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Manipulation, Chinese style

An educated public is the best defense to Beijing's growing influence operations in Asia

| China
China detained Singapore's armored personnel troop carriers in 2016 on their way back from a military exercise in Taiwan.   © Reuters

International attention is focusing on China's influence operations, which use overt or covert means to persuade or suborn foreign decision-makers and opinion shapers to serve Beijing's interests.

All countries conduct such operations, but the unique aspect of Beijing's efforts stems from the intrinsic nature of the Chinese state and its triple identities as a normal sovereign state, a Leninist state and a civilizational state.

As a sovereign state, China never tires of emphasizing a key international principle: noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries.

As a Leninist state, the role of the Communist Party is paramount and it uses the United Front -- a party-led umbrella organization which Mao Zedong described as the party's "magic weapon" -- at home and abroad to promote the party's interests. As it seeks influence in foreign countries, the United Front represents a significant, if little understood, departure from the norm of noninterference. It is noteworthy that Chinese President Xi Jinping has strengthened the United Front Work Department as part of his efforts to promote increased party control.

As a civilizational state, representing millennia of Chinese culture, it believes ethnic Chinese living overseas should identify their interests with Beijing.

This concept has been "rejuvenated" under Xi and finds expression in the work of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office. In a 2014 speech to a conference of Overseas Chinese Associations, Xi stated that "The rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is a dream shared by all Chinese."

To emphasize this point, Xi in March placed the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office under the control of the United Front Work Department.

Each identity has its own track in dealing with affairs abroad, but taken together, they represent a sophisticated instrument of influence that goes beyond conventional operations by other countries. This approach is powerful because it is flexible, which makes it difficult to counter.

As a sovereign state, China can use the normal diplomatic means of persuasion, inducement and coercion. As a Leninist state, its United Front may operate covertly as a coercive tool even as government actions stress persuasion and inducement. As a civilizational state, it can unite all these approaches in an appeal to ethnic pride.

Governments naturally focus on state-to-state relations and strive to keep them on even keel. Who does not want a good relationship with China? But this can all too easily lead foreign governments to overlook or play down Chinese activities on the other two tracks.

Beijing's strategy incorporates an overarching narrative, that China's rise is inevitable and unstoppable, while the U.S. is inevitably heading for decline.

The narrative is propagated by various means: social and mainstream media, whispering campaigns, and Chinese intelligence organizations cultivating what Lenin called "useful idiots."

Such narratives are powerful because they are usually not total fabrications. But they leave out crucial facts or are so grossly simplified as to distort complex realities.

Most people take only a cursory interest in foreign affairs and find even superficial narratives plausible. China's aim is to create a psychological environment that facilitates its favorite tactic of posing false choices. And that is what is unique about Chinese influence operations. China does not want to direct behavior -- to tell you what to do. China wants to condition behavior so that you will do what is necessary without being told: "correct" thinking leading to "correct" behavior. The premise is that if China is destined to rule the world, why not get on the right side of history?

The China-Singapore relationship is a case in point. In 2016 and early 2017, bilateral ties worsened because Singapore took the position that disputes in the South China Sea should be dealt with in accordance with international law.

The Chinese influence apparatus was activated. It promoted the overly simplified but superficially plausible story of China's rise, while ignoring many international complexities and embedding several sub-narratives.

One was that the current Singapore leadership did not know how to deal with China after the death in 2015 of Lee Kuan Yew, founder of independent Singapore and a respected figure in Beijing.

Another was that Singapore has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, so why was it siding with the U.S. against China? It was also argued that Singapore, with its majority ethnic Chinese population, should "explain" China's position or else stay neutral.

These messages can easily be rebutted. Lee Kuan Yew fought successfully against political rivals supported by the Chinese Communist Party in the run-up to Singapore's independence in 1965. This set red lines on how relations with China were to be conducted by him and his successors.

The absence of territorial claims in the South China Sea does not mean that Singapore has no interest in the issue since it involves principles of international law.

Crucially, while most Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, Singapore is a multiracial country organized on the basis of meritocracy.

But many Singaporeans, uninterested in international affairs, accepted the Chinese arguments or played along for other reasons. Businessmen, academics and others with interests in China were given broad hints that they might suffer unless Singapore was more accommodating. Projects under Beijing's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative were dangled by Beijing as bait.

Beijing's objective was to instill a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability of a Chinese identity for multiracial Singapore, and to get Singaporeans -- and not just Chinese Singaporeans -- to pressure the government to align Singapore's national interests with China's.

The operation initially appeared to succeed, but then Beijing went too far. In November 2016, Singaporean armored personnel carriers returning from a military exercise in Taiwan were seized from a ship docked in Xiamen in Fujian province by China on a flimsy excuse. This was naked intimidation.

Beijing, concerned with the advent of the U.S. administration of Donald Trump, decided to settle. In January 2017, the APCs were released. The influence operations were suspended. Relations returned to normal.

The Singapore episode illustrates how such operations are leading China into complex territory that it sometimes does not understand. During the recent Malaysian general elections, the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia openly campaigned for the head of the Malaysian Chinese Association, a key coalition partner in the then-Barisan Nasional government, in his constituency.

This was breathtakingly foolish. It was a blatant violation of the principle of noninterference enshrined in Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. It exposed that China truly does not adhere to the principle of noninterference. The MCA president lost his seat.

The position of the overseas Chinese is always sensitive in Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Singapore cannot accept a Chinese identity without breaking the social compact on which modern Singapore is based. China's failure to understand these basic facts betrays a form of cultural insensitivity.

But China appears to believe its own propaganda. Xi's concentration of power and insistence on greater party control has created echo chambers where Chinese diplomats report what their superiors want to hear; instructions are blindly given and followed.

This kind of behavior is not confined to countries where there are large overseas Chinese communities. Cultural insensitivity has become an obstacle to the smooth implementation of the BRI. As international media reports on the problems, awareness spreads.

This does not mean that foreign countries will shun working with China. But they will be more cautious. They will resist when the terms of engagement are too onerous, and they will seek to forge relationships with as many other major powers as possible.

Although China is now projecting friendliness to both Malaysia and Singapore, this is merely a pause, not the end of the story. Since influence operations are embedded in the nature of the Chinese state, they cannot be abandoned unless the nature of the state fundamentally changes. This is very unlikely.

Since China is not going to change, we will need to prepare to keep dealing with Beijing's psychological manipulations. An educated public is the best defense.

Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary at Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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