Bonnie Glaser: Countries need to be clear-eyed about China

Many countries, including New Zealand, need to take a leaf from Australia’s deep-dive investigation on Chinese-directed influence operations, says China expert Bonnie Glaser.

How are China’s relationships in the Asia-Pacific region?

There’s a trend in the region where the Chinese are trying to tighten their relationships with countries, try and resolve some outstanding issues or set them aside. And I think the Chinese are trying to capitalise on what they see as a weaker US position in the region, where they see the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and an emphasis in the Trump administration on a more protectionist economic policy and bilateral deficits that we have in our trade relationship, at least in the merchandise and goods area.

So the Chinese, I think, see an opening. They want to try and use this to strengthen their own position.

How does the re-emergence of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad affect those relationships?

The Chinese actually were quite surprised, on the eve of President Trump’s visit to the region, that there was a discussion of an Indo-Pacific strategy or the planning of a Quad meeting which was really at a mid-level at the East Asia Summit, so of course it’s not a leaders’ meeting.

I think this is a work in progress. Not only the Quad but also the Indo-Pacific strategy. The US is still putting meat on the bones as to what this means.

It’s not the first time we’ve talked about the Indo-Pacific ... but I’m still not sure exactly what the Trump administration means by it.

Officials say it’s not a containment strategy for China. Thats the way the Chinese see it, absolutely, and they see the Quad in the same terms. 

But think we have to wait and see what this is going to mean for engagement in the region.

“Countries can benefit a great deal from their economic largesse, but ... recipient countries need to be very clear-eyed about whats taking place, and ask themselves what China’s intentions are.”

How do you see China’s role in the North Korea crisis?

The role of China has always been important and Chinese co-operation is a necessary component of any strategy to try and influence North Korea. 

But it is not sufficient. It would be a mistake if the United States put this issue in the lap of Xi Jinping and said: “You solve it.”

Ultimately, the interests of China converge with those of the US and many other countries, only in the area of getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In terms of how we achieve that, in terms of the end game for the Korean peninsula, I don’t think there’s much convergence. Most Western democratic societies would like to see a North Korea that’s ruled by someone who treats his people well ... or that there is a unification of the peninsula under South Korea. I think these are outcomes China doesn’t want to see.

But the Chinese have been more cooperative in the United Nations, in particular, in agreeing to sanctions that would pressure North Korea. They’ve done this in part because they do see Kim Jong-un and his weapons of massive destruction programme, the missile tests, the nuclear programme, as a threat to China. The Chinese are worried about the potential for contamination of air, soil and water in northeast China.

The sanctions have been pretty significant. Now the question is what else China will be willing to sanction. What I sense is the Chinese believe they have done enough. They are fearful of instability in North Korea that could lead to collapse. And they have been reluctant to limit the crude oil that they send to North Korea.

The Chinese feel that at this phase, it’s best to wait until the sanctions take effect. They also want negotiations. The records show that when North Korea is engaged in negotiations, they tend to conduct fewer provocations. The Chinese feel things would be safer if they could restart the six-party talks.

We’ve seen growing awareness and concern in New Zealand about ‘Chinese influence’. What is the picture like internationally?

It is a global problem and I think the country that has over the last few years seen the greatest effort of interference by China – and growing awareness as a result of interference in the political system and in society – is Australia. There’s been corruption involved, there’s been donations made to politicians, there have been think-tanks set up with Chinese money that are advancing Chinese interests.

Australia did a deep-dive investigation to try to understand the full breadth of Chinese-directed influence operations in Australia. I think other countries need to do that as well. You’ve had some examples in New Zealand; apparently there’s no law in New Zealand that bars individuals who are non-citizens from donating to political campaigns when people run for public office. In the US, thats not allowed.

If you don’t have a law that bars it, then you should at least have transparency. Everybody has to know where money comes from ... anybody running for office should have to declare where their money comes from. I think even universities should have to declare. I work at a think-tank where we make public where all of our money comes from.

The Chinese have a series of operations they undertake in various ways, where they insinuate themselves into societies and it isn’t always apparent what the reason is for doing it. Countries can benefit a great deal from their economic largesse, but it has to be done transparently – and the recipient countries need to be very clear-eyed about whats taking place, and ask themselves what China’s intentions are.

It’s not all bad. We’re open economies and open societies; that’s one of the sources of our strengths as democracies. But we have to be aware of all of the things taking place.

China has set up these organisations that have existed for a very, very long time, to influence other countries. But now that they have more resources, ability and more confidence, they might be using them in new ways that could be dangerous to societies.

We need to ask ourselves why they are doing this. These organisations are part of the Chinese Communist Party. Not part of the Chinese Government. They’re not civil society. They’re not non-government organisations. They are the CCP. We need to be aware of that.

Is the involvement of the CCP the special characteristic of ‘Chinese influence’ then?

It’s also the fact that we share very different norms and values. That’s not to say that excessive influence from the US or another country isn’t necessarily a problem. But I think we do share the same values and we have the same political system. For example, even when the US had a disagreement about nuclear-armed ships visiting New Zealand ports, the US did not use economic pressure against New Zealand to compel it to change its position. That’s not something the US does. But it is something the Chinese do.

What will you be watching in relation to China in upcoming months?

I’m interested in how Chinese foreign policy is going to be exercised in Xi Jinping’s second term ­– where China is going to move forward, what will happen in the South China Sea. I think it’s inevitable that the Chinese will be landing, for example, military assets on artificial islands they’ve built in the Spratlys. They have hardened aircraft shelters, 24 of them, on each of these three islands so we know they will be doing more there.

Next year they will probably have a foreign policy work conference. That sets the tone and the goals for what they will do next. We might see some new guidelines for foreign policy, so we could see some more assertive Chinese actions in the region.

After the 2013 congress, the Chinese declared an Air Defence Identification Zone immediately afterwards in the East China Sea, and then the following year we saw the deployment of the very big oil rig off the coast of Vietnam. That was an extension of a decision that was made at the work conference.

Then it will be interesting to see how the US-China relationship proceeds. Will they continue to cooperate on North Korea? Will we see the Trump administration impose some sanctions or tariffs, trade remedies that might be taken against China?

The whole set of economic and trade issues is being investigated now in the US. There are some decisions being made now that will be rolled out in next year. The implications of that for even a potential trade war with China are something that could have influence on many other countries. This is not just a bilateral economic relationship – it would have implications on other countries as well.

Bonnie Glaser is director of the China Power Project at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She spoke to the Asia Media Centre on 5 December during a visit to New Zealand.

– Asia Media Centre


Interview by Rebecca Inoue-Palmer. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.