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2020 look ahead: Chinese influence a concern as ASEAN elections arrive

Taiwan, Singapore and others must beware Beijing's intentions as voters go to polls

| China

Almost no Asian nation wants to pick sides in an extended tussle between China and the U.S. Yet as China's sway rises, whether they want to choose or not, they must begin to cope -- and that means finding ways to respond to China's use of so-called influence operations to pull domestic opinion in Beijing's direction. These will again come to the forefront in 2020 as several nations stage elections.

Australia has lately been at the forefront of worries over covert operations, accusing China of using pro-Beijing front organizations to mobilize support among the country's 1.2 million citizens with Chinese ancestry.

In 2018 previous Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull introduced a package of laws designed to push back against malign foreign interference. In early December, Canberra said it planned to spend a further 60 million Australian dollars ($41 million) on anti-propaganda measures in the aftermath of claims by Wang Liqiang, a self-described Chinese spy turned defector, about Beijing's influence schemes.

Australian media are now routinely filled with lurid plots, from attempts to plant Chinese agents in parliament to shadowy moves to influence students at its universities.

While Australia's "China panic" is unusually high profile, related concerns are growing common elsewhere around Asia, and are likely to be heard most loudly in countries holding elections over the next year.

Taiwan, which goes to the polls in January, is one example, albeit an atypical one, given its historically testy relation with China. Beijing is willing to pressure Taipei to a far greater extent than other countries because of its central importance to Chinese foreign policy. Its ability to exert influence also takes many forms, from economic measures targeting pro-Beijing businesses to fake news campaigns on social media, alongside more traditional forms of espionage.

The effect of all this is mixed, however, at least judged by the fact that President Tsai Ing-wen, who has generally stood up to Beijing, looks set to win a handsome victory in January's polls. "Taiwan has been under this kind of influence operations for decades," as foreign minister Joseph Wu put it in December.

Singapore is a more interesting case, with the city-state also likely to hold elections during 2020. Bilahari Kausikan, a respected former diplomat, has warned repeatedly about the rising risk of campaigns designed to sway domestic opinion in Singapore, whose population is majority ethnically Chinese.

Kausikan is an outspoken figure. But in a country where sensitive debates about national security often happen in part behind closed doors, his public warnings also appear to reflect rising unease among sections of the political elite.

Yet if some Asian governments are talking more openly about their worries, a host of others have barely begun to grapple with how to counter Beijing's campaigns. This is especially true in democratic countries with influential Chinese minorities, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Myanmar, which also is set to hold polls later next year, is another example, and one where China has deep strategic interests in the success of its various Belt and Road infrastructure investment projects.

So far at least, China has avoided the kind of crude and direct electoral meddling pioneered by Russia. Yet election time still offers a chance for countries around the region to debate the pros and cons of China's rising position, as well as the way it seeks to exercise power in its neighborhood.

By now it is clear that China's influence operations are subtler and more long-term than Russia's. They aim to persuade both the wider Chinese diaspora and local elites in particular countries that Beijing's claims in the South China Sea are legitimate, for instance, or to view its actions in Hong Kong with sympathy.

President Xi Jinping's ultimate aim is to win acceptance for what he has called a "community of common destiny" around Asia. Membership of that community is naturally predicated on China's neighbors accepting Beijing as the region's dominant power.

Part of China's approach to influence involves creating new public institutions, such as the state-funded Confucius Institutes, which often alarm governments in the West but whose influence is generally exaggerated. More important are a web of Chinese-backed arms-length bodies, from local newspapers and social media groups to student associations and business organizations.

Pro-China supporters hold banners wishing Chinese Premier Li Keqiang a successful visit in Canberra in March 2017.   © Reuters

China's influence campaigns are undeniably becoming more potent. Partly this reflects the reality of its growing economic power relative to the U.S. But it is a function of having more resources too.

Recent research by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute shows China now boasts a global network of embassies and consulates larger than the U.S. The activities of its secretive United Front Work Department propaganda organization are harder to judge, but China nonetheless appears to be upping its investment in what some analysts call "sharp power."

In response, more countries around Asia are likely to have to follow Australia's lead and introduce policies to manage China's activities. Some will choose laws, for instance, requiring registration for those acting on behalf of foreigners or accepting money from foreign entities. Other might opt to increase budgets for security agencies or other parts of government designed to push back against information campaigns.

Doing so involves a tricky balance, of acting to blunt interference without excessively offending Beijing. But doing nothing will only store up problems for later. China's rising geopolitical influence around Asia probably cannot be to stopped. But its covert influence campaigns can.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of "The Billionaire Raj."

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