Australia a “Laboratory” for Beijing’s Global Influence

Australia a “Laboratory” for Beijing’s Global Influence

Concerns over the implications of China’s increasing economic, cultural, and political influence in Australia have been rising in recent years. Points of concern include influence in local Chinese-language media, documented donations from Beijing and CCP-tied tycoons to public universities and politicians, Party-sponsored protests on political issues, the alleged intimidation of high profile Australian citizens of Chinese ancestry, and campaigns to directly influence internal politics to favor Beijing via United Front associated organizations. Last year, a heated debate between Australian scholars emerged over legislative proposals aimed at limiting foreign interference, specifically by Beijing, that have since passed. At The New York Times, Damien Cave reviews the many ways that the Xi administration has been “directly — and often secretly — engag[ing] in political activity in Australia, making the nation a laboratory for testing how far it can go to steer debate and influence policy inside a democratic trade partner“:

It is a calculated campaign unlike any other Australia has faced — taking advantage of the nation’s openness, growing ethnic Chinese population and economic ties to China — and it has provoked an uncomfortable debate about how Australia should respond.

[…] China once sought to spread Marxist revolution around the world, but its goal now is more subtle — winning support for a trade and foreign policy agenda intended to boost its geopolitical standing and maintain its monopoly on power at home.

[…] The contours of its playbook are especially visible in Australia, where trade with China has fueled the world’s longest economic boom. Australian intelligence agencies have warned of Beijing’s efforts, and the issue is likely to be contentious for Australia’s conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, who won a surprise victory in elections Saturday.

[…] Australia’s new government — led by Mr. Morrison, who has been vague about his plans for foreign policy — must now decide what to do next at a time when the public is divided: Many Australians fear China but also favor good relations to maintain economic growth and regional stability. […] [Source]

For a comprehensive look at how Australia fits into the wider context of Beijing’s many ongoing campaigns at increasing global influence, see a recent article in The Atlantic by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Zach Dorfman. Meanwhile, Clive Hamilton, the Australian academic and author of a 2017 book on Chinese influence that several publishers passed on fearing “possible action by Beijing,”  has warned that Ottawa is facing an even starker threat of Chinese influence in Canadian policy. From a National Post interview with Tom Blackwell:

Some experts suggest the problem of Chinese soft-power interference is much more pronounced in Australia and New Zealand than here. Do you agree?

I think it’s more of a problem in Canada.

Yes, Australia’s economic dependence is higher — in terms of trade — but when I look, as I have been doing, at the subtle but intense influence of China on Canadian institutions — parliaments, provincial governments, local governments, universities, the intellectual community, the policy community — it makes me deadly worried.

I’ve met some very well-informed Canadians who aren’t sure Canada will be able to extricate itself from this situation.

Can you give some examples of what disturbs you so much here?

When I was last in Canada — in Ottawa, a few months ago — I was pretty dismayed at the extent of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence in the federal Parliament. I should probably not say any more to stay on the right side of the libel laws. […] [Source]

The surprise re-election of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his conservative Liberal National Coalition last weekend was not celebrated by Beijing, who views the win as a closed door to potentially influencing specific economic and intelligence policies, including by targeting the recently passed counterespionage and foreign interference laws. Ahead of the election, The Wall Street Journal’s Rob Taylor last week examined how Australia’s large population of Chinese immigrants emerged as a key voter bloc amid strained relations between Beijing and Canberra:

The Chinese community accounts for 1.2 million of Australia’s 25 million people and makes up as much as 15% of the voter base in some battleground contests. Reaching Chinese-Australian voters has become vital, because both major parties entered the campaign effectively deadlocked.

[…] William Ma, a businessman in the commercial hub of Box Hill, said the months of debate about political interference and espionage were harming relations while stoking racial tension and hate speech—as evidenced by “No Chinese” graffiti scrawled across Liberal campaign posters in recent days.

[…] “What we want to hear from whoever wins is that there is no new Cold War,” Mr. Ma said, describing what he felt as like a general air of suspicion. “We get labeled as spies. We don’t want that. This is not a new competition, so we want answers on the question of tension with China.”

A fifth of voters in the area speak Mandarin or Cantonese at home.

“I usually don’t care about politics, but whoever wins will be Chinese,” said Jenny Wangjian, a Chinese herbalist who moved to the Chisholm area from Shanghai 15 years ago and is now a citizen. “I hope the winner can help Australia to live more peacefully with China.” […] [Source]

At Reuters, Bryon Kaye and Jonathan Barrett reported on how WeChat was a key platform for Australian politicians to reach Chinese-Australians in late campaigning:

Although the WeChat platform figured only sparingly in the last election, it is a major campaign tool this time, as politicians employ Chinese speakers to run channels in areas where large numbers of voters speak Mandarin and Cantonese.

[Liberal MP Kevin] Andrews’ campaign has posted a handful of messages, including a lunar new year greeting in Chinese.

[…] People of Chinese ancestry account for 15.5% of Andrews’ constituency of Menzies in the southeastern state of Victoria, census data shows, above the national average.

[…] Politicians now see WeChat as a way to win votes and demonstrate a commitment to multiculturalism, said Haiqing Yu, a researcher in Chinese social media at RMIT University.

“If the Australian major parties and politicians don’t engage…on the major social media platform that most Chinese migrants use, they lose a really valuable opportunity,” she added. [Source]

Following Scott Morrison’s re-election victory, James Curran looks at both how he pulled off the surprising win, and at the challenges the prime minister now faces in balancing Australia’s diplomatic relationships with Washington and Beijing as the two superpowers are engaged in an increasingly hostile trade dispute:

In Morrison’s first major address on foreign affairs in November last year, he repeated the call of his predecessors for the “peaceful evolution of our own region”, underlining the importance of U.S.-China relations not becoming “defined by confrontation”. Then, announcing what some dubbed a “Pacific pivot” – aimed at increasing Australian funding to its near neighbors in an attempt to rebut China’s growing influence there – Morrison nevertheless rejected any notion that it should carry a new ‘Cold War’ branding.

The first two years of the Trump administration has seen Australia play a strong sentimental card in the bilateral relationship – witness the Australian incantation of “mateship” and military sacrifice as a means of catching the U.S. president’s attention. Morrison will have no trouble in giving renewed voice to those alliance shibboleths.

But increasingly Australia, like other U.S. allies in the region, will need to play a different card in managing the alliance with Washington: namely that of the responsible ally that is not afraid to tell its great power protector what it might not necessarily want to hear. And here the task is to advise the United States on the folly of going down the containment path in dealing with China.  It is all very well for Australian governments to utter the soothing words about wanting to see a region still characterised by U.S. leadership. But it needs to make the case to Washington that the key to its ongoing strategic relevance in Asia lies not in recycling cold war dogma, but in Washington improving its own performance in the region. That’s going to be a tough argument to sell to an U.S. president repeatedly asking allies themselves to step up. [Source]


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