French Think Tank Report Sounds the Alarm over Chinese Influence around the Globe

With the attention on the moves by Europe amid the U.S.-China conflict, the IRSEM released a report on the information warfare waged by China around the world.

By Mina Mitsui

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With the attention on the moves by Europe amid the U.S.-China conflict, the Institute for Strategic Research at the Military School (IRSEM), a think tank affiliated with the French military, released a report on the information warfare waged by China around the world. The report warned that China is stirring up pro-independence movements in Okinawa and French New Caledonia to weaken “potential enemies.”

France is a full-fledged Pacific nation with New Caledonia and Tahiti as overseas territories. Together with the U.K., there are also plans for France to join the Quad framework comprising Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India, as Quad Plus. France is particularly sensitive to Chinese threat in the South Pacific.

The IRSEM is an independent research institute funded by the French Ministry of Defense. It released the report, titled “Chinese Influence Operations,” in September 2021. The 650-page report analyzes cases of the Communist Party’s propaganda efforts using overseas Chinese, influence in international organizations, and information manipulations via the internet. Although the report is not the official view of the French government, it reveals the firm sense of urgency towards China’s infiltration campaign.

In New Caledonia, the independence movement by the indigenous people became active in the 1980s, and referendums on independence from France have been held since 2018, according to the agreement with the French government. The IRSEM report described how Beijing has vigorously approached pro-independence leaders through overseas Chinese friendship associations. By making New Caledonia independent, placing it under Chinese influence, and using it as a base to break the anti-China alliance, Beijing seems to expect it can contain Australia.

Okinawa was cited as another example of Chinese infiltration using the same tactics as in New Caledonia. The report argues Beijing is trying to hinder Japan and the U.S. Forces in Japan from expanding their clout by deeper engagement in the Okinawan independence movement.

The Weight of Okinawa

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The IRSEM report explained that Japan has a strong national identity, even a sense of insularity, “But Okinawa—as well as the entirety of the Ryukyu Islands—is an exception.” It pointed out that because of the bitter experience from World War II, Okinawans have a mixed feeling towards the Japanese mainland; an opening for China to take advantage of.

“The population is divided on the subject of Japan [mainland]. Pro-Chinese feelings are then widespread and sustained by the fact that inhabitants benefit from trading with China. For Beijing, this is a weakness that can be exploited, and a strategic opportunity: their location ensures an access to the second chain of Pacific Islands [the military defense line against China stretching from the Izu Islands and Bonin Islands to New Guinea]. With these islands, they kill two birds with one stone by hindering both the Japanese and the Americans who are present there.”

In Japan, Okinawa’s independence sounds unrealistic, or even like some extremist argument. But there is no doubt China is taking advantage of the anti-U.S. military base movement in Okinawa. The report summarizes it like this:

“Okinawa is a fertile ground for such operations [by China] because indigenous pro-independence movements, who are also hostile to the presence of an American base on the island, already exist. The majority of the island is anti-Tokyo and anti-central government, as evidenced in the election of Denny Tamaki as governor (a longtime opponent to the American presence), in October 2018. The Okinawa prefecture hence advocates for the departure of some of the troops.

The risk of Okinawa unilaterally declaring its independence in the future is taken seriously by Tokyo. At the same time, China encourages this objective [independence] through diplomacy, disinformation, and investments in the northern part of the island near the U.S. bases.”

In recent years, China is rapidly gaining power by waging such information warfare around the world. The view that it is stirring up a divide between the Japanese government and Okinawa is convincing.

Buddhist Group Soka Gakkai and Its Political Party Komeito

As an example of China’s intentions toward Okinawa, the IRSEM report cited a May 2013 article in the Global Times, an English-language newspaper affiliated with the People’s Daily.

Titled, “Ryuku Issue Offers Leverage to China,” the article claims the Ryukyu issue “can be played as a powerful card when necessary” against Japan. The article claims that supporting the Ryukyu independence movement and threatening Japan’s national unity serves as China’s defensive measure against the Japan-U.S. alliance. It also suggested: (1) shaping public opinion by subsidizing research institutions, and (2) bringing up the Ryukyu issue in the international arena.

The IRSEM report says, “Beijing did just that,” and gives examples such as Chinese universities and think tanks promoting academic exchanges with pro-independence activists in Okinawa, and repeated news coverage by the Chinese media that question Japan’s sovereignty over Okinawa. It also referred to the Chinese government courting descendants of the Ryukyu Dynasty. These movements precisely correspond with the article in the Global Times, argues the report.

“There also is a convergence between, on the one hand, independists and those opposed to the U.S. presence in Okinawa and, on the other hand, leftist and pacifist activists, who oppose the revision of Article 9 [renouncing war] of the Japanese constitution and the reinforcement of Japanese self-defense capabilities. Beijing thus supports these movements as well, which fits neatly with China’s agenda by impeding and inhibiting Japanese military developments.

This is particularly the case for the Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, and its political party Komeito, which are working toward a Sino-Japanese rapprochement. As a result, it is, for example, commonplace to see Japanese leftwing activists and pacifists share Chinese articles against the U.S. base in Okinawa.”

The report also noted stronger economic ties between China and Okinawa. Besides increasing Chinese investment in northern Okinawa, which has U.S. military facilities nearby, the number of Chinese tourists is surging in Okinawa. The report also noted more sister-city agreements signed between Chinese cities and Okinawa.

Citing from “China’s Influence in Japan” by the Washington think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the IRSEM shares the awareness in its report. It clearly presents that, as a Pacific nation, France is very sensitive to China’s information warfare. New Caledonia and Okinawa were cited as examples of how China’s aim goes beyond expanding its hegemony in the Pacific, to cause disruption throughout the U.S. allies.

New Caledonia is located 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) east of Australia, along the line connecting Brisbane on Australia’s east coast with American Samoa and Hawaii. In the surrounding island states such as Fiji, Tonga, and Papua New Guinea, China is proliferating its influence and Australia would be isolated in the Pacific if New Caledonia becomes independent.

As of 2020, New Caledonia has held two referendums, with the majority in favor of remaining a French territory for both times. The third and final referendum will be held in December 2021.

Japan’s Advantage with the Galapagos Effect

Besides the part on Okinawa, the IRSEM report also focuses on Japan in a column titled, “The Japanese counter-example.” Despite the geographical proximity, Japan has been fending off China’s infiltration strategy; a rarity among democratic nations. As soon as Australia shifted its pro-Beijing stance, its diplomacy and trade were hit hard by China’s tight pressure. The Western world wonders how Japan, China’s neighbor, can keep its composure.

The column gave various reasons for this. First, Japan’s topography, then the wariness towards China engrained in the Japanese mind throughout history.

“…… due to an insularity that is both historical and economic (the “Galapagos Syndrome”) that makes the Japanese difficult to influence from the outside; a fortiori by the Chinese toward whom most feel distrust at best, or even antipathy. This is in part grounded in a common history of nearly 2,000 years which, in the recent period, has seen several bloody wars and, more recently, the 2010-2012 conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and China’s subsequent decision to stop exporting rare earth materials to Japan.”

The report cited the 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center in the U.S., which found that 85% of Japanese had a unfavorable opinion of China, the highest among the 34 countries surveyed. In the same survey, the figures were 60% for the U.S. and 57% for Western Europe, so Japan’s antipathy for China stands out.

As distinctive factors of Japan, the report mentioned: foreigners only account for 2 percent of the population; very strict rules on financial contributions to political parties and foreign investment; and stable political situation with long-time rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

“…… aside from two short digressions (1993-1994 and 2009-2012), the same party, the LDP, has been in power since 1955, and the other parties are not easier to influence (even the Japanese Communist Party, with little political weight, is relatively nationalist and therefore not very sensitive to Chinese influence).”

“To all this, one must add, in recent years, a greater awareness of the Chinese threat, through other examples (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia), and strengthened intelligence capabilities—which make any Chinese attempt to influence even more difficult than before.”

The Barrier Created by Media Oligopoly

The oligopoly in the Japanese media industry by several media giants was also introduced as the defensive barrier against information warfare.

“As for the media, the 810,000 Chinese living in Japan are a privileged target for Beijing, notably via the local Chinese-language media, most of which only pick up on the dispatches written by Xinhua or the People’s Daily. The Chinese-language newspaper with the highest circulation, Chubun News (Chinese Review Weekly) ‘toes the CCP line.’ But its influence is as limited as its readership.”

“Overall, the Japanese media market is oligopolistic: five conglomerates (TBS-Mainichi, TV Asahi-Asahi, NTV-Yomiuri, Fuji TV-Sankei, and TV Tokyo-Nikkei) divide the media landscape among themselves, leaving almost no room for anything else, including outside influence.

Beijing is unable to penetrate the Japanese-language media market, which is generally very resistant to any outside influence, except perhaps that of the United States (with the Japanese version of the Wall Street Journal). Nor has there been any significant acquisition of Japanese media by Chinese groups.

There is the case of the inclusion of the ‘China Watch’ in the Mainichi Shimbun but, on the one hand, the newspaper accepts ‘news on travel issues but no political or economic issues’ and, on the other hand, the Japanese readership see these pages for what they are: advertising. For all of these reasons, Japan offers relatively few holds for the usual Chinese tactics.”

Japan Is an Exception

It may seem surprising to hear China has influenced Europe, which is at a greater distance than Japan. However, if you live in Western Europe, you will realize how exceptional Japan’s environment is.

At an electronics retailer in Paris, you will not find any “Made in France” smartphones on display. There may be one or two models by Finland’s Nokia that count as European. Apart from Apple’s iPhone, everything else on the shelves are products from Korea’s Samsung or Chinese manufacturers. After the U.S. sanctions, Huawei’s sales have dropped, but Xiaomi’s sales have soared, and Chinese smartphones now account for about 30% of the French market.

Unlike in Japan, where hardly anyone buys Chinese smartphones, consumers in Europe are more open to them. There are almost no general manufacturers of consumer electronics and communication devices in Europe in the first place. Japan, with its flagship home appliance manufacturers such as Hitachi, Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp, is an extremely unusual case even among developed nations.

Television and newspapers are also experiencing a storm of international acquisitions in Europe, and Chinese capital also joins the market. In Portugal, a Chinese plutocrat gained a 40% stake in the Global Media Group, which runs the long-established Diário de Notícias newspaper, a radio station, and print media. The Italian state-run broadcaster RAI signed a memorandum of understanding for a partnership with the China Media Group (CMG), owned by the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party, on the occasion of Xi Jinping’s visit to Rome in 2019.

In Europe, the Cold War experience has made people aware of the Russian threats, but they have been less wary of China. In fact, until recently, countries were competing to establish a honeymoon-relation with China.

The mood changed in 2020 with the COVID pandemic. Because they depended on China for masks and other medical supplies, European countries ran out of supply. Faced with a propaganda campaign claiming, “thank China” and “China’s superiority over the U.S. and Europe” and blasts of fake news, they finally realized the crisis.

The “Galapagos phenomenon” in Japan was considered symbolizing its lack of international competitiveness, yet it turns out to be an unexpected advantage.

Focus on the “Three Warfares”

The IRSEM report focuses on the “Three Warfares,” namely, “public opinion warfare,” “psychological warfare,” and “legal warfare,” that China launched in 2003 to dismantle its enemies. Across roughly 100 pages, the report describes in detail the organizations and senior personnel of the various institutions for the “Three Wars,” including the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), Base 311 of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the Voice of the Strait (VTS) radio broadcasting station for Taiwan.

The report also lists examples of infiltration in international organizations, approaches to key figures in Africa and Western Europe, and information manipulation by the media. These reveal the common tactic of creating friendship groups in various countries to generate pro-Chinese public opinion and using pressure to crush any critical movements.  

For example, the “Spamouflage” operation implemented from 2019 in France was cited. Many French-language accounts of young Chinese women presented as “journalists” or “bloggers” appeared on Facebook and Instagram. While making fashion and restaurant related postings, these pages slipped pro-Communist-Party messages.

In Canada, a female human-rights activist was defamed by online fabrication of her unrestrained sex-life and received persistent phone threats. The IRSEM report is the first in France to provide such a comprehensive and detailed analysis of China’s information warfare.

The report concluded that such information warfare works negatively against China.

“…… after the start of the pandemic, during which China became more aggressive, analysts have tried to explain the ‘counter-productive behavior’ adopted by Beijing. Even if the explanation is known—for the Party-State, the priority is not to seduce local populations but to ensure its survival and to strengthen its power in China—the Party-State was probably not prepared for the fallout of such a behavior. Indeed, its unpopularity has become a problem so pregnant that it could indirectly weaken the Party.”

In October 2021, following the release of the IRSEM report, in announcing the next year’s defense plans, French Chief of the Defense Staff Thierry Burkhard commented on “the coming threats.” He said that we are no longer in the era in which a crisis occurs in peacetime, followed by war; now, there will always be war, and oppositions will develop into aggression; competition will expand into the areas of economy, military, and politics; and we must win the war before the war. Obviously, he has the “Three Warfares” in mind.    

Japan-France Relations

In September 2021, when the U.S., the U.K., and Australia launched the trilateral security framework, AUKUS, France expressed fierce opposition, which was widely reported in Japan. After secret negotiations with the U.S. and the U.K., Australia decided to receive support in its nuclear submarine deployment. As a result, Australia scrapped the submarine deal with France, and Paris was outraged by the “betrayal.”

Although French President Macron subsequently held a telephone conference with U.S. President Biden and moved to resume dialogue, the souring of relations between France and Australia is likely to linger. Unlike the U.S. and France, which are allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), there is no alliance between Australia and France. The U.K. and France have reheated the old rivalry since Britain’s exit from the European Union.

However, there is no doubt France is eagerly seeking its “role in the Indo-Pacific.” Since the Bourbon Dynasty, the country has resorted to making and breaking alliances in international politics.

Its eyes are probably on Japan. In Asia, France has kept one of the best relationships with Japan, and it is moving closer in security policy. The two countries regularly hold foreign and defense ministerial Meeting (2 + 2) and have actively conducted joint maritime drills. Since the formulation of Europe’s first Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, France has regarded Japan as an important partner country, along with Australia and India.

In May 2021, the French Army participated in a military drill in Japan for the first time. In September that year, the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s destroyer JS Shiranui made a port call in New Caledonia and conducted air defense drills with the French Navy stationed there.

With a total population of 1.5 million in New Caledonia and other overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific, France has 8,000 soldiers stationed in the region. It has dispatched vessels to the South China Sea and East China Sea, as well as to the waters around Taiwan, and has continued the “freedom of navigation” operation with the U.S.

The IRSEM report showed that France shares the same sense of urgency about China with Japan and the U.S. As various frameworks, including AUKUS and the Quad, are created to deal with China, we also need a mechanism to include France in the picture.

This is a translation of the Japanese article published in the December 2021 issue of the Seiron magazine.

Mina Mitsui
Sankei Shimbun Paris bureau chief. Born in 1967. Graduated from Hitotsubashi University. Served as Yomiuri Shimbun’s Jerusalem bureau chief and Paris bureau chief. Joined Sankei Shimbun in 2016. Author of “Islamization of Europe” (in Japanese, from Shincho Shinsho) and other books. Her latest book is “Is Defeat a Sin?” (in Japanese, from Sankei Shimbun Publications).

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