputed boundaries with India, Japan, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries is the latest manifestation of actions China takes in order to exert and advance influence in international affairs. The tool kit used by strongman ruler Xi Jinping goes well beyond conventional methods of building and exerting foreign influence. Those conventional methods involve building closer political, economic, and security relations with other countries and multilateral groups. They provide the main metrics used in existing foreign assessments of Chinese foreign policy influence.

However, recent reports by various foreign specialists and media show existing foreign assessments are insufficient in determining the full extent of China’s actual influence. Those disclosures and investigations highlight unconventional Chinese government actions and levers of influence abroad that were heretofore disguised, hidden, denied, or otherwise neglected or unappreciated in foreign assessments of China’s foreign relations. If successfully employed, those unconventional actions and levers of influence foreshadow major changes in the world order averse to preserving the international status quo.

For those interested in a comprehensive view of China’s foreign relations, the watch list below highlights a range of practices used by China to exert influence abroad that need to be considered in determining the full extent of Beijing’s international influence.

Exploitative economic practices: The most impactful Chinese government practices advancing influence and undermining the international order come within the scope of China’s three-decades long effort using state-directed development polices, which plunder foreign intellectual property rights and undermine international competitors. Beijing does this with hidden and overt state-directed economic coercion, egregious government subsidies, import protection, and export promotion, using highly protected and state-supported products to drive out foreign competition in key industries. The profits go into efforts to achieve dominance in major world industries and build military power to secure China’s primacy in Asia and world leadership. They allow companies like Huawei to attempt to dominate international communications enterprises. The profits also support China’s massive state-directed efforts to lead high technology industries that will define economic and eventually military leadership in world affairs. Under Xi Jinping, Beijing disguises these practices with avowed support for globalization. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also seeks and gains avid support from the UN secretary general and other world leaders, thereby legitimating China’s predatory economic practices.

Building and exploiting economic dependence: As the world’s leading trader and creditor, China disregards WTO norms and its avowed support for globalization in order to weaponize economic dependence to compel states to defer to Beijing’s demands on political, sovereignty, and security issues. Many countries rely heavily on exports to and/or imports from China, and many states depend on the inflow of Chinese tourists and students to their countries. Coercion is applied or threatened by the Chinese government directly or through Communist Party channels mobilizing boycotts, demonstrations, and other pressures in China against foreign targets. The many foreign countries subject to these kinds of threats in recent years include Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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As a creditor, China undermines World Bank, IMF, and OECD lending guidelines. A graphic example is the so-called debt trap for a number of states brought about by excessive and unsustainable borrowing from Chinese state banks. Often excessive debt is sought by short-sighted, selfish, and corrupt foreign leaders; their successors find that easing the debt burden is impossible without China’s close cooperation as the costs of canceling overly ambitious Chinese-financed infrastructure projects often preclude this action. Such debt dependency has strategic implications as China compels these states to accommodate Beijing’s demands for equity (e.g., land, ports, and airfields) for repayment and/or requests for access to military facilities or other favors.

Fostering corrupt and/or authoritarian governments aligned with China against the West: China’s Belt and Road Initiative and other programs rely on bilateral nontransparent deals involving extensive Chinese financing. They are attractive to many foreign corrupt and/or authoritarian leaders adverse to existing international lending norms. The agreements enable profitable Chinese infrastructure development and deepen Beijing’s influence while serving the power and personal wants of the authoritarian and/or corrupt foreign leaders. This symbiosis of Chinese-foreign government interests represents a strong asset in China’s growing international influence as the world is full of such regimes.

Added to this bond is China’s provision of communications and surveillance systems that assist the foreign leaders to track and suppress opponents, and China’s robust interchange with media outlets in various states. Those outlets pursue news coverage and information that is positive concerning the local government leadership and China. Meanwhile, Chinese communications and surveillance systems along with Chinese-provided hydro-electric dams and port operations cause recipient countries to rely ever more on Chinese firms for maintenance; and they make it difficult and expensive to replace China with another provider. Communications and surveillance systems also assist Chinese intelligence collection and manipulation of opinion in the country.

The array of foreign governments influenced in these ways is global in scope. Salient examples include Venezuela and Ecuador in Latin America; Serbia, Montenegro, and at times arguably Italy and Greece in Europe; Djibouti and Zambia in Africa; the Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka in South Asia; and Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and the Philippines in Southeast Asia. Many authoritarian governments in the Middle East and Central Asia are seen as inclined to work closely with China along these lines.

Coercing neighbors, leveraging unconventional assets: In addition to Chinese forces’ recent clashes, without the use of firearms, with Indian forces along the disputed boundary, Beijing use other unconventional coercive methods to intimidate neighboring states. In particular, usually unpublicized deployments of China’s Maritime Militia and Coast Guard vessels deter and “bully” governments challenging China expansive claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. In tandem with such deployments, China privately warns disputants that countering Beijing on these matters will lead to their decisive military defeat. Repeated shows of force by Chinese naval and air forces in the South and East China Sea and around Taiwan are used to deter these governments from countering China’s demands for deference. Chinese bombers last year teamed up with Russian bombers to probe and challenge the air space of South Korea and Japan, thereby serving notice of China-Russia cooperation against these U.S. allies.

Among unconventional assets used to pressure Southeast Asian neighbors, Chinese dams control the flow of water in the Mekong River, strongly impacting downriver countries Myanmar, Laos, Thailand Cambodia, and Vietnam and influencing their postures toward China. Beijing’s strong ties with armed separatist groups inside Myanmar provide a major source of leverage in regard to that country

Influence operations, elite capture: The well-funded influence operations abroad of Chinese Communist Party and state agents and the front organizations they support have significant success in three ways: (i) mobilizing the Chinese diaspora in various countries; (ii) achieving success in so-called elite capture — winning over foreign dignitaries to work in support of Chinese objectives — and (iii) gaining influence with and control over media and journalism in a number of states. These efforts are backed by diplomats abroad prepared to resort to outrageous invective and threats in demanding deference to China’s objectives supported by the influence operations. Behind the influence operations rest strong efforts to penetrate foreign high technology centers for desired information through the Chinese government’s Thousand Talents program and other means including common IPR theft. And Chinese intelligence agents are also actively recruiting foreign individuals to serve the purposes of Chinese espionage.

Disregard for international law: China’s disregard for international law in pursuit of expansionism shows egregiously in its rejection of the July 2016 ruling of an UNCLOS tribunal finding against China expansive South China Sea claims. Also, China practices illegal abduction of and prolonged detention in China of Chinese nationals resident abroad and holding foreign citizenship, ignoring provisions of international conventions. Beijing also uses arrests and detentions of foreigners in China as leverage against foreign governments.

Support Russian disruptions; undermine ASEAN, European unity: Though China denies malign intent, China and Russia work ever more cooperatively to reduce U.S. influence in their respective spheres of influence, China in Asia and Russia in Europe and the Middle East. With similar denials, China also works steadily to weaken the unity of ASEAN and of the European Union. It appeals to some members at the expense of the unity of the group, which otherwise would impede Chinese ambitions in Southeast Asia and Europe.

Conventional metrics measuring, for example, the size of China’s military or its investment abroad miss out on these unconventional tactics. But viewing the complete picture is necessary to truly gauge the Chinese government’s international influence.

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Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University