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Prospects for Chinese Election Meddling: Will Beijing Follow Moscow's Lead?

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In the United States, the prospect of foreign interference in elections has become a major political issue. Accusations towards Russia have outlined an elaborate disinformation operation designed to convince voters to vote Republican in the 2016 election. This presents authoritarians with a model for meddling in foreign adversary affairs going forward. One question remains, however: will other countries take Russia’s lead and build upon it?

Among countries that are both authoritarian and in tension with Western liberal democracies, China stands out. Now embroiled in a costly trade war with the United States and feeling increasingly “bullied,” China has also engaged in complex intelligence operations to procure foreign technology and strengthen its economic development position. But does that mean that China will take more intensive measures to interfere in other countries’ politics?

This post will explore China’s willingness to take the next step in its intelligence gathering operations and directly influence national country politics around the world. I will outline a couple of cases where such a policy shift will most likely be felt as well as analyze the probability that such an action will take place.

Would China meddle in foreign elections?

The short answer to this question is “no.” China is notorious for proclaiming that it does not interfere in the affairs of other states and often holds other nations to account over this standard. At the same time, however, political pressures from the Xi administration and the trade war may start to blur lines. According to Xi, China should assert itself as a major power and should secure its sphere of influence in order to accomplish this goal. The trade war has intensified this priority by underscoring the importance of a less Western-dependent economy, one that requires an indigenous high-tech base. This forms at least part of the rationale behind Chinese spying efforts to steal Western technology and reproducing it on a mass scale in China.

Where are opportunities for interference? An Overview of Upcoming Elections

If the Chinese are indeed interested in interfering in an election, there are a couple of opportunities to do so in the next few months in Argentina and Mozambique. Interestingly, both of these elections take place within the developing global south, an area targeted by China for cultivating trade relationship through initiatives like the Belt and Road. Concurrently, both regions represent areas of US influence that have been more or less ignored by the Trump administration.

Argentina

Current President Mauricio Macri is struggling. After losing a primary election badly in recent days, it is clear that his policies of austerity and attempt at stabilizing the peso have fallen on a disapproving electorate. This clearly expressed preference for more social spending counters Macri’s own evolution towards accepting Chinese investment. From China’s perspective, there is concern that Argentina will be a less reliable partner if its economic policy becomes less stringent. In an extreme case, this would but China’s demand for previously American-supplied soybeans and other agricultural products in jeopardy if the economy is mismanaged by the populist, Peronist opposition ticket.

Mozambique

Africa has been an international economic target of China for decades. Such trade relationships are especially prioritized and strong in the former colonies of Portugal. Among these countries, Mozambique has received assistance from China since the 1970s supporting the now ruling party, FRELIMO. Since then China has taken advantage of the relationship to import oil, gas, timber, sand, and other natural resources needed to drive China’s economic machine.

Politically, Mozambique faces a significant election in October. For the first time, the country is under a peace agreement between its major parties, namely FRELIMO and RENAMO, which includes newly open governorship elections. To China, the prospect of peace and RENAMO representation is a welcome development for stability in the country. That said, a change in government from FRELIMO-dominated to RENAMO-dominated could be cause for concern given the noteworthy environmental abuse attributed to Chinese companies which could drive anti-Chinese sentiment.

Future interventions

Looking beyond 2019 it is also possible that China could be tempted to interfere more intensely in areas where they already have a major intelligence presence. The most glaring of these examples is Hong Kong. China has already assembled military forces at the Hong Kong-Mainland China border and it remains to be seen if force will be used to counter mounting protests within the territory. At the same time it is possible that intellectual property acquisition of United States technology will increase as tensions rise due to the ongoing trade war.

In this way it is clear that China is heading towards a dilemma: adhere to its policy of non-interference and potentially lose ground on its interests or engage in greater interference in foreign affairs and potentially become the “bully” that it so greatly resents. Much of Chinese policy in the coming months and years will determine how this dilemma is addressed going forward, giving China watchers great opportunities for discovery and analysis. This hinge point in China’s emergence as an international power therefore represents an important element of 21st century history and is a topic worth revisiting in the future.

William VogtComment