Beijing’s sharp power proves China won’t become ‘more like us’


The downfall of a prominent Australian lawmaker is fueling a growing sense of unease about Chinese influence in the country’s domestic affairs, and raising tensions with its most important trading partner, the Wall Street Journal reports:

Sam Dastyari, a rising star of the opposition Labor Party who had taken donations from a billionaire Chinese businessman with close links to the Communist Party, said Tuesday that he would step down from his Senate seat and wouldn’t contest the next election.

The move followed Mr. Dastyari’s decision last month to give up a senior political role after a recording emerged of remarks he made last year, in which he supported Beijing’s claims to disputed South China Sea atolls—contradicting his party’s official line.

“I think Australia will be just the tip of the iceberg, where this is going on in an unusually public way,” said Peter Jennings, a former Australian intelligence analyst and head of security think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Clive Hamilton, professor at Charles Sturt University, said Beijing had targeted Australia’s Labor, Liberal and National parties with donations in an attempt to win influence, the FT adds.

“This is not about ideology, it is about influence,” he said. “But the new legislation published by the Australian government shows they are getting tougher on PRC influence operations.”

How do free societies push back against an authoritarian system that advances its geopolitical interests with clandestine influence campaigns? Andrew Browne asks in the WSJ:

China co-opts the elites in target countries like Australia by offering them corporate sinecures and consultancy contracts. It buys up Chinese-language news outlets and infiltrates the Chinese diaspora through Communist Party agencies—all the while blocking Western media content at home with its Great Firewall and restricting Western influence by placing foreign NGOs under police administration.

In a report for the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy, Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig connect Chinese and Russian efforts to shape public opinion around the world. The billions these countries spend to influence media, culture, think tanks and academia, they argue, goes beyond “soft power.” They label it Sharp Power,” which should be seen as “the tip of their dagger.”

The regime is even claiming to promote human rights ‘with Chinese characteristics’, analyst Charlotte Gao writes for the Diplomat, reflecting Beijing’s determination “to expand its presence in the international sphere and have its own voice in a diversity of fields, including on human rights — an area regarded by the international community as China’s weakest point.”

But China’s influence offensive appears to be prompting resistance, reports suggest.

Struggling to pay its debt to Chinese firms, the nation of Sri Lanka formally handed over the strategic port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease last week, in a deal that government critics have said threatens the country’s sovereignty, the New York Times reports:

In recent years, China has shored up its presence in the Indian Ocean, investing billions of dollars to build port facilities and plan maritime trade routes as part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative to help increase its market reach. Along the way, smaller countries like Sri Lanka have found themselves owing debts they cannot pay. Sri Lanka owes more than $8 billion to state-controlled Chinese firms, officials say.

“India has been overwhelmed by China’s offensive in its strategic backyard,” said Constantino Xavier, a fellow at Carnegie India in New Delhi.

But across South Asia, there have been some signs of pushback to Chinese investment, including the recent sidelining of hydropower projects in Nepal, Pakistan and Myanmar.

Mr. Xavier said Sri Lanka’s dependency on China has alarmed some countries. “Countries in the region are beginning to realize the long-term costs of Beijing’s massive investment promises,” he said.

But China’s political trajectory is more complicated and its strategic options less bipolar than observers suggest, according to a recent Brookings report, Containment, Competition and Cooperation in U.S.-China Relations.

“The U.S. strategic debate had for a very long time been reduced to false dichotomies of, will they or won’t they join the international order; will they or won’t they liberalize and democratize,” according to analyst Mira Rapp-Hooper. “Those false dichotomies that have failed. And the strategic picture that we’re looking at now is far more complicated.”

Brookings analyst Kenneth Lieberthal is “very uneasy about a conclusion that from the late 1970s until 2008 or so, we simply failed, that China did not reform and did not change.”

“I certainly did not expect it to become a liberal democracy in that period,” he adds. “But its domestic governance, society, and economy evolved very significantly during those decades— and did so generally along lines that we found to be constructive.”

Analysts are skeptical that a recent conference helped to boost China’s quest to influence rulemaking in the digital world, VOA reports. Many have noted that none of the foreign speakers specifically referred to Internet controls in China, which include bans on U.S. based services like Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

“I certainly don’t see (this) as China’s role as a rule setting has expanded. The regulatory bodies and standards actually usually doesn’t apply to China,” Jacob Cooke, CEO of consulting firm, Web Presence in China told VOA. “There is actually a noticeable lack of Chinese presence… And, likewise here there is no international presence in terms of regulatory body or rules and regulations.”

Chinese scholars are making a wide array of assumptions about the country’s global strategy, say analysts Angela Stanzel, Nadège Rolland, Jabin Jacob, Melanie Hart: that the broader global community welcomes and will continue to welcome Chinese leadership across a wide array of issues; that a China-centric system would be more representative than a US-centric system; that China’s capabilities will continue to grow and the nation will not become bogged down in its own domestic economic or political crises.

Chinese analysts argue that the US and China share many common interests, and today’s most pressing problems, such as climate change, are global in nature and impossible for either nation to solve on its own, they write in Grand Designs: Does China have a ‘Grand Strategy’? – a report for the European Council on Foreign Relations:

Instead of the old cold war system, they describe a new type of bipolarity in which the two poles compete but also cooperate, engage in joint global leadership on common problems, and serve to check and balance one another. In their view, China’s rise has broken apart the US-led “hegemonic order” to produce a more democratic order where more interests are represented, more nations can reap benefits, and there is “more respect for individual nations’ independence and self-determination.” They argue that this new type of bipolar order offers greater opportunity for multilateral global governance mechanisms that bring in a broader array of competing viewpoints.

The CCP’s arms of influence are targeting foreign societies in ways that have seldom been fully considered by those on the receiving end, notes David Gitter, the director of the Party Watch Initiative, where he specializes in research and analysis of authoritative open source Chinese language materials. Take, for example, the robustness of the CCP’s very own liaison efforts targeting foreign politicians, he writes for the Diplomat:

Recently, at the Chinese Communist Party’s World Political Party Dialogue in Beijing, Xi Jinping pressed his guests to develop with China a “new type of political party relations” geared toward integrated development. International Department diplomats held meetings with politicians from the European Union’s European External Action ServiceEthiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front,  Republican Party of Armenia, the Communist Party of Portugal, Mauritius’ Militant Socialist Movement, Uzbekistan’s People’s Democratic Party,  the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and the Communist Party of Vietnam, just to name a few. At the conclusion of the event, attendees — who reportedly included Tony Parker, treasurer of the U.S. Republican National Committee — signed the  “Beijing Initiative of Chinese Communist Party and the World’s Political Parties High-level Dialogue,” which essentially comprises an endorsement of the CCP and all of its foreign initiatives.


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