Australia and its partners must bring the Pacific into the fold on Chinese interference
21 Apr 2022|

In Solomon Islands and the Torres Strait and in every other state and territory of the Pacific, China’s government is sponsoring political interference activities that undermine democracy and weaken already fragile political systems. The Solomons’ signing of a security agreement with Beijing is the most public recent example.

A concerted response by Western democracies to deal with the challenges of the Chinese Communist Party’s increased grey-zone activities is underway, both in targeted Pacific nations and via external joint efforts. But, so far, local governments and civil society don’t appear to have been invited to join some of the most pertinent discussions on what to do about it.

In September 2018, the members of the Five Eyes intelligence-gathering network (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US) established a counter-foreign-interference group with France, Germany, Japan and other like-minded countries—essentially an informal expansion of Five Eyes, centred on foreign interference. The actions of China and, for some states, Russia are the main focus. In 2019, the Pacific Islands Forum states signed the Boe Declaration, which expanded the forum’s concept of security and highlighted foreign interference as a specific concern.

Identifying and countering foreign interference requires an internal, classified assessment by government agencies and a factual, public conversation on the activities and tactics involved. Yet Pacific island nations often lack the capacity to address these challenges. In some, notably Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, CCP political interference may have so weakened democracy that there appears to be next to no political will to examine China’s interference activities.

China’s broad approach to political interference makes extensive use of assets, disinformation, ‘useful idiots’ and proxies. Carried out by the united front system, a grouping of Chinese party and state agencies, the CCP’s official catch-all term for those activities is ‘united front work’. Such interference and influence work, however, is not limited to the united front; it can also involve entities from China’s propaganda, trade, foreign affairs and intelligence agencies. The CCP’s broad approach to espionage and foreign interference makes traditional counterintelligence difficult.

Targeting subnational entities is an effective way for the CCP to pursue foreign policy and military agendas that would be more readily thwarted at the national level, so united front work is often directed at local government and local authorities. The CCP calls this ‘using the local to surround the central; using the countryside to surround the cities’ (nongcun baowei chengshi; difang baowei zhongyang).

As a covert tool, the united front’s purpose and tactics are highly secret. Yet, because it requires coalition-building, many of its activities are quite visible and frequently involve public events where foreign economic and political elites endorse the CCP’s policies and agenda.

United front work is designed to corrode and corrupt democratic political systems, to weaken communities and divide them against each other, and to erode the critical voice of the media. It turns elites into clients of the CCP through financial and other inducements. It’s also used to develop asset relationships, to access sensitive technology and to promote the CCP’s foreign policy agenda.

The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (commonly known as the Friendship Association, or Youxie) manages subnational relationships and coordinates friendship associations and relations with pro-China elites in almost every country and territory. Even tiny Niue, population 1,644, has a China friendship association, with 15 members. It’s headed by a former premier and the secretary-general is Niue’s sole Chinese resident.

The Friendship Association is a hybrid party–state organisation with three ‘mothers-in-law’ (to use the argot of the CCP system): the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the CCP united front organisation, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference; and the CCP’s International Liaison Department, which the party uses to conduct foreign policy discussions with foreign political parties.

The Friendship Association manages relations with countries that recognise Taiwan and encourages them to switch recognition. China currently has diplomatic relations with 12 of the 16 states in the Pacific Islands Forum. Only Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu retain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and together they make up almost a third of its diplomatic partners. In August 2019, the Friendship Association hosted a delegation of Solomon Islands ministers and backbenchers to China, just weeks before the government suddenly switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

Friendship’ (youyi), ‘friendship relations’ (youhao guanxi) and ‘old friends of China’ (Zhongguo renmin de lao pengyou) are all CCP political terms. The terminology and approach come from the Soviet Union, which had a major influence on the CCP’s foreign affairs system.

The Pacific China Friendship Association connects 15 pro-China friendship associations in Pacific nations and territories. Some have only one or two members, but the organisation has high-level connections in China, and throughout the Pacific. Tonga’s Princess Royal Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tuita, the chair and 60% owner of satellite communications company Tongasat, is its patron. Tongasat controls six equatorial satellite slots and a single satellite. Several Chinese government corporations, and one linked to the Chinese military, use Tongasat slots.

The Pacific China Friendship Association’s founding president is Hiria Ottino, a China adviser to successive French Polynesian presidents. Anthony Leong is the association’s secretary-general while also leading the Australian association.

United front work is ‘all domain’ and involves a whole range of non-governmental groups from businesses to cultural groups in pursuit of CCP goals. So it’s essential to bring civil society, think tanks, academia and NGOs into the conversation about CCP political interference and grey-zone activities, to inform these sectors and to allow conversations to be held beyond the limitations of governmental bodies. An informed society is a resilient society.

Bringing the Pacific into the foreign interference conversation will be a visible demonstration that the US, and other partners in the Pacific, really are seeking to strengthen the region, and that their recent actions and policies are not a return to the exploitative patterns of the past.