PacNet #36 – Countering China’s Influence Operations: Lessons from Australia

Pacnet image.jpg

This is an abridged version of a commentary originally published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In 2017 a rising politician in the Australian Labor Party, Senator Sam Dastyari, proclaimed at a press conference with Chinese-language media that “the South China Sea is China’s own affair,” and that his Labor Party would help maintain the relationship by knowing “when it is and isn’t our place to be involved.” This statement stood in stark contrast to the position taken just the day before by the Labor Party shadow defense minister Stephen Conroy, who had condemned China’s “absurd” island building and stated unequivocally that a Labor government would authorize freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

When confronted by Australian reporters Dastyari denied making the remarks, and it would be more than a year before the leaked audio of the press conference confirmed that he did, and forced him to resign from Parliament. But the image from the press event of Dastyari standing aside billionaire Chinese property developer Huang Xiangmo, coupled with recent revelations of their close financial ties, raised troubling questions about the role of Chinese influence in Australian money politics.

Australia’s energized investigative journalists, with some helpful leaks provided by the Australian security officials, began reporting on a range of activities undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party-state that had long been hidden or obscured in Australian politics and society. These activities included efforts to buy political influence, cultivate pro-Beijing voices in elite circles, coopt and control the Chinese diaspora in Australia, and shape discussion while silencing dissent Australian university campuses. What emerged from the barrage of media reporting was a disturbing and extensive pattern of Beijing’s attempts to interfere with Australia’s democratic processes along a variety of fronts. These revelations captured the attention of China watchers the world over and touched off a firestorm in Australian politics.

Prominent politicians, commentators, business and university leaders, scholars, and voices in the Chinese Australian community lined up on different sides of a national debate over how serious a challenge Chinese influence posed to Australian democracy. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spearheaded legislative reforms to crack down on foreign interference, which were enacted with strong bipartisan support, and the government subsequently banned Huawei and ZTE from Australia’s 5G network. Beijing responded with a diplomatic freeze and a slowdown on coal imports from Australia.

These scandals and revelations turned Australia into a cautionary tale about the myriad and opaque ways that the Chinese Communist Party-state seeks to influence and interfere with political processes in democratic countries. But what exactly are the lessons of the Australia case for other advanced democracies and other countries in the region? The answer lies in the ways in which the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) sought to exploit Australia’s vulnerabilities, as well as in the sources of Australia’s resilience in pushing back on these influence efforts. 

The Nature of Chinese Influence Operations

China’s efforts to influence and shape public discourse and political outcomes beyond its borders go well beyond the legitimate public diplomacy that all governments engage in. The CCP uses unofficial channels in ways that are opaque, deceptive, and manipulative to influence foreign governments and citizens—leaving the realm of legitimate public diplomacy far behind. Turnbull aptly defined this as “covert, coercive, or corrupting” behavior that crosses the line “that separates legitimate influence from unacceptable interference.” In Australia, these methods have included, among others, monetary inducements to politicians to change their stance on key issues; threats to mobilize Chinese Australian voters to punish political parties who do not support Beijing’s policy preferences; “astroturfing” local grassroots organizations to give the appearance of broad support for Beijing; coopting the messaging of Chinese-language media and local civic organizations; and a variety of efforts to drown out or silence critics. These efforts are deliberately hidden from public view to create a layer of plausible deniability that obscures direct ties to Beijing and makes it more difficult to nail down the degree of interference.

The wave of influence operations in Australia has also thrown a spotlight on a once little-known department within the CCP, the United Front Work Department (UFWD). Under Xi Jinping, who calls the UFWD a “magic weapon” for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people, United Front work has been dramatically expanded and elevated within the party. Its goal is to “win hearts and minds” of overseas Chinese and other influential targets and unite them in support of the CCP and its goals while neutralizing critics.

Beijing’s “Agents of Influence” and the Media Firestorm

The Dastyari affair begins with the figure of Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire property developer from China who came to Australia in 2011 and quickly gained permanent residency and political clout. Huang was a major political donor to both the Labor and Liberal parties and also gave generously to Australian universities, including a 2014 donation to the University of Technology Sydney to establish the Australian-China Relations Institute (ACRI). Huang was also chair of the UFWD-linked Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC), a United Front-led organization whose leadership and activities are closely guided by Beijing and the Chinese embassy. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the ACPPRC that organized the pivotal Dastyari press conference.

Spurred by the Dastyari incident, media investigations into the ties between CCP-linked money and politicians uncovered that China-linked businesses were the largest donors to both the Labor and Liberal parties, donating more than A$5.5 million between 2013 and 2015. The subsequent political scandals began to shed light on the range of ways that CCP-linked donors and proxies sought to exert influence, not just over political parties, but also academic campuses, research institutions, influential individuals, and groups within the ethnic Chinese community. Reporting focused on how overseas Chinese students were being surveilled and organized by local consulates to pump up patriotic, pro-party messages on college campuses while stifling dissent.

The barrage of revelations ignited an intense national debate just as Turnbull announced draft legislation to counter foreign interference and espionage. Many in the business and academic communities argued that fears over Chinese influence were being exaggerated while many in the broader ethnic Chinese community felt that they were being unfairly targeted. But the political ground had shifted decisively, and broad public support emerged for taking a tougher stance on foreign interference.

Why Did China Target Australia? 

Australia was an attractive target for China’s interference operations because of its strategic value as a US ally in an increasingly contested Asia-Pacific region. If China could sideline Australia from taking active part in efforts to constrain Chinese maritime behavior, it would sharply undercut American regional leadership and strengthen China’s hand in pursuing its ambitions in the South China Sea and more broadly.

Australia also offered some tantalizing vulnerabilities for Beijing, including its economic dependence on China as a trade partner and the growing dependence of Australian universities on tuition revenue from Chinese students and research funding from CCP-linked patrons. These two factors created natural constituencies of support which consistently advocated for a cooperative relationship with China.

Two other notable features made Australia particularly vulnerable. First, Australia was one of the few advanced democracies that did not prohibit campaign donations from foreigners, creating a wide-open loophole for wealthy Chinese political benefactors with links to the CCP to seek to influence political parties. Incredibly, Dastyari had in fact not broken any laws before being drummed out of office.

Second, Australia has a large community of ethnic Chinese Australian citizens, which is a natural target for the United Front. The CCP and UFWD have worked for decades in these communities to coopt Chinese community organizations and help people sympathetic to Beijing to rise in local prominence—while also filtering out negative media coverage in Chinese-language press and drowning out critics.

The Strength of Australian Democracy

Australia’s resilience in the face of China’s large-scale influence efforts is makes it a case study in how democracies can marshal a defense against corrosive Chinese influence. First and foremost, Australia’s independent and boisterous free press launched aggressive investigations into many facets of Chinese influence and brought to light many troubling incidents. Once these issues were surfaced by the media, a vibrant public debate ensued, and over time public opinion moved decisively against China. Last year’s public opinion poll by the Lowy Institute showed that people’s trust in China dropped by 20 percentage points in a single year, from 52% to 32%.

Australia’s swift political response is also notable. Campaign finance, counter-interference, and espionage laws were enacted in 2018 that, among other things, banned foreign donations and toughened sanctions and enforcement provisions. A new coordinating office was also created with the mandate to formulate a comprehensive strategy and follow up on specific cases of foreign interference, and last December a new intelligence task force was launched with more dedicated resources to target enforcement of the new provisions.

Ultimately, Australia’s strong democratic culture, political will, and a healthy shot of transparency proved to be an antidote to Chinese intrusion into Australian domestic politics. Australia has not softened its South China Sea policy, and subsequent efforts by Beijing to freeze diplomatic relations and slow down imports of Australian coal have failed to dislodge support for the government’s tougher stance. However, the Australian public and government should not fall complacent. The CCP has made long-term investments in relationships and networks that will not be eroded overnight, and it is refining its toolbox through trial and error.

The “Magic Weapons” of Advanced Democracy

If the United Front Work is a “magic weapon” for Mao and Xi, then transparency and rule of law are the magic weapons for democracies. Legislative reforms and a free and vibrant press must help shine a light on the shadowy web of inducements, threats, cooptation, and self-censorship that actuates Chinese influence. This may entail tackling uncomfortable issues for democratic systems, but advanced democracies such as Australia have some advantages to bring to this challenge and should leverage their strengths to combat malign influence.

Dr. Amy Searight ( is senior associate for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  Dr. Searight has a wealth of experience on Asia policy—spanning defense, diplomacy, development, and economics — in both government and academia. Most recently, she served in the Department of Defense (DOD) as deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, from 2014 to 2016. Prior to that she served as principal director for East Asian security at DOD, and as senior adviser for Asia in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

Issues & Insights Vol. 20, WP 1 – Maritime Issues in the Indo-Pacific: Building a Shared Vision of “Free and Open”



Pacific Forum, the Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific Studies (YCAPS), and Tama University’s Center for Rule-making Strategies, with support from the US Embassy in Japan, organized a conference discussing maritime issues in the Indo-Pacific as they relate to the “Free and Open” concept. The event was hosted by the Center for Rule-making Strategies in Tokyo November 21-22, 2019. Approximately 35 senior officials, scholars, scientists, and security specialists attended in their personal capacity for an off-the-record discussion. The closed-door conference covered an array of maritime challenges including territorial conflicts, erosion of the rule of law, piracy and other criminal activities, unsustainable fishing practices, and environmental destruction. Synchronizing the efforts of uniquely qualified experts, this conference and its initiatives developed important messages for regional and global thinkers.

The conference provided a platform for professionals to address a multitude of growing concerns while creating an environment encouraging creative problem framing and problem solving. Following the conference, the experts in attendance were invited to submit short analytical commentaries for compilation into this volume. Key themes from this conference are outlined below.

There is an increasing pressure on the traditional US-led security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. This pressure stems from many factors, including evolving economic dynamics and maritime security challenges. Middle powers such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia will have an increasing level of responsibility in shaping the Indo-Pacific region by aligning in these two areas. Japan’s pragmatic approach focuses on strengthening the law enforcement capacities of other regional partners while relying on Official Development Assistance (ODA) to serve as an important foreign policy tool. On this theme, Dr. Stephen Nagy’s piece explores opportunities for maritime cooperation among middle powers in the Indo-Pacific. Dr. Raymond Yamamoto uses the changes in the distribution of Japan’s ODA to demonstrate the Abe administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision is not merely an update to previous ideas such as the Arch of Freedom Prosperity but a unique doctrine tailored to Japan’s current strategic needs. Dr. SATO Yoichiro explores Japan’s FOIP as a strategic approach employed by Japan’s leadership to advance its goals in a region under realignment in response to the People’s Republic of China’s growing economic heft and more threatening posture.

Much of the conversation focused on China maritime activities, which were generally seen as detrimental to a FOIP. In particular, the South China Sea came up as a “flashpoint” or tension front. Dr. OTA Fumio (VADM JMSDF ret.) contrasts Japan’s FOIP concept with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), arguing that—unlike FOIP—BRI is military-oriented, lacks rules, erodes the sovereignty of participants, imposes unsustainable financial burdens, and lacks transparency. Dr. ITO Go’s contribution focuses on Chinese activities in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as exemplifying that nation’s disruptive behavior.

Other discussions focused on the actions that states might take to address the range of regional maritime challenges. After examining China activities in the South China Sea through the lens of Chinese historical analogy, Vivian Ng argues that the US needs to take bold and unanticipated actions if it wants to disrupt current trajectories and seize the initiative. Dr. Asyurah Salleh points out that national competition exacerbates transnational maritime challenges such as environmental destruction. She unpacks the threats associated with fisheries mismanagement, arguing for a regional fishery management organization and other strategic actions while acknowledging international competition in the South China Sea restricts the range of options available. Finally, Margaret Jackson examines energy considerations for the US-Japan alliance in light of challenges to the flow of resources by sea and suggests the need for improved coordination in infrastructure investment and regional cooperation building.

The current approaches to the myriad of maritime concerns in the Indo-Pacific have been insufficient in securing a future in which the gathered experts are confident that a free and open system will be able to sustain regional peace and stability. Security, economics, environmental practices, and governance are fundamental considerations policymakers and the public must consider when developing a responsible maritime strategy. Reflecting the thoughtful discussion at the conference, the articles that follow provide an enlightened and expert perspective on the variety of themes addressed above. We hope our readers will consider new perspectives, revise their own perceptions appropriately, and engage in respectful and meaningful dialogue with other interested individuals.

PacNet #4 – Despite Stumbles, US Engagement with ASEAN Runs Deep

Pacnet image.jpg

This article originally appeared in Global Asia and is republished with permission

The regrettably low-level US representation at the annual summits convened in November in Bangkok by the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) were met by intricate displays of ASEAN’s displeasure. Neither, fortunately, reflect the structural strengths and scope of US-Southeast Asia relations that stem from the alignment between the core aspects of US engagement and the core aspirations of Southeast Asia.

The interrelated aspirations of countries in ASEAN are nation and state building, ensuring strategic autonomy or agency, and asserting centrality in convening and thereby partially shaping extra-regional interactions. The US—through the core aspects of its diplomacy, commerce, security, and civil society cooperation with Southeast Asia—supports, imperfectly, these ambitions. The region’s high-demand signal for the US as the partner of choice and Southeast Asia’s serious, though mostly privately expressed, anxiety about Chinese assertiveness is evident in the headline-grabbing notice and care it gives to US attendance at regional gatherings, and more consequentially, in the off-front-page mutual efforts to build and sustain bilateral relations.

A first aspect is that the US approach toward rules, norms, and values espoused in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) represents more continuity than departure from past policies. Southeast Asia has responded with its “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” (AOIP). The convergences between FOIP and AOIP outweigh the differences. Meanwhile, China’s proposed conceptions of regional order (for example, the New Security Concept, and the nine-dash line in the South China Sea) have not even spawned responsive versions, much less synergy, from Southeast Asia. Indeed, the China-ASEAN Code of Conduct for the South China Sea is viewed with suspicion among some in Southeast Asia for calling for exclusive sharing of fisheries and energy resources only among regional states and China, and restricting the ability of regional states to conduct security relations with the US and its regional allies.

The expectation that China’s economic gravity will inexorably “pull” Southeast Asia toward a common destiny with Beijing confuses laws of nature with unpredictable socio-economic and political trajectories. It was once thought that Japan would economically lead a skein of geese in Southeast Asia. Such expectations also underweight the many ways in which Southeast Asia interacts with the US economically beyond trade (e.g., remittances, capital markets, government securities, and the use of the dollar, to name a few). If, as Southeast Asians appear to fear, a common destiny with China means contending with a Beijing-led hierarchical order, there is little appetite for it in an increasingly integrated region informed by modern nationalism.

A second aspect of the US approach is that it has allies and friends (Japan, South Korea, Australia, UK, France, and India, among others) working cooperatively and proactively with it in Southeast Asia. American allies and partners working together in Southeast Asia multiply US power and engagement in ways that meet Southeast Asian aspirations on issues ranging from Mekong region development to human and drug trafficking to capacity-building in maritime domain awareness. An example is the November 2019 US-ROK Joint Fact Sheet on their regional cooperation efforts.

A third element of the US approach is that it is not an irredentist state in Southeast Asia. It does not articulate flimsy historical claims in the South China Sea in contravention of international tribunal rulings. Put simply, the US does not covet the territory of Southeast Asian countries. Nor is the US a “grudge nurturer” harboring hangovers from history as rapprochements with the UK, Japan, Germany, and Vietnam—and even China—demonstrate.

Finally, the US supports ASEAN, a key vehicle of Southeast Asian aspirations to consolidate their countries, prevent intrusions on their sovereignty, and maintain strategic agency. At times, it seems that the US is more supportive of ASEAN than even some within the association.

Such core aspects of the US approach to Southeast Asia are reflected in specific relationships. In this 187th year of bilateral relations, the US and Thailand may not be at “peak alliance” due to the fortunate absence of a regional war to prosecute, and Bangkok’s own political and foreign policy drift over four decades, but the relationship is enduring and adapting. The 2017 Washington-Bangkok normalization following Thailand’s 2014 coup has paved the way for renewed defense cooperation culminating in the newly announced US-Thailand Joint Vision 2020. On the economic front, Thailand remains a growing investment destination for US companies, and trade squabbles over the generalized system of preferences (GSP) involve only a fraction of total two-way trade. Meanwhile, the 121-year-old US-Philippine relationship, which has seen its own share of ups and downs, remains more robust in reality than rhetoric and general reporting would suggest. US-Philippine cooperation during the siege of Marawi, maritime patrols in the Sulu Sea, ongoing efforts to fully implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and most importantly US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s reassurances on the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), provide ballast despite some political turbulence in relations.

Washington remains a significant trade, investment, remittance, and employment partner for Manila. The vital US-Singapore strategic relationship, though not an alliance, has been enhanced twice in five years. A key provision permitting US forces access to Singapore’s military facilities for transit and logistics support was extended in September 2019 for 15 years. And in December the countries announced establishment of a Singapore Air Force permanent fighter training detachment on Guam. Singapore also remains a massive trade, investment, and corporate headquarters partner for the US.

America’s other Southeast Asian partnerships continue to develop. The US-Vietnam relationship is witnessing steady improvements on both the commercial and defense sides of the ledger. Of course, there are constraints and disagreements, but Hanoi’s receptivity to mutual high-level visits and public displays of defense cooperation are examples of its interest in improving ties with Washington in its ASEAN chairmanship year. New partnerships with Malaysia and Indonesia continue to develop across the spectrum of cooperation, and renewed full diplomatic re-engagement with Myanmar has not been derailed despite the human rights atrocities there.

Current US-Southeast Asia relations are wider and deeper on both sides than in the past two generations. Beyond official and traditional commercial and security ties, the engagements between US and Southeast Asian civil societies are less well known. There are over 90 sister relationships between the US and Southeast Asian countries that help to build local people-to-people connections as well as educational, familial, and business relations. Some 7.4 million Americans trace their ethnic origins to Southeast Asia. Remittances from the US to the region range from 56% of the total for Vietnam to 19% for Laos. Myriad educational exchanges and scholarships ranging from the Fulbright Program to the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) bring tens of thousands of Southeast Asians to the US—but alas, not enough Americans to Southeast Asia.

Tourism between the US and Southeast Asia is robust, with some 5 million people exchanging visits. It is no wonder that among major regional countries, the US is viewed by publics as their key ally or partner—even as the same publics, including in the US, view China’s economic development as welcome. These “everyday” but generally “out of sight” US-Southeast Asia interactions undergird the official alignment between the core aspects of US engagement and Southeast Asia’s core aspirations, despite public relations stumbles such as the level of US representation at Southeast Asia summits in Bangkok in November. There is no room for complacency and lots of hard work lies ahead, but there is no need to panic about U.S.-Southeast Asia relations.

Dr. Satu Limaye ( is Vice President of the East West Center and Director, East West Center in Washington and Senior Advisor, Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). He is the creator of the Asia Matters for America Initiative, founding editor of the Asia-Pacific Bulletin, and an editor of Global Asia.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.