‘Influence operations’ are necessarily neither illegal nor crossing the red line. One of the roles of having embassies is trying to influence the view of your country in the country where the embassy is. That is a part of public diplomacy, that is an influence operation. It is not about ‘Chinese influence operations’. It is about specific parts of the Chinese Communist party using alleged third parties to interfere in Australian democracy. The Australian government has been quite explicit about who they see as the perpetrators. It has also taken decisions, to which the Chinese government has reacted very badly, in the knowledge that this will happen. And the evidence of Chinese economic punishment for those Australian decisions is very hard to find.
China is very often discussed either as a threat or an opportunity. It
may be both, but especially in the Czech Republic, it is often seen as binary.
We often hear that it is either human rights or business. If we do business
with China, we are sacrificing human rights. If we speak about human rights,
the business will suffer. What is your comment on this?
That kind of binary argument is
often presented also by Chinese interlocutors when they come to countries. For
example, in Australia, they often say China is the largest trading partner by
far. If you, your government, or an organisation in Australia take actions Chinese
government disapproves of, it could negatively affect Australia’s relationship
with China. And for many countries, there is the assumption that if you trade with
China, then there is going to be a pressure on you both from China and from
within not to take policy decisions on economic or noneconomic issues that
displease China. You often hear the phrase: “You should not unnecessarily annoy
If you look at Australia’s trading
relationship with China, in terms of share of the total trade and share of
exports, it trades the most with China than any major economy, potentially in
the world – 34 % of Australian exports go to China. And yet successive Australian
governments from both sides – Labor-led governments and Liberal Coalition-led
governments – have repeatedly decided to take positions on issues that China
has expressed a view on and that are not aligned with the Chinese view, from
the South China Sea to discussions about the recent arrests of Canadians in
China, without any noticeable backlash from China. So that suggests, at least
for Australia, that the assumption that if you trade with China and you
unnecessarily annoy China in other areas, you are going to pay a heavy economic
cost, does not hold up.
Would you say that accepting this binary is basically accepting Chinese
discourse in a way? You mentioned that is what the Chinese interlocutors say.
Yes, you have got two levels. One,
just to make that connection between trading figures – those are thousands of
individual decisions made by corporations on each side – and
government-to-government relations. They are not governments’ decisions – the
Australian government does not trade with the Chinese government. Australian
firms interact so that conflation of trade figures, which are driven by market
dynamics and largely, particularly in the Australian case, undertaken for
commercial reasons by non-state actors, with foreign policy is questionable.
Second, going back to that phrase
that you hear that you should not unnecessarily annoy China. That
recognises on some issues the differences of interest between their government
and China will be so large and important that different positions will be
taken. But that “unnecessary” mainly means that the Chinese
government has the ability to determine what is necessary and unnecessary. And
for many people who use that argument, they have a list of what they think are
unnecessary issues where the government
in question should not take policy decisions different than China – for example,
it should not speak out in favour of July 2016 ruling favouring the Philippines
over China. They very rarely list what would be the necessary issues, where
they think governments or whoever should take the position different to China.
So is your point that when it comes to relations with China, politics
and economy are more independent than most people think? It is not that you
have to choose either/or but there still has to be some connection, right?
I focus predominantly on the
Australian case. China is by far the largest export destination; that suggests
that Australia is very economically dependent on China. Unlike Japan, Vietnam,
Taiwan, or even South Korea, Australia faces no sovereign rights disputes with
China, no territorial disputes with China, and no history of being in a war
with China – there is no kind of historical overlay as you get with
neighbouring countries. Australia, in some cases could be seen as an ideal type
of country with no direct security concerns with China, no history of conflict
with China, and a very large trading relationship. And yet the Australian
governments or successive administrations have not followed what is often
presented as a rule. They have taken decisions, to which the Chinese government
has reacted very badly, in the knowledge that this will happen. And the
evidence of Chinese economic punishment for those Australian decisions is very
hard to find. It could be that the case of Australia is not representative of
the general situation in other countries; perhaps it has specific factors that
make it less susceptible to this presumed Chinese pressure.
We hear about “the Chinese influence,” “the CCP interference,” you
talked about “United Front interference” today. What is the language that we
It is quite difficult, because this
is a new area of discussion, particularly in Australia where public discussion
about relations with China on these issues really came about only during the
last three or four years. And at the beginning, the discussion was about not
necessarily United Front activities in particular but Chinese influence
operations in general in Australia. I think that the discussion in both
Australia and other countries with similar domestic political concerns, the language
has become more precise.
“Influence operations” are not necessarily
illegal nor crossing the red line. One of the roles of having embassies is
trying to influence the view of your country in the country where the embassy
is. That is a part of public diplomacy, that is an influence operation. I think
that in the beginning there was this conflation between influence operations,
where you try what is legal and above board andnd interference operations,
where there is an attempt of either illegally or immorally, to directly
influence Australian politics in a way that both the Australian government and
the Australian people would find objectionable. Australia recently passed laws about
foreign funding of political parties, for example, to reduce the scope for
foreign governments with a focus on China to have a legal right to for example
fund political parties in Australia. The law followed from the concerns about
interference operation and what used to be legal is now illegal.
You said that to influence other countries is pretty standard for
anyone, any embassy would be doing that. The argument to that would be that
what China is doing is uniquely illegitimate, if not straightforwardly illegal.
As academics, you and I, we write
papers arguing about certain government policies that are often critical – like
that current policy is not proper, it should change to this policy that I am
supporting. That is, without a doubt, an attempt to influence government
policies. That is our job.
Australian case, I guess, the major issue of what was classified as “interference”
led to the decision by the ruling party to make a public discussion about it.
One of the key ones was that a China-born businessman in Australia, who had
applied for permanent residency, was providing financial contributions to an
opposition’s senator. It was observed that that this senator stated positions
on the South China Sea disputes which diverged from both the current Australian
position but also from his own party. There was a link made between getting
money from this particular business person who was the head of one of the United
Front party linked civil society associations. So there seems to be an example
of donations from a foreign actor to an Australian politician, affecting a
senior politician’s views improperly. Once it became public, the senator
quickly stepped down. And the China-born businessman who was providing
donations did not succeed either with his application.
There are a
couple of other examples of alleged interference. There was an allegation that the
Chinese government through third parties pressured the Labor government to
support an extradition treaty with China. Australia ended up not supporting it.
The allegations made by many people, who might be well placed to know what
happened, was that the message was sent that if the Labor party did not support
in the coming up election the extradition treaty, the Chinese government would
try to influence the ethnic Chinese votes against the Labor party through third
parties. So again, this has not been made official. It has been reported
repeatedly by mainstream media. It has not been denied by the Labor party, but
it also has not been confirmed.
There are a
few other examples at the local government level, where the local government
received letters from the Chinese embassy claiming that their actions were
hurting the China-Australia relations. For example, there was a flag of Taiwan
in a painting with many other flags by high school students. The Chinese
Embassy pressure did not play well in Australia.
Australia was perhaps the first one to start
this kind of discussion, although as you said, it is still a new thing. I would
like to ask you about the lessons learned in this regard. Specifically, how
would you assess the Australian response towards what the ‘CCP interference; in
terms of quality and quantity? Was it exaggerated, was there too much of
hysteria, as would many in China say for instance? Or was it too late and
inadequate and the interferences have reached alarming levels?
that other mostly western countries like New Zealand, Canada, the USA and some
European countries, have come to Australia to talk about this issue shows that
Australia is seen at least as a model. In Australia, there was a lack of
pre-existing laws about foreign donations to political parties. Many countries
have long-standing laws, the USA is a good example. They limit or prohibit
foreign donations to political parties based on the assumption that it is an avenue
for politic interference. Australia had no laws at all. So, one reason that
Australia stood out and, in some senses, might have been the first mover, was
the relative lack of pre-existing legislation. Not only for sources linked to
China or allegedly linked to China but anybody.
I was talking
to some of the people of the Turnbull administration about why they decided to
do this. They knew it would not go without at least diplomatic backlash. Their
argument, which I think is true, is that one of the strengths of liberal
democracy is that you can shine a light on areas that have been dark before.
And what they want to do is to shine the light, create a public political
discussion about this issue that has been long a concern of the Australian
intelligence community with these recent examples.
that was a proper move. Not only did it bring in an issue that is of core
interest to Australians, who are strong supporters of having an autonomous
liberal democratic system, but again it showed strength. Many people argue
against the decision, that the government was overstepping, that there was a
risk of a backlash against all ethnic Chinese in Australia not just focused on
the alleged perpetrators of these interference operations. Australia is a multi-ethnic
country with a large population of ethnic Chinese who could suffer from
increased communal tensions. It is still early to say, but three years after,
there is no real sign that has happened. So, I think overall, the timing was
largely driven by events.
understand that worry about conflation, it can be used as a stick against all ethnic
Chinese in Australia. That is a serious concern. But I think, to be fair, the
Australian governments, both the Turnbull administration and the
administrations after, are being quite careful in their language. First of all,
it is not about ‘Chinese influence operations’. It is about specific parts of
the Chinese Communist party using alleged third parties. The government has
been quite specific about who they see as the perpetrators. There is more criticism
of Australian political parties about why they have been accepting money from
foreign actors for a long time. In particular, earlier of Australian politician
Michael Johnson, who was a liberal politician before, and more recently Sam
Dastyari. It has not been only a focus on criticising the Chinese Communist
party for alleged activities that of course the Chinese government denies
happened, but also criticising the Australian political system for being open
and taking steps to reduce those legal gaps as I say.
Sometimes you can hear in such discussions that
the democratic political systems are too open and that this is putting western
democracies at a disadvantage, which allows China to penetrate them more
quickly and influence them in ways that we would consider harmful. We are also facing
a much more uncertain environment in China when it comes to the potential influence
of others. What is your take on this? Is it really so that democratic political
systems put us at a disadvantage?
there is very limited scope for trying to influence the Chinese government to
become less dictatorial, less authoritarian. One should not spend too much
effort on trying to do that.
As a net
assessment, I still think that liberal democratic systems are more able to manage
these attempts effectively. If you look at the Australian case, one of the key
triggers for the Australian government’s decision in 2016 to have a more open
discussion was a collaboration between a public broadcaster, which is independent
of the government and very critical of conservative governments (ABC), and
Fairfax, which is the second largest print media company. They worked together
for quite a while to develop stories about these alleged interference
operations, who was behind them, who they targeted, and what were the assumed
outcomes, including this focus on senator Sam Dastyari. That shows that free
media was a key component and trigger for this discussion.
Instead of seeing openness for debate as a weakness, including the criticism of the government, the language that they used was going to shine a light on this issue. Even though we know that it is going to criticise the government of our largest trading partner. Overall, I thought that it was a brave decision. The easier decision is to keep it just within the intelligence community and keep it as it had been before. But I think the decision to play to the strengths of liberal democracy and to have trust that Australians can listen to the different opinions and make a decision whether they thought the government was acting correctly or incorrectly, that was the right decision to be made. And it was interesting that the countries that seem to have sought the most information from Australia about this were other liberal democracies like New Zealand, the USA, Canada and the UK. I think the biggest problem people worried about were the weaknesses of liberal democracy in face of competition for ideas with authoritarian states where they overemphasise the strengths of authoritarian states’ ability to control messages to their people. I think many people in authoritarian states have a pretty healthy discount for what their governments tell them. There is also the lack of recognition about liberal democracies of their strengths in the long run. Many people criticised the Turnbull government, saying “you are harming relations with China unnecessarily. There is not enough evidence that they have shown us to uphold these claims. Or as I say, there could be unnecessarily inflaming racial and communal tensions in Australia.” Three years after that decision, these fears have not been realised, and the benefits have.
Dr. Malcolm Cook is a Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. From 2003 to 2010, he was the inaugural East Asia Program Director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney and then the inaugural Dean of the School of International Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide. Before that, he was a lecturer at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. Malcolm has worked in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and Singapore. He was awarded a joint honours Bachelor of Arts degree by McGill University in Montreal, a Master degree in International Relations by the International University of Japan in Niigata-ken and a PhD in International Relations by the Australian National University in Canberra.