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China’s pervasive attempts at influence in the South Pacific region are attracting a good deal of attention from the Australian and United States’ Governments right now. While the press inundates us with articles and analysis on China’s actions and perceived intent (because in many ways we’re still guessing at the motivations), serious think tanks have been tracking the rise of China’s approach to soft and sharp power for some time [1].

An emerging focus for companies in the intelligence space like Fivecast is a need to identify the information and disinformation campaigns – propaganda messaging at best, a level of soft Information Warfare at worst – surrounding China’s geo-political maneuvering. As China takes new actions, our clients carefully assess the accompanying online messaging to determine what is real and what is carefully crafted disinformation hiding more nefarious intent. Online messaging and social media commentary from the local populous is a valuable resource for timely situational awareness.

To learn more about how OSINT can be leveraged to discover and assess foreign influence, request our case study:

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China and the Solomon Islands

China’s overtures to the Solomon Islands are a key focus right now [2]. Nuanced, but aggressive moves, previously described as “soft power” (designed to allure, attract and persuade) appear to be setting the scene for “sharp power” (which can manifest in bullying and pressure), over South Pacific nations in need of aid and not willing to bite the hand that feeds [3].

This was at the crux of Australia’s shock at China successfully signing a security agreement with the Solomon Islands. With key diplomatic personnel out of the country, [4] the (now former) Australian Government was caught well short of an adequate response – something that played out very publicly in what media widely described as an indo-pacific foreign policy failure. Australia and the United States are now very much on the back foot. Had the Government been proactively sensing the mood in the Solomon Islands, via well-placed Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) feeds, the forewarning of China’s intent and activities on the ground may have rung much louder and far sooner.

In response to concerns over China’s increased influence, the US and Australia have renewed their engagement in the region. In September, the Biden Administration hosted a number of Pacific Island leaders at the first US-Pacific Island Country Summit to address concerns in the region and rebuild relations. However, concerns over China’s influence are still present.

“This gift has strings attached, but for what? Our resources? Influence? A base?… Sooner or later, they will come and collect, and I worry that by then we’ll be so dependent on China we will not be able to extract ourselves.” 

Solomon Islands Opposition MP, Peter Kenilorea Jr. – referencing the stadium being built by China for the Pacific Games in the Solomon Islands

By November, both China and Australia had delivered caches of weapons and vehicles to the Royal Solomon Island Police Force. Both nations describe the commitment as capacity building. However, it is framed at the government-to-government level. Australia and the United States should be actively monitoring OSINT to see how the “hearts and minds” piece is developing across the broader South Pacific region.

China’s regional influence playbook (both soft and sharp) is not new, and many of the plays in the Solomon Islands have been seen before. Take the current push to install China’s police in the country. The process starts softly with police cooperation, then police training (China recently held talks on policing with a number of Pacific Islands Police Chiefs and Officials), then police assistance [5]. By which stage, China has police on the ground in another country. The prospect of a transition to sharp power quickly becomes real.

Chinese Influence Operations

In mid-2021, Fivecast released a case study looking at the issue of Chinese policing in South Africa. Here Chinese police assistance has built to a point where they are in country ostensibly to ‘protect’ Chinese citizens working in South Africa, [6] but as you can read in our case study, not everybody is seeing it this way. Interestingly, one South African news service in 2020 went so far as to declare the building of Chinese police stations in South Africa as “Fake News”, instead referring to the opening of “14 Community and Police Cooperation Centres to work with South African police”. China has been so sensitive to the issue that in 2018 growing negative sentiment forced China’s MFA into an official response, entitled “The So-Called “13 Chinese police stations in South Africa” Is Totally Fake News”.

How Chinese police arrived and under what soft diplomacy measures seems open to debate, but what is clear is a readily observable pattern of Chinese influence in South Africa over a number of years. A pattern that Government and Corporates alike would do well to monitor through carefully selected OSINT solutions to ensure they are on the front foot in their chosen operating environments.