Erin Jory | East Asia Fellow
China’s expansion challenges the strategic assumptions that have framed Australia’s foreign policies since European settlement. With increasing uncertainty about the future of American engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, Australia should not only aim to increase cyber defence capabilities, but also commit to leading regional awareness of China’s “discourse power” through its foreign influence operations across the region.
In recent years, the concept of the Indo-Pacific has become central to Australia’s strategic foreign policy outlook. As Hugh White writes, “the Indo-Pacific concept is not just a new way of reading the map…it is a vision of Asia’s strategic and diplomatic future.” The concept essentially envisages Australia’s close regional cooperation with East and Southeast Asia, and countries bordering on the Indian Ocean, in response to China’s rising power and influence.
The idea contrasts with Australia’s previous regional concept of the 'Asia-Pacific', symbolised by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum—the joint initiative between America, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia—which focused purely on economic cooperation and free trade. Whilst the Indo-Pacific concept is not inherently anti-China, it does endeavour to contain China, in Medcalf’s words, “in ways that do not fundamentally harm the interests of other sovereign states.”
Although Australian policy experts warn of the potential of China’s military expansion, the need to counter China’s foreign influence operations is often overlooked. The significance of China’s rising 'discourse power'—its global propaganda program—remains vastly underestimated.
Since 2003, “media warfare” has been an explicit component of the political goals of the People’s Liberation Army. The aim has been to influence public opinion overseas in order to nudge foreign governments and multinational companies into formulating policies that are favourable to the strategic objectives of the Chinese Communist party.
In China’s strategic thinking, words not only facilitate exchanges and discussions, they convey concepts, ideals, and values which lay the foundation for the global distribution of power. As Nadège Rolland points out, China believes “whoever rules the words rules the world.”
The arm of the Chinese Government that drives foreign influence operations, the United Front Work Department, has developed intricate methods to influence foreign public. Sometimes this involves traditional censorship, such as intimidating dissenting voices, cracking down on platforms that might carry them, or simply acquiring those outlets.
Other times this involves physical surveillance, regular compulsory checks with Chinese embassy officials, and control of information disseminated on Chinese social media platforms.
An ABC Four Corners investigation in 2019 revealed how China has already succeeded in targeting Australian politicians, media, universities, and business through its united front operations.
In this way, China’s sophisticated foreign influence operations pose a more immediate threat to Australia’s national security and regional stability than a potential military strike.
Yet Australia’s development of cybersecurity cooperation in the Indo-Pacific tends to focus on technical solutions, such as software security and data protection. We fall short of addressing the rise of China’s strategic, regional influence online.
Our engagement with ASEAN only hopes to provide an “entry point” for Australian expertise. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Australia and Singapore suggests increased “collaboration on shared challenges including terrorism and cyber security,” but fails to mention specific regional plans that address the aims of the Indo-Pacific vision.
In the battle for influence, an imbalance in discourse power represents an even more complex terrain for competition.
Through existing cooperation between Australia and Indo-Pacific countries, Australia should shift the cybersecurity narrative to not only address the threat of cyber-attacks, but also to encompass an understanding of the full spectrum of China’s sophisticated foreign influence operations.
How could this be done?
Australia’s existing partnership with ASEAN offers a platform through which Australia could raise awareness of China’s discourse power through open dialogue. Leveraging Indonesian President Jokowi’s recent speech to the Australian parliament, Australia should seek to formally join ASEAN, or at least gain observer status, as a gesture of solidarity and deeper partnership with Southeast Asian.
The government should utilise its Australia Awards Scholarship program to ensure recipients return to their home countries with an understanding of China’s cyber activity, and with a desire to contribute to Australia’s vision of the Indo-Pacific cooperation in the future.
Australia should also seek to learn from Taiwan, given Taiwan’s position on the front-line of combatting China’s foreign influence operations. We should consider closer engagement with Taiwan’s Southbound Policy—a new initiative to enhance cooperation between Taiwan and Southeast Asia—to further expand an understanding of China’s strategic tactics and regional objectives.
Leveraging its existing cybersecurity infrastructure, Australia can lead regional awareness of China’s growing cyber and discourse power across the Indo-Pacific.
If not, it will lose the battle for influence in the Indo-Pacific.