Recently, an Australian news outlet reported that a Chinese-Australian political donor was behind a thwarted foreign interference plot to back political candidates in the next election.
This came after earlier news that a Chinese intelligence agency had been behind the plot unearthed by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.
Australia has undergone years of what is usually called ‘influence operations’ by China. Generally, all major powers go in for such manoeuvres, the United States (US) being no exception. But it is a concern when this moves into covert activity verging on espionage that the red danger signal comes on.
China has attempted to make inroads into several countries' internal decision-making structures to influence policy-making in its favour.
While this has become a hotly discussed topic in Australia and the US, the extent of such operations in South Asia is less known or written about, particularly in recent years.
What Are Influence Operations?
A US think tank called the RAND Corporation defined ‘influence operations’ as “the coordinated, integrated and synchronised application of national, diplomatic, informational, military, economic and other capabilities in peacetime, crisis, conflict, and post-conflict to foster attitudes, behaviours, or decisions by foreign target audiences that further US interests and objectives”.
That includes an element of intelligence operations, to influence decision and opinion-makers in a target country.
China has simply taken this rather forward – or rather backward – into a full-on espionage model that makes the whole the whole operation a work of intelligence agencies only. This is a world of darkness and danger, and is aimed at eroding the sovereignty of a country, including in the political sphere.
The Australian Case
Consider the case of Australia where Labour Senator Kimberley Kitching alleged that the wealthy businessman behind the overseas conspiracy was property developer Chau Chak Wing, who has been under suspicion since 2015.
China has attempted to promote its hegemonic influence in the Asia Pacific region as a clear challenge to the West's long-held dominance.
In 2017, an Australian parliamentarian was forced to resign on the back of reports that he had warned another ethnic Chinese businessman that his phone was under surveillance by Australian authorities.
The crux of all this, however, is that China has had a policy since 2005, called ‘'huraren canzheng', aimed at pushing in erstwhile citizens into its politics or allied to it.
Political parties everywhere need funds, and in Australia there is no bar on accepting funds from foreign donors, provided they are properly declared. In other words, democracies leave the door wide open for such activities, including foreign funding for universities or think tanks.
Another businessman Huang Xiangmo provided generous funding to universities and think tanks. That was backed by the entry into the country of some 1,78,219 Chinese students in 2021 – nearly 30 per cent of the total, which meant they were the lifeblood of cash strapped universities.
It then emerged that these students were being monitored through the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, which in turn ties up with other Chinese institutions like the Confucius Institutes and language centres.
All of this contributed to moulding a favourable debate on China that drew in former prime ministers and ambassadors. It’s all very effective and its outlines only emerge when there is evidence of intimidation and outright spying.
The crux of the problem was spelt out by the head of Australia’s lead intelligence agency, Mike Burgess. He warned that Australia should not let the fear of foreign interference undermine stakeholder engagement or stoke community division, as that would have the “same corrosive impact on our democracy as foreign interference itself”.
In simple words, once (any) foreign power enters a country, it is virtually impossible to root it out completely without seriously harming the state itself. Now consider other far more vulnerable states.
The Nepal Question
In recent days, protests have rocked Nepal on the issue of an aid programme by a US Aid Agency called the Millennial Challenge Corporation, with protestors likening it to the East India Company.
China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), perhaps the country's most ambitious infrastructure development project, is aimed at linking Asia with Europe. However, critics have argued that the BRI is actually a foreign policy tool through which China formulates its hold over poorer countries through 'debt traps'.
The compact which was signed in 2017 for $500 million was aimed at improving road quality, increasing the availability and reliability of electricity, and facilitating cross-border electricity trade between Nepal and India – thereby accelerating connectivity with India.
Nepal had signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a mere five months before the Millennial compact was signed. Meanwhile, controversy over the programme was spiked by Chinese media which labelled it ‘neo-colonialism’, even as Ambassador Hou Yanqi openly intervened in domestic politics.
The US now accuses Beijing of being behind the disinformation campaign, and has warned that a further delay of the compact would impact bilateral relations. The US’s accusations echo India’s own sense of Chinese interference, when Kathmandu issued a new map showing Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh, and Kalapani as part of its territory, even as India inaugurated a road to the border to Lipulekh Pass, during a time of high tensions with China.
China's Inroads Into Sri Lanka
Recently, a prominent Sri Lankan Member of Parliament Dr Wijeydasa Rajapakshe accused China of indulging in economic invasion, corruption, and debt-trap diplomacy in the island nation.
Persistent reports have long alleged that the Rajpaksa brothers, now in power, had been funded by China during their election campaign. In 2019, a close aide of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and a former head of military intelligence was arrested as a Chinese mole.
While China’s debt trap diplomacy is most commonly seen in the handing over of the strategic port of Hambantota for 99 years, what is interesting is the recent analysis that seeks to exonerate China, even while admitting that the port was never tendered internationally, a curious action at any time.
Sri Lankan expert analyses note a similar lack of bureaucratic procedures for the Colombo Port city, also handed over to Chinese companies, with legislation hurried through in just a month.
Former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had handed over the Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease. A large number of protests had erupted in Sri Lanka against the handover.
In contrast to this, all procedures, including examination by a committee, were applied to the India-Japan East Container project, eventually sabotaged after 23 trade unions launched a strike, amid a disinformation campaign of rumours of bribes by an Indian company.
Independent media pointed out concerns of the Chinese hand, not just in this project, but in inexplicable slowdown in others.
Meanwhile, the Chinese envoy declared that there are now 57 schools and seven universities in Sri Lanka offering Chinese language courses. Even more telling, 12 Sri Lankan major political parties jointly organised a special conference to celebrate the centenary anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), while the State issued a commemorative coin. This is enthusiasm indeed.
Impact On India
Before condemning Sri Lanka, however, it is as well to note that Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was extolling the virtues of the Chinese, declaring that China was the only country that had eradicated hunger in the world, and quoting the CPC Plennum chapter and verse.
Worse, the party attempted to explain away the Galwan clash as an “unfortunate” incident. Communist Party leaders in Delhi also attended the CPC centenary celebrations, Galwan notwithstanding.
At its worst, this can be attributed to ‘ideological’ affinity, but there are other surprising instances of Chinese influence peddling, quite apart from the serious cyber attacks attempted against the power grid, telecom, defence contractors, and critical infrastructure. More worrying is the buy-in into areas like entertainment and politics.
A research paper points out criticism accorded to the film Haqeeqat on the 1962 war with China, where it was alleged that China was ‘demonised’.
China has attempted to make inroads into India's entertainment industry, apart from its political and economic spheres.
Further is the Chinese buy-in into Bollywood, just a year after this sector was handed over to the propaganda department of the CCP.
In 2019, it managed to get top actors to its film festival, including Shah Rukh Khan.
The paper also details Chinese influence in prominent universities, through funding and setting up of Chinese language centres, not to mention various ‘joint’ bodies meant to legitimately increase understanding between both sides.
That the government was aware of the threat was apparent in an order that required all Chinese funding proposals to be vetted by the Home Ministry.
Entry into the world of journalism became evident after the arrest of Rajeev Sharma, a Chinese lady and her Nepali associate. A more subtle entry was through news aggregator apps like Daily Hunt and Sharechat – banned by the Indian army.
In 2020, the Indian government had taken the decision to ban 59 Chinese apps, including the popular TikTok app. The government banned 54 more Chinese apps this week, citing privacy concerns.
Now for the difficulties in removing Chinese influence, some 23,000Indian students are waiting to return to China to resume their studies. Trade surged to a record $125 bn with top firms like Tata Motors seeing a profit due to rising demand in China.
That includes Indian software service providers who had entered the Chinese market on the back of Nasscom’s launch of the Sino-Indian Digital Collaboration Plaza, an initiative to bring Indian IT companies and Chinese enterprises on a single platform. Other such examples abound.
So the Australian counter-intelligence chief is right. Rooting out Chinese influence in the neighbourhood is at least thinkable with your own well imagined ‘influence operations’. The problem is likely to be rooted out on its own. But there’s just too much money and power involved. Its rather like a termite attack, except you can’t just burn the whole thing down.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)