As China Extends Its Reach Abroad, When Does Influence Become Interference?

As China Extends Its Reach Abroad, When Does Influence Become Interference?
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull poses with Chinese President Xi Jinping for a photo ahead of the G-20 summit, Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4, 2016 (Pool photo by Wang Zhao via AP).

Over the past six months, debates have grown in Australia and New Zealand about whether China is wielding more political influence within their borders than at any time in recent memory. In September, a New Zealand academic, Anne-Marie Brady, released an exhaustive report detailing Beijing’s efforts to influence the country’s politics. Tactics included trying to control organizations representing the ethnic Chinese community in New Zealand and channeling money to politicians and educational institutions. In late 2017, New Zealand’s deputy prime minister called for an investigation into the vetting process for national security clearances, after Brady and several reporters revealed that a prominent New Zealand lawmaker might have had some previous links to Chinese military intelligence.

In Australia, the question of the extent of Beijing’s influence dominates politics in Canberra. In the past year, a series of stories has revealed that the majority of foreign donations to Australian political parties came from China; that one prominent Australian senator appeared to contravene his party’s position on the South China Sea just after a major pro-China donor threatened to cut his financial support; and that Australian universities, ethnic Chinese organizations and media outlets are increasingly concerned about China’s influence over them. In response, late last year, the Australian government passed new laws banning foreign donations to political parties.

But these widely reported cases of Chinese influence abroad are just a fraction of the total story. In fact, in Southeast Asia and Africa, China already has developed more advanced tools of influence than those exposed in Australia and New Zealand—or even the United States. In these developing regions, where there are weaker checks on outside interference, leaders will have to make tougher choices about which Chinese influence activities are dangerous and which are not so different from the types of projection other states, including the U.S., have engaged in for years to sway other countries’ domestic politics.

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