China's biggest advantage is that other countries have left giant opportunities wide open that Beijing was able to easily fill, according to John Garnaut, a former adviser on China to Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Garnaut, who spoke to the US House Armed Services Committee on March 21, 2018, was giving national-security advice on state influence operations when he pointed out a common thread of China's influence operations. Namely, that the US, Australia, and other leading nations stopped investing in Chinese education and global development, allowing China to take control.
"China is really filling a service we are failing to provide — that is a China capability, linguistic capability, understanding of Chinese contemporary politics and history," Garnaut said, before putting a spotlight on China's state-run cultural institutes around the world.
"Confucius Institutes have found a great black hole that they can fill," he said.
There are over 1,500 Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, which aim to promote Chinese language and culture, in universities, primary schools, and high schools in 142 countries around the world.
While playing a key role in, by their own admission, China's soft-power and propaganda, they have also been deemed a "trojan horse" and a source of censorship. China's Communist Party retains ultimate control over Confucius Institutes, their budgets, activities, and curricula.
Garnaut believes the US and Australia have essentially given Beijing this influence. He said that universities "need to work hard" to rebuild their Chinese expertise so they don't have to rely on China's government to fill the gaps.
But education isn't the only area where China has seized opportunities. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), President Xi Jinping's plan to link 70 countries via railways and shipping lanes, has seen an outpouring of expensive loans to poorer nations to fund infrastructure.
"With BRI, obviously again they filled a vacuum," said Garnaut. "If we're — between us — no longer supporting development in the way that we used to in my part of the world, in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, it provides opportunities for others. I think there's opportunity to do more there and also to again really focus on transparency."
The Belt and Road Initiative.
US legislators want Confucius Institutes to register as foreign agents
On March 21, 2018, three US legislators, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, introduced the Foreign Influence Transparency Act which would require Confucius Institutes to register as foreign agents.
"This legislation aims to bring greater transparency to the activities of foreign governments operating in the United States," said Rubio.
When asked about the proposed law, Garnaut said regardless of whether Confucius Institutes should be registered, "that's the right direction."
"What they do is partly propaganda, but even more importantly is their connection to the United Front's Work Department system and that is they can potentially be used, and we need to stop them being used, as a platform for influencing decision-making in universities," said Garnaut.
The United Front Work Department is the arm of China's government that openly runs China's soft power and influence initiatives internationally, particularly in regard to Chinese students studying abroad and the Chinese diaspora.
And the relationship between United Front Work and Confucius Institutes was made even stronger this week in a vast government shakeup. United Front Work's role is being strengthened, and it will absorb the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and oversee international Chinese language education.
From now on, Confucius Institutes may very well be overseen by the United Front Work Department.
But countries should be more concerned about quieter initiatives
As much as the US and Australia should be concerned about overt instances of influence, such as the Confucius Institutes, Garnaut believes there are far more serious instances of influence that need to be tackled.
"One thing about the Confucius Institutes is, at least we know about them and people are talking about them. In a way, that degree of transparency goes a long way to curing the problem," Garnaut said.
"What I'm personally more concerned about is things that don't have a big flag over their building. We see other institutes and research institutes performing similar functions but without the attention, and I think that's where we need to pay a lot more attention."