Chinese Influence Activities with U.S. Allies and Partners in Southeast Asia

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This report originally appeared as testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Thank you to the Commissioners for convening this hearing today and inviting me to testify. The Commission has asked me to focus on assessing China’s relations with U.S. allies and partners in Southeast Asia—specifically, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore. I was also asked to address the various tools with which China seeks to influence these countries and their relations with the United States, and to provide related recommendations to the United States Congress.

The questions asked in this hearing today are important and timely. In light of recent revelations regarding Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence operations in Western democracies, it is important to shine attention on the issue of whether CCP influence operations are being deployed elsewhere.1 Southeast Asia is a region of high strategic significance to China where it is leveraging all instruments of national power – sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully – to wield influence. I will discuss these efforts and objectives later in my testimony.

Recent studies on Australia and New Zealand have demonstrated the extensive and centrally coordinated efforts through CCP-led mechanisms to influence public debates and policy outcomes in these countries. John Garnaut and Anne-Marie Brady have described these countries as “canaries in the coal mine” of Chinese political influence efforts. If countries with strong democratic institutions like Australia and New Zealand are vulnerable to Chinese influence and domestic political interference, one can imagine that countries in Southeast Asia that have weaker governance, less transparency and higher levels of corruption will be even more susceptible.

While there is extensive study of China's diplomatic and economic influence and activities in Southeast Asia, it is notable that United Front Work Department (UFWD) efforts have not been a focus for those studying these dynamics. I think there are several reasons for this, but I do hope this hearing helps spur U.S. Southeast Asia experts – academics, think tankers, government experts including the intelligence community – to focus more time and attention on this issue.

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Amy Searight