China's 'long arm' of influence stretches ever further

For more than a year, Americans have fretted over the extent to which Russia influenced the outcome of last year's presidential election. A special counsel probe into Russian meddling continues to roil politics in Washington and may yet ensnare more figures linked to the Trump administration. The spectre of Kremlin collusion has darkened US-Russia diplomatic relations.

But, in the longer term, US strategists may be less worried about the influence of Moscow abroad than that of Beijing. This week, Senator Marco Rubio convened a hearing on the "long arm of China", focusing on China's capacity to launch influence operations abroad to gain leverage over democratic rivals.

"We have a lot of discussion of Russian interference in our elections, but the Chinese efforts to influence our public policy and our basic freedoms are much more widespread than most people realise," he said ahead of the session.

The discussion was timely. On Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a ban on foreign political donations, citing "disturbing reports about Chinese influence". These include the allegations surrounding Mr Sam Dastyari, a Labor Party senator accused of endorsing China's controversial actions in the disputed South China Sea, against his party's platform, in return for support from donor Huang Xiangmo. He was also reported to have given Mr Huang advice on how to evade Australian surveillance and to have unsuccessfully tried to pressure Labor's deputy leader not to meet a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist in 2015.

On Wednesday, attention in Australia centred on a Chinese letter calling on Australian Chinese to vote against the ruling Liberal Party; its origins, though murky, appeared to have some connection to an agency within the Chinese Communist Party. China's Foreign Ministry and the state mouthpiece, the People's Daily, rebuffed any suggestion of manipulation, asking Australians to "discard their political biases and prejudices".

Australia and New Zealand have so far allowed foreign donations. But the growing clout of China, which retains huge economic interests in the Antipodes, is causing alarm. In its own annual report to Parliament, Australia's domestic intelligence agency warned of foreign influence posing "a threat to our sovereignty, the integrity of our national institutions and the exercise of our citizens' rights".

In September, a comprehensive report by New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady on Chinese soft power there - including Chinese patronage networks reaching into the political elite and the use of the country's dairy farms to test Chinese satellites - shook up New Zealand's election campaign.

China is, of course, a world power, and it is natural for it to cultivate extensive ties in foreign lands. Chinese investments and other soft-power influences have factored into election campaigns in developing countries as diverse as Zambia, Peru and Nepal. That is a reality Americans can hardly begrudge, given their own nation's lengthy history of meddling in elections elsewhere.

In many cases, China's interests are primarily economic. As new studies point out, its cultivation of foreign assets follows rather traditional lines: making connections through people-to-people exchanges, wooing the political elite with generous gifts and hospitality, and using partnerships with local universities and its vast network of Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes to influence attitudes about China abroad.

But Mr Rubio and others warn of a more dangerous ideological edge to China's international agenda. They argue that as China creates an increasingly sophisticated online police state at home - built on maximising surveillance and censorship - it is intensifying efforts to explore other countries' vulnerabilities.

"In an era of hyperglobalisation, the regimes in Russia and China have raised barriers to external political and cultural influence at home while simultaneously preying upon the openness of democratic systems abroad," wrote researchers for a new report from the National Endowment for Democracy that focuses on the "sharp power" of authoritarian regimes.

"The Chinese government has spent tens of billions of dollars to shape norms, narratives and attitudes in other countries," said Ms Shanthi Kalathil of the National Endowment for Democracy, at the congressional hearing.

The Chinese authorities also appear to be deepening their monitoring of their citizens on foreign soil. "China's influence campaign appears to have extended further in Australia," wrote Mr Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations. "China's state security forces have reportedly engaged in a campaign to monitor Chinese nationals, including many students there - even warning them not to offer any criticism of Beijing lest their relatives in China be harmed."

Said Mr Rubio : "Chinese leaders are engaged in the long game. And it is something that policymakers in the United States and our like-minded allies must take seriously."

With President Donald Trump in office, however, there is little sign that the US has a long game of its own. Mr Trump's trip to Asia this year was marked by its policy incoherence as well as the President's inability to extract any meaningful concessions while being feted in Beijing.

"The problem for Australia is that China's willingness to use coercion to achieve its dream of renewed greatness is becoming a defining feature of its foreign policy," wrote founder Alan Dupont of the Cognoscenti Group consultancy in The Australian. "With the US in self-declared retreat from its global leadership role and lacking a coherent Asia policy under Donald Trump, there are diminishing external constraints on Chinese behaviour and ambitions."

Professor Brady, the New Zealand academic, argued that what is taking root has less to do with Beijing's particular agenda than the complacency of democracies. "It'd be the same if it was any country," she told the New Zealand Herald. "It's not about China, but it's our country and our democracy where we value freedom of speech and association. It's our right to choose our government."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2017, with the headline 'China's 'long arm' of influence stretches ever further'. Print Edition | Subscribe