Tracking the evolution of Pacific island sentiment towards AUKUS
28 Jul 2023| and

In September 2021, the Chinese Communist Party attempted to use the establishment of the AUKUS pact and Australia’s plan for nuclear-powered submarines to undermine the strong ties between Pacific island countries and the three AUKUS partners. The CCP’s messaging was spread across a broad spectrum of information channels, including Chinese state media, articles and statements by CCP officials in local and social media, and official party-state Facebook groups.

An ASPI study found that the campaign failed to shift Pacific islands’ sentiment against Australia and its partners in the short term, but it can take some time for information operations to make an impact. In some Pacific countries, particularly Solomon Islands, online sentiment towards foreign partners and local governments in response to AUKUS has since shifted.

In March this year, further details about the AUKUS partnership were announced, including the timelines for additional visits of US and UK submarines to Australia and the pathway for Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines starting in the 2030s. The CCP’s response to these announcements was more subdued than in 2021, although Chinese diplomats and state media continued to question the agreement’s intent and presented AUKUS as a threat to stability in the Pacific.

Regularly investigating how the CCP capitalises on Pacific events to spread propaganda and disinformation helps detect changes in its efforts, approaches and effectiveness. Measuring online sentiment also provides insights into how different narratives are perceived by Pacific island populations.

For this new study examining the CCP’s influence in the Pacific islands information environment, we tracked online discussion of AUKUS across the Pacific for four weeks beginning on 14 March, the day the submarine announcements were made. We looked for any mention of AUKUS or nuclear submarines in Pacific online articles, press statements and opinion pieces by governments and officials, and Facebook posts on official embassy pages and by individuals in more than 50 of the Pacific’s largest public Facebook groups. The methodology is explained in greater detail in our earlier report.

During the study period, and as in 2021, the CCP pushed clear narratives and disinformation, including false claims that Australia’s submarine acquisition would breach the Treaty of Rarotonga (also referred to as the South Pacific Nuclear-Free-Zone Treaty) and threaten regional security and prosperity. The CCP sought to undermine the AUKUS countries’ Pacific partnerships by exaggerating the nuclear-safety implications of the AUKUS agreement and claiming that it would trigger a nuclear arms race in the Pacific.

Capitalising on other regional events, the CCP entwined AUKUS with Pacific concerns about Japan’s plans to release nuclear wastewater from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean. The CCP has similarly sought to undermine Japan’s government on the wastewater issue through a covert social media campaign.

In the month following the 14 March announcement, Chinese state media continued to criticise AUKUS. The number of published articles mentioning AUKUS and the Pacific increased from 9 in 2021 to 16 in 2023. In both studies, the Facebook page of China’s embassy in Solomon Islands was the only Chinese embassy page in the region that displayed any content on the AUKUS announcement.

The lone statement from a CCP official in Pacific media, published online by Solomon Star News, was a response from a spokesperson from the Chinese embassy in Honiara addressing remarks by Japanese and US officials. In this response, the CCP attempted to shift the focus away from concerns about China’s recently signed security agreement with Solomon Islands by raising nuclear-safety concerns with Japan and the US—a technique known as ‘whataboutism’.

As in 2021, Chinese state media had limited penetration and engagement in the Pacific islands online information environment. Only one article was shared to a Pacific public Facebook page, titled ‘Front Line Papua New Guinea’. It did not generate engagement or interactions, such as likes, comments or shares. However, state media was still published in print format across the region. China has content-sharing arrangements with various Pacific media outlets, which serve as an additional avenue for its messaging efforts.

We found 39 articles about AUKUS, including opinion pieces and press releases, published by the 30 Pacific media outlets sampled. This was a slight increase on the 33 AUKUS-related articles we found in 2021. The following charts show the origins of AUKUS-related media content in the Pacific during the 2021 and 2023 study periods. There was a significant increase in the amount of locally produced content in March 2023 compared with September 2021 and less reliance on publishing Western articles.

As in 2021, online reaction from the Pacific population was limited. We found only 157 direct comments across all sampled data, 67 of which were relevant for sentiment analysis. Social media data analysis tool Crowdtangle consistently ranked AUKUS content as ‘underperforming’ in generating engagement compared with other posts on the same Facebook pages.

In both studies, the people of Solomon Islands and Samoa were the most engaged on AUKUS issues online. The number of reactions in Solomon Islands commentary was disproportionately high given its share of overall media coverage.

Solomon Islands was also where we found the most dramatic change in online responses and sentiment. In September 2021, most of the comments in Solomon Islands’ groups focused primarily on China, either welcoming its statements of support or criticising its presence in the region and defending AUKUS as a necessary capability boost for Australia. In March 2023, commentary was significantly more critical of Australia and the US, using language similar to that used by CCP diplomats, such as describing the West as having a ‘Cold War mentality’. Concerns over the Treaty of Rarotonga were raised frequently in negative comments in Solomon Islands and Samoa.

Compared to the 2021 study—which was conducted before key events in Solomon Islands, such as the November 2021 Honiara riots and the March 2022 security agreement with China—we found a significant increase in negative comments towards the Solomon Islands government. They were mainly focused on the government’s lack of transparency in signing the security agreement with China, indicating that the CCP’s whataboutism approach hadn’t distracted all of the population from ongoing concerns. A comment on a Chinese embassy post also accused the account of deleting further commentary that reflected poorly on the embassy, potentially biasing the sample to favour China.

While the two studies consider particularly small datasets, they still provide useful comparisons over time. Our findings suggest that the AUKUS partners should prioritise providing further clarification on the agreement to the people of Solomon Islands and Samoa in order to debunk rumours and counter disinformation. And, given that most online engagement occurs through local media pages, Australia, the US and the UK should seek to engage directly with Pacific journalists to provide additional information and support Pacific-based reporting on this issue.