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Pacific Media: A New Arena of Competition between the United States and China

Aditi Dhaundiyal, Intern, Southeast Asia and Oceania Centre, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi
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  • March 12, 2024

    The United States (US) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been jostling for greater influence among the tiny yet strategically important Pacific Island states. As this competition for influence gets more heated, new areas of contestations between the two powers have emerged. One of the latest areas of contention relates to control over the Pacific media. Australia and New Zealand have been major content providers in the Pacific. However, funding cuts and changing geopolitical dynamics have paved the way for China to seek space within the Pacific media landscape. Australia’s shortwave radio frequencies, for instance, shut down in 2017, were taken over by China two years later.1

    China and the Pacific Media

    In 2023, Chinese Media Group inaugurated a new headquarters for its Asia-Pacific branch in Hong Kong SAR. This branch, aimed at projecting a favourable image of China to the Indo-Pacific, is broadcast in 41 countries and is said to have a viewership of over 3.3 billion.2 With regard to the Pacific Island countries, Chinese media has established its presence in the region through the radio and television format. State broadcaster China Central Television broadcasts documentaries in the Pacific Island states of FSM, Samoa, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga through its CGTN Documentary channel (formerly known as CCTV-9 Documentary).3

    The PRC has also been peddling favourable narratives through its embassies in the region. Zhang and Watson note the publication of 92 articles by Chinese diplomats, in major Pacific media outlets, between August 2016 and September 2020.4 PRC’s public outreach has also involved promoting the government stance on domestic and international issues through interviews with the local journalists.

    A 2022 Australia Broadcasting Corporation Four Corners report dug into the possible links between the Chinese government and the Solomon Islands President Manasseh Sogavare. The investigation revealed an alleged PRC involvement in the form of political bribery to help the Sogavare regime survive the no confidence motion in the parliament.5 Furthermore, the PRC was alleged to have identified the Kolombangara Island as the location of a possible Chinese military base in the region.6

    In response to the report, President Sogavare issued a statement condemning foreign media’s coverage of China’s activity in Solomon Islands, equating any scepticism of the China–SI bonhomie to an act of “racial profiling”.7 He went on to threaten a ban on journalists providing a negative coverage of the bilateral relationship although no legal action has been taken by the government so far. However, such an attitude towards foreign media is unsurprising when viewed alongside the Sogavare government’s censorship back at home. National broadcaster Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, that is now fully state-funded, has reported instructions to project the state in positive light only.

    An Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) exposé has revealed a funding request to the PRC on behalf of Solomon Star, a leading Solomon Islands daily, of a sum of SBD 1,150,000 (INR 11,356,366) in exchange for a favourable coverage of PRC and its intentions in the Indo-Pacific.8

    China exporting its brand of journalism to the Pacific Islands undermines the democratic ecosystem of the Pacific Island states. It gives the PRC the ability to ‘tell the China story well’ (traditional Chinese: 講好中國故事) and thereby manage the narrative. The journalistic landscape in the Pacific Island countries is especially vulnerable because of developmental needs and a lack of robust regulatory mechanisms in the region.9

    The PRC is the second largest development partner of the Pacific Island Countries (PICs), second only to Australia. It has been able to leverage financial incentives to achieve diplomatic objectives. A case in point is Nauru’s switch of diplomatic recognition to China. Economic aid from the PRC translates into adoption of the Chinese model of development and governance. The export of digital authoritarianism is evident in the case of Solomon Islands, where direct financial incentives to the leading Solomon daily coupled with government directives make for a friendly relationship with the local media outlets. On the other hand, Pacific journalists such as Scott Wade and Dan McGarry have faced repercussions, such as suspension and visa revocation respectively, for negative reportage of Chinese activities in their countries.10

    Export of the Chinese model of digital governance finds support among PIC governments that are predisposed to censorship as a means of dealing with criticism. News media in Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, PNG and Tonga have experienced curbs on freedom of expression for being critical of the establishment.11 Pacific journalists have been subjected to intimidation and physical assaults in PNG, Solomon Islands and Fiji.12

    US Counter Moves

    China’s rising influence has been a cause of concern for the United States. The US Department of State released a report titled ‘How the People’s Republic of China Seeks to Reshape the Global Information Environment’ in September 2023, which lists five main facets to China's media growing global influence. These include leveraging propaganda and censorship, promoting digital authoritarianism, exploiting international organisations and bilateral partnerships, pairing co-optation and pressure, and exercising control of Chinese-language media.13

    The GEC report also delves into the use of bots to increase traction on the social media accounts of Chinese diplomats, content sharing agreements with foreign media that contain exclusivity clauses, and real word intimidation. Having identified a dubious international relations commentator named Yi Fan, the report alleges PRC’s use of ‘manufactured personas’ without any overt association with the government to peddle the official narrative in foreign media. Absence of direct political affiliation to the Chinese establishment gives the impression of objectivity, lending credence to the seemingly non-biased opinion pieces being published.

    The US Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Elizabeth Allen, during her October 2023 visit to the Pacific Island countries, revealed Washington’s desire to collaborate with the regional media sectors across the Pacific. This intent has so far manifested in the American support for the establishment of Digital Communication Network (DCN) hub for the East Asia and Pacific (EAP) region in Australia.14

    At the DCN-EAP’s inaugural forum in 2023, ‘Information Integrity in the Digital Age’, professionals and participants from across South-east Asia and Oceania were brought together to discuss the impact of media and information systems on all aspects of society. The event was also open to participants from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Mongolia, with the PRC being an apparent exclusion among the East Asian states. The agenda of the event was centred on the themes of ‘Cultivating Resilience’, ‘Building Trust’ and ‘Shaping Influence’.15

    The DCN-EAPinitiative is a welcome step towards US engagement with the Pacific on the theme of democratic media landscape. The United States has been slow to recognise China’s increasing soft power in the region because of its tendency to view the Indo-Pacific from a largely securitised lens. This is not to assert a complete lack of cooperation between the American and Pacific Island journalistic circles.

    The East-West Center, a Honolulu-based research institute established by the US Congress in 1960, provides 15 PIC media outlets the license to republish The New York Times articles. The institute has also worked with the National Public Radio’s Next Generation Radio Project to offer mentorship programmes to budding journalists and staff at the University of the South Pacific.

    However, given the rapid expansion of Chinese media networks in the region, the US has a lot of ground to cover. There is a need to channel more diplomatic energy and resources into ensuring freedom of press in the region. US allies such as Australia and the United Kingdom have made progress in the media sector through Australian Broadcasting Corporation International Development (ABCID) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Media Action respectively.16

    The US, given its marginal influence in the PICs vis-à-vis regional players like Australia and New Zealand, needs to work in tandem with its allies to support the Pacific’s national media associations such as the Pacific Islands News Associations (PINA), and Pacifica Media Association (PasiMA). There is scope to expand cooperation with the region’s new agencies in the form of content sharing and capacity building initiatives.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.