China Broadens Soft Power Push in Australia

In recent weeks, business deals between Australian and Chinese media groups have raised concerns over potential Chinese government influence in the Australian press. But according to a report in the Australian Financial Review, the media is not the only institution that has recently received Chinese government money as part of a push by Beijing. Times Higher Education writes about the AFR report:

In Australia, the Chinese government has donated a library to the University of Technology Sydney, while the Chinese Yuhu Group donated AUS$3.5 million (£1.8 million) to the University of Western Sydney to fund a new Chinese cultural institute and AUS$1.8 million to create the Australia China Relations Institute, the AFR article says.

The authors, Angus Grigg and Primrose Riordan, write that the Chinese government is also buying influence over other areas of Australian society.

“To date money linked to China’s Communist Party has flowed to both major political parties, universities, primary schools, the national broadcaster and this week to the country’s biggest media companies,” they write.

They quote Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, who said: “We have to assume that there is a larger strategy by the Communist Party to shift domestic public opinion in Australia on sensitive issues such as the US alliance and the .

“The long-term goal is to make Australia less likely to oppose China in regional confrontations,” he added. [Source]

While increasing China’s presence in Australian media and universities, Chinese officials have also been encouraging their Australian counterparts to take their side in ongoing disputes with the Philippines and other neighbors over rights to islands in the South China Sea ahead of a ruling by an international tribunal over the issue. In a recent meeting in Beijing, Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission stated as much to Mark Binskin, chief of the Australian Defence Force. From Xinhua:

“China has maintained a consistent and clear policy on the South China Sea issue and we wish the Australian side to take a fair and objective stance,” said the Chinese admiral.

He told the Australian defense chief that the two countries have seen a closer military relationship over the past several years.

“There have been more high-level reciprocal visits, joint training courses and in-depth institutional communication,” said the Chinese official. [Source]

In the Australian Financial Review, Xiangmo Huang, chair of the Australia China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney, encouraged the Australian government to “resist America’s pressure” to join its recent patrols in the South China Sea. The Australian government has publicly supported the patrols, known as “freedom of navigation” operations:

In February and March, two American admirals were sending strong hints that this is what Australia should do in support of the United States in so-called freedom of navigation operations. Had Australia followed this course, what would have amounted to a mere gesture of support for the US, would have been very harshly viewed by China, Australia’s biggest trading partner.

Had Australia got involved it would have been the only friend or ally of the US to have done so. Nobody else – not Britain, Singapore, India, New Zealand or Canada – has been tempted.

Had Australia signed up to a South China Sea “flag-flying” exercise, the recent shift in the – a traditional centre for American naval positioning in the region – would have highlighted our folly. [Source]

Yet other voices in the Australian media have called on their government to take a more forceful stance against Beijing’s position in the South China Sea. An op-ed in The Age by Danielle Cave and Greg Raymond acknowledges that public diplomacy is being used by all actors involved in the territorial dispute:

But these efforts are minuscule compared with the Chinese government’s. Through its state-controlled mass media assets – available around the world and in multiple languages – China is able to widely and regularly communicate its policy positions.

Australia, with a genuine interest in the resolution of the South China Sea dispute occurring through peaceful and respectful negotiations, does not agree with China’s unstinting land creation programs. But there is no denying that China’s message is heard around the world, loudly and clearly.

In contrast Australia’s message is quiet and cautious. When talking to the media, politicians and senior officials carefully stick to a rigid list of talking points. Questions about US-led freedom of navigation operations are answered. Behind closed doors, candid exchanges of views between officials may be occurring. But private diplomacy is only one lever of influence and in order to more effectively contribute to deterring further militarisation in the South China Sea, Australia needs to explore and invest in other levers. [Source]

A recent survey showed that Australians increasingly believe that China is the most influential nation in the Asia-Pacific region. Michael Safi at the Guardian reports:

More Australians (70%) were likely to see Beijing and Washington as “competitors” than even the Chinese citizens surveyed (50%), though the poll also found a significant lack of regional awareness among Australian respondents, 42% of whom were not aware that Japan was a US ally.

One in two Australians professed ignorance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the same number as in China.

Regionally, the survey of 3,750 people – an equal number in each of the five countries – found broad agreement that China would be most influential nation in Asia by 2026, with 69% of Australians agreeing China was already dominant, compared with 56% of Chinese. [Source]

” has been a major focus of the soft power efforts by Xi Jinping’s administration, which has allocated $10 billion a year for the cause, according to a report in the Financial Times. Recent deals struck between official Chinese media and several prominent Australian outlets raised concerns about whether the Australian media were doing the bidding of Chinese government propagandists in exchange for much-needed capital. But in the Diplomat, Helen Clark argues that the threat to Australian media posed by Chinese soft power may only be theoretical, as the actual propaganda has little power to sway Australians’ thinking:

This attempt to influence Australian dialogue and thinking on China is largely symbolically worrying given that China Watch is hardly scintillating reading and will probably sway few Down Under.

[…] Yet a quote from a 2009 South China Morning Post story is worth remembering: “There is a big gap between China’s image among foreign people and its idea of itself. Clichéd propaganda measures are useless to narrow the gap, and bigger efforts with smarter communication skills are needed,” said Yu Guoming, dean of the Renmin University journalism school. [Source]

Concerns over growing influence from China in Australia’s universities and cultural institutions echo debates in the U.S. and elsewhere over the role of the Confucius Institute, a government-sponsored program to bring Chinese language and cultural programs to universities and other organizations around the world. In 2014, the University of Chicago closed its Confucius Institute after faculty there raised concerns about Chinese interference in academic freedom.