In the United States, Chinese influence operations combined with Chinese government-sponsored economic aggression are causing increasing alarm. The Trump administration has tried to “reset” the U.S.-China relationship by calling out Beijing’s malign behavior, confronting Chinese companies that don’t play by the rules, and waging a trade war to pressure China to cease its unfair trade and industrial practices.
In developing countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe, the problem is much worse. China has mixed influence operations and economic aggression on a massive scale to try to exert undue influence over these countries’ political and economic systems. A new study by the International Republican Institute examines Beijing’s strategy in 13 countries and warns that China’s worldwide campaign now represents a clear and significant threat to U.S. strategic and economic interests.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) … is employing a unique set of tactics in the economic and information domains that undermines many developing countries’ democratic institutions and future prosperity as their dependence on China grows,” the report states. “These actions, in conjunction with China’s support for likeminded, illiberal partners and growing advocacy for its authoritarian model, have the potential to draw fragile democracies into China’s orbit and away from the United States and the democratic West.”
The report is an in-depth look at how the CCP exerts influence in the countries most vulnerable: those whose level of democratic development makes them ripe for corruption and those where China’s authoritarian model is attractive to anti-democratic leaders. Beijing employs different tactics in each location, but patterns emerge.
For example, the lack of transparency in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multitrillion-dollar investment project, is a “feature” not a “bug,” the report states. By keeping contracts and terms opaque, China can both saddle poor countries with debt through predatory lending and protect the local elites who corruptly enable the schemes, the report explains.
Beijing seeks to keep its influence intact even if the elites they corrupted go away or their lopsided deals are exposed. In both Malaysia and Sri Lanka, Beijing-friendly governments were thrown out, but their successors found they were still saddled with the Chinese projects and the Chinese debt.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Beijing’s approach to developing countries is the Communist Party’s massive effort to influence their information space. China is buying up huge stakes in media companies in these countries, either directly or through proxies, especially Chinese diaspora media. Beijing also compels members of the Chinese diaspora, Chinese students and business executives abroad to work as “political agents” on behalf of Beijing, according to the report.
In some countries, such as Cambodia or Serbia, the CCP doesn’t need to control the information space because autocratic leaders in those countries already do it for them. In return, Beijing offers autocrats extensive training on its government and development model while selling them the cyber and surveillance tools the CCP currently uses to repress its own citizens.
“Beijing’s support for illiberal actors, the presentation of its model as a superior catalyst of industrial development, and its export of authoritarian tools and practices have the undeniable effect of eroding democratic norms in many countries,” the report states.
Of course, all countries seek to exert influence, and China, with the second-largest economy in the world and growing fast, will naturally have a global role. But the fact that Beijing is using its increasing power to undermine democracy, free markets, rule of law and free speech in developing countries is not just a problem for the developing world.
The IRI report argues that the United States and its partners must first educate their own citizens and then the people in these vulnerable countries about the reality of China’s investment and influence practices, and then help the countries bolster their democratic institutions to be more resilient to malign activities.
There are people and institutions in developing countries that are trying to resist Beijing’s strategy, the report explains. For example, in Australia, leaders have passed laws and reformed policies to respond. But less developed countries need more help.
“We need to actually focus our resources on making sure that the countries which are subject to Chinese government interference are aware of it,” said David Shullman, senior adviser to IRI. “If you want to counter Chinese Communist Party influence around the world, you have to support the people in these countries that are defending their own sovereignty.”
The United States should not be in the business of trying to halt China’s rise or forcing countries to choose between the two powers. But at the same time, Beijing’s expansive efforts to undermine the global systems designed to preserve fair competition, rule of law and basic democratic freedoms can no longer be ignored.