Disinformation in the Western Pacific, Made in China

According to a recently released special report by the United States (U.S.) State Department’s Global Engagement Centre, China has been found to be spending billions of dollars to expand its disinformation campaigns around the world, resulting in critical constraints in the freedom of speech and reliability of information. The report noted that Beijing’s “global information manipulation is not simply a matter of public diplomacy – but a challenge to the integrity of the global information space.” Furthermore, it cautioned that if left unchecked, China’s efforts can “result in a future in which technology exported by the PRC (People’s Republic of China), co-opted local governments, and fear of Beijing’s direct retaliation produce a sharp contraction of global freedom of expression.”

One of the more controversial analyses in the report stated that a significant portion of Beijing’s billions of dollars’ worth of investment is centered on “foreign information manipulation” using propaganda, censorship, and the promotion of news that depict Beijing’s international politics and external relations in a highly positive and favorable light. At the same time, the report emphasized how China has been suppressing and constraining crucial information on its human rights record and its assertive engagements throughout the Indo-Pacific. Beijing’s full-blown effort to paint a positive image of the Chinese Communist Party, while sweeping its on-the-ground geopolitical atrocities under the carpet can be attributed to its desire to promote its role more effectively in the Global South through frameworks such as the Global Security Initiative (GSI), which depicts China as a responsible and inclusive leader. Such attempts have been largely visible in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region where Beijing has been pushing for a more influential security role at the expense of U.S. leadership.

Weaponization of Information

However, along with the goal of improving its global image, Beijing’s vast disinformation campaigns also aim at altering the status quo order to its favor. Such actions can be clearly observed in the South and East China Seas. These sub-regions of the Indo-Pacific serve as critical geopolitical flashpoints given their positions which lie at the intersection of Washington’s traditional sphere of influence and Beijing’s burgeoning locus of power. China’s ability to project influence and increase its strategic footprints in this critical geographic space rests on altering the status quo narrative to its favor without the overt use of military force. Being a calculative power, China has often invested in non-military means for geopolitical ends. Sharp power projection and the weaponization of information are important tools of authoritarian governments given the nature of their political system.

While disinformation campaigns from authoritarian countries like China can easily penetrate and exploit the intellectual fabric of open democratic societies due to the liberal and open nature of their media and press, it is equally difficult to target authoritarian countries with such means due to their controlled media. In relation to the South and East China Seas, China has been quite active in bending the narrative of what takes place in the disputed maritime territory, particularly at a time when countries like Japan and the Philippines have been deepening and broadening their security ties with the U.S. to preserve and safeguard their sovereignty and sovereign rights amidst revisionist forces. The past few months have witnessed several of these activities.

Spreading Accusations

When Japan released treated waste water from its damaged Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea in September, it was done based on the approval of scientists and experts. Additionally, the United Nations also confirmed that the release process was in line with international safety standards. However, despite the empirical and scientifically driven approach incorporated by Tokyo, China continues to call out and question the science and safety behind Japan’s actions. Moreover, these rumors also catalyzed the harassment of Japanese citizens in China, while also jeopardizing the East Asian country’s exports. Ironically, while the Japan water release process has been transparent and consistent with international health standards, China has often disregarded transparency. Therefore, Beijing’s baseless accusations towards Japan can be better understood as an attempt to illustrate its concern for the region, while also tainting the image of Japan as a responsible Indo-Pacific country.

Similarly, China’s foreign influence operations have also been on the rise in the Philippines. One of the most notorious operations was dubbed as “Operation Naval Gazing” by social media analysis firm Graphika. This was composed of a network of over 100 social media accounts that garnered a following of over 100,000. Such accounts were reported to have promoted Philippine politicians that were in favor of China. However, in September 2020, Facebook announced that it had removed these China-based accounts that were responsible for spearheading Beijing’s disinformation campaigns. More recently, against the backdrop of the chain of assertive and provocative actions being taken by the Chinese Coast Guard (CGS) within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) sounded the alarm on suspected Beijing-backed disinformation campaigns that sought to downplay Chinese belligerence in Philippine waters. More importantly, as Manila now seeks to enhance its alliance with Washington, while also narrowing the functional gap of the hub-and-spokes system, it can be assumed that China will seek to further augment the regional security narrative to its favor.

Calling Out Fake News

Therefore, given the tumultuous nature of Indo-Pacific geopolitics, it is likely for China to invest more in its global disinformation campaigns given their limited strategic costs on Beijing. For countries like Japan and the Philippines, which are often at the receiving end of such activities, a number of external and internal measures must be enhanced. National governments must empower professional journalism and encourage transparent, consistent, and efficient reporting on critical developments that take place in strategic areas such as the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

The PCG, for instance, has recently been taking journalists aboard to broadcast and publicize the CCG’s belligerent maneuvers in the Philippine EEZ. Additionally, news channels must be dedicated to immediately release reports that call out disinformation. Moreover, national governments must also create or strengthen legal frameworks for online accountability.

Additionally, private technology firms must also be encouraged to invest in technology that can trace fake news and assist users in identifying them via algorithms and crowdsourcing. Furthermore, it is vital for like-minded countries that share common concerns to constantly share information and best practices to update each other’s capacity to address such forms of disinformation activities.