Foreign governments’ “influence operations” are increasingly worrisome. Concern has grown in tandem with the prospect of foreign meddling in democratic elections — more precisely, “interfering” rather than “influencing” — but those efforts are one form of “asymmetric warfare” (ways that countries with vastly disparate capabilities or strategies fight). Russia’s use of “little green men” to annex Crimea is one case of asymmetric warfare, although North Korean hacking and cyber extortion and China’s island building in the South China Sea are equally good examples.
China made clear its interest in influence operations in 2003, when revisions to the “Political Work Guidelines of the People’s Liberation Army” highlighted the “three warfares”: public opinion warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare. China has been indiscriminate in its efforts to shape perceptions of its behavior but if there is a holy grail for those influence operations, it should be Japan. Tokyo is the main regional challenger to Chinese dreams of hegemony. Capping the rising enmity between the two countries or undermining the Japan-U.S. alliance would be a coup for Beijing. Even putting distance between Tokyo and Washington would be a victory for China.
Oddly, however, there is little evidence that China has tried to influence debate in Japan as it has done in other countries. Australia, for example, is a primary target of the Chinese Communist Party. Amy Searight, a former U.S. defense official who works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, listed Chinese actions in a recent analysis.
They include: monetary inducements to politicians to change positions on key issues; financial support to former politicians and research institutes that back Beijing policies; threats to mobilize Chinese Australian voters to punish political parties who don’t support China’s policies; “astroturfing” local grassroots organizations to create the appearance of broad support for Beijing and its policies within the Chinese Australian community; using Chinese-language media and local civic organizations to promote narratives and individuals who are friendly to Beijing; and other efforts to marginalize or silence critics.
Those efforts were so heavy-handed that they forced an official response. In December 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull denounced the CCP for “working to covertly interfere with our media, our universities and even the decisions of elected representatives …” when he introduced legislation “to counter the threat of foreign states exerting improper influence over our system of government and our political landscape.” While all governments try to shape their adversaries (and even their partners), Turnbull criticized China for behavior that was “covert, coercive, or corrupting” which distinguishes “legitimate influence from unacceptable interference.”
Studies of Chinese influence operations see similar vectors in Japan. There are business considerations (China is Japan’s largest export market and provides one-third of tourists and university students); more than a dozen Confucius Institutes propagate officially sanctioned views of history and events, while Chinese student organizations promote conformity to those views and block dissent.
Friendship associations do “united front work” that Taiwan scholar Russell Hsiao describes as “a whole-of-society strategy that aims to influence, indoctrinate, and mobilize non-CCP persons and organizations to serve the party’s objectives.” Chinese President Xi Jinping calls united front work a “magic weapon” for advancing CCP goals. Hsiao’s list of united front groups focused on Japan reaches double digits. China is estimated to provide funds for 80 percent of Chinese-language newspapers in Japan.
In politics, China long had a strong relationship with the Tanaka faction (led by the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka) and its successors in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but that group has weakened. Now the Nikai faction (headed by LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai) is seen as more conciliatory toward China, a function of its focus on economic concerns. Ironically, the Japanese Communist Party has been implacably hostile to the CCP, aligning with Moscow during the Cold War and dismissing Chinese revisionism since then.
The “China school” in the Foreign Ministry could be counted on to make the case for relations with Beijing, but it has been greatly weakened in recent years, primarily as a result of scandal and the growing weight that security concerns have assumed in the bilateral relationship.
To be sure, China has tried to push Japan around. In 2010, Beijing tried to weaponize economic relations with Tokyo by cutting off exports of rare earths, critical to the production of high-tech goods, during a particularly nasty moment in the Senkaku Islands dispute. When tensions spike over those islands, academics in China produce analysis challenging Japan’s claim to Okinawa. Beijing is also believed to encourage anti-U.S., anti-base and anti-central government sentiment on the island through tourism, business investment and by courting members of the former Okinawa royal family.
China periodically detains Japanese researchers working in China; the last such case occurred last year.
Illegal behavior is not beyond the pale. A Japanese politician, central to the integrated resorts development strategy, was arrested last year for allegedly receiving ¥3.7 million in bribes from a Chinese online gambling service provider.
Nonetheless, studies of Chinese influence operations in Japan invariably assess those efforts as a failure. A 2018 Hoover Institute/Asia Society assessment concluded that “… the kinds of covert Chinese influence operations that have come to light in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Europe — with one exception — are not easy to find in Japan.” University of Tokyo professor Akio Takahara said that “CCP influence operations are barely visible in Japan.”
It could be that those activities are so subtle as to be invisible. Perhaps. more important, though, whatever they are doing isn’t working. A 2019 Pew Research poll shows Japanese have the most negative views of China among the 34 countries surveyed, with 85 percent expressing negative views. That matches the results of a poll by Genron NPO conducted later last year.
In analysis published last month by CSIS, Devin Stewart, a fellow at the Carnegie Council on Ethics, concluded that Chinese influence in Japan, like the air, is “everywhere but nowhere in particular.” He argues that the cultural and geographic proximity that could encourage receptivity to China and its positions has in fact inoculated this country to Chinese influence operations.
He credits “liberal democratic virtues as well as deficits,” pointing to strict campaign finance rules, regulations that favor domestic industry over foreigners, “a homogeneous population, political stability, a politically apathetic public, relative historic isolation from foreign influence, an ‘oligopolistic’ media landscape and popular suspicion toward China.” Friendship associations are dismissed because of their “unsophisticated Middle Kingdom mentality.” Meanwhile, the centralization of power in the executive branch and a relatively homogeneous ruling class dampen Chinese attempts to shape opinion and policy.
In other words, familiarity may well breed contempt. That does not mean that China will not continue to try to influence Japanese thinking. That is a given. Japan, like other democracies, must do more to ensure that Chinese initiatives are countered by objective analysis and reporting. Central to this effort is “sunshine” — ensuring that deliberations and discussions are as transparent as possible — along with credible and convincing counter narratives that appeal to the values and interests that Japan supports.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”