As President Biden welcomes leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to a special summit this week in Washington, DC, his administration is affirming Beijing as the US’s main rival and underscoring the region’s importance in US-China competition. The two-day event is part of the US effort to woo ASEAN members caught in a delicate balancing act between superpowers.
But China has been wooing as well, and not just with the trade and investment that are likely its most powerful levers of influence in Southeast Asia. Over the past decade, Beijing has steadily expanded its media influence in these countries in four key ways, as a means of shaping their views.
China’s most straightforward method of media outreach is directly broadcasting or publishing its state media content in target ASEAN countries. Xinhua, China’s official state media agency, has print agencies in every Southeast Asian country. TV news channels CCTV-4 and the English-language CGTN likewise operate in nearly every country in the region, while China Radio International airs multilingual content in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. Xinhua is a ministry-level agency directly under the State Council, while the other media organizations all operate under the Chinese Communist Party Publicity Department.
China also airs its media through partnerships and content-sharing agreements with foreign media organizations in the target countries. Such agreements are attractive to Southeast Asian countries in part because they provide free content for local media to use. China, of course, uses them to inject its preferred narratives, laundered through familiar news sources, into homes across the region. In Thailand, for example, at least 12 news organizations and websites had signed content-sharing agreements with Xinhua by late 2019, including the Thai news network TNN24 and the parent company of Khaosod, one of Thailand’s largest newspapers. Indonesia’s MetroTV signed a similar agreement in 2019. In the Philippines, the Presidential Communications Operations Office, which runs the Philippine News Agency and other state media outlets, has signed multiple agreements with the Chinese government in the last five years for content-sharing, joint media production, and other forms of media cooperation.
China has also been building relationships with journalists in these countries in other ways. Since 2007, Beijing has organized multiple joint forums with ASEAN to promote media exchanges and cooperation, sometimes under the auspices of the Belt and Road Initiative. Since 2014, the government-backed national non-profit China Public Diplomacy Association has run a ten-month training program for foreign journalists which includes lectures on Chinese society and politics, internships at state outlets such as China Daily, and (heavily controlled) field trips to Xinjiang to promote the CCP’s narrative there. The program attracted about 100 journalists in 2019, including many from Southeast Asian countries. The Chinese government also supports various journalistic associations such as the Thai-Chinese Journalists Association, ostensibly to promote understanding and good relations between Chinese and foreign journalists.
China’s United Front Work Department and subordinate entities like the China News Service also target and court ethnic Chinese in other countries in an attempt to shape their opinions or recruit them in service of CCP priorities. In 2019, for instance, the China News Service organized the World Chinese Media Forum, a conference that invited hundreds of Chinese-language media figures from around the world, including more than 50 from Southeast Asian countries (and another 50-plus from the United States). The journalists were treated to speeches from the deputy director of the United Front Work Department, the director of the department’s 10th Bureau (responsible for monitoring and influencing overseas Chinese), and other CCP officials who exhorted them to promote China’s prosperous, stable, and peaceful development abroad; shape a positive image of China in their home countries; and tell the story of the CCP’s governance. It is obvious that these local journalists are seen as an extension of Beijing’s propaganda work. Partly as a result of these outreach efforts, Chinese-language media in Southeast Asian countries tend to take pro-Beijing positions on issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Finally, private Chinese firms have also played a role in shaping Southeast Asia’s media environment. For example, WeChat, a highly versatile app that offers text messaging, electronic payments, and news sharing, has been gaining popularity in Southeast Asian countries. In 2020, it was authorized for use by the Indonesian central bank, establishing it as a legal form of payment in Southeast Asia’s largest economy. Owned and developed by the tech giant Tencent, WeChat has a reputation for political censorship and sharing private data with the Chinese government, including reportedly even users’ deleted messages.
Chinese corporate influence is also spreading through the acquisition of foreign companies. ByteDance, the Chinese company responsible for TikTok, purchased the Indonesian news aggregator BaBe in 2018. BaBe then began to censor news that criticized the Chinese government. Even ostensibly private large companies like Tencent often have ties to the Chinese Communist Party, including a Party Committee made up of senior company executives that exists to serve the Party-state’s priorities.
Why has Beijing gone through all this effort? Unsurprisingly, a major motivation is to improve China’s image in this key region. Official CCP policy guidance calls for using media to “tell China’s story well” and to increase the country’s “international discourse power,” while military texts speak of the media as a “weapon” in “public opinion warfare.” In other words, Beijing seeks to use its overseas media outreach to win influence and counter what it perceives as unfairly negative narratives about China spread by Western media. Key narratives include whitewashing China’s abuses against human rights and democracy, downplaying its responsibility for COVID-19, and instead boosting accomplishments such as poverty alleviation and vaccine development.
So far, these efforts appear to have had mixed results. A 2021 survey of ASEAN elites (academics, policymakers, journalists, and businesspeople) found that most see China as more influential in their region than the United States, but also that Beijing’s “public opinion warfare” has failed to overcome high regional distrust of China . Overwhelming majorities in every country – ranging from around 69 percent in Laos to nearly 98 percent in Vietnam – were “worried” about China’s growing political and strategic influence.
This should not allow US concerns, however. The survey—the third in an annual series—also showed opinions of the US to be mixed and possibly more malleable. While confidence in the US jumped from 35 percent to 55 percent after the election of President Biden, a majority in six of ten ASEAN states were concerned about US political and strategic influence in their country. This suggests that China could adopt an information-warfare approach more along the lines of Russia’s, seeking not so much to be loved but to degrade competing powers.
If Beijing uses its media foothold in Southeast Asian countries to influence perceptions of the US rather than for pure self-promotion, it may succeed in tipping the delicate balance of influence in the region.
Daniel Shats is a research analyst with BluePath Labs, a DC defense and tech-focused consulting firm.