By Alan Ting

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia: There is a renewed interest in the influence operations being conducted among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), particularly in what is perceived to be the long reach of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in vulnerable countries like Malaysia.

Being unable to deploy personnel who are officially affiliated with its diplomatic missions due to the very real possibility of a backlash, the CCP deploys individuals who have been embedded themselves in country who operate within the structure of the United Front Work Department (UFWD), granting it plausible deniability while allowing infiltration and influence activities to appear less obvious and threatening.

While it is no secret that the UFWD has been working through the country's Chinese diaspora for years, it has now expanded its operations through the country's academic institutions, think-tanks and even media, giving it unprecedented access and ability to influence public policy and political outcomes in Malaysia.

This can be observed clearly with the release of the highly provocative 2023 China Standard Map, showing a line of control that stretches right up to the coastline of this writer's state, Sabah and the neighbouring state of Sarawak, both of which have proven offshore oil and gas reserves not to mention untapped mineral wealth and rich fisheries. Naturally this line of control cuts deep into Malaysia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that is supposed to stretch at least 200km from its coastline.

“The map has no binding effect on Malaysia”

While the Foreign Ministry released a muted complaint, the government largely toned down any response against this much to the disappointment of many thousands of Malaysians who flooded social media with angry comments over the map.

But looking beyond the surface, why was Malaysia's response so muted? For one publicly funded think-tanks such as the Institute of Strategic & International Studies (ISIS) and the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) have been muted, offering no public statement or even private advice to the government on how best to approach this provocation.

Naturally there is credible information that in one way or the other these think-tanks have been infiltrated and bought over, making those entrusted with looking after the national interest reluctant to call out China for fear of losing lucrative grants, funding and the opportunity to co-organize conferences locally and participate in conferences held in China itself.

Even worse is the proliferation of pro-CCP think tanks such as the Center for New Inclusive Asia which touts itself as " a non-government Malaysian think tank focusing on the studies of the new dynamics of Asia brought about by the rise of China..." but is in reality filled with sycophants determined who do everything possible to push a pro-CCP line.

The effect of these think-tanks and a muted media response has a very real and demoralising effect on Malaysia that reaches the very top levels of the government:

Anwar said Li was "clear and categorical" in saying that China would continue to negotiate and not "exercise any action that would explode or cause dissension with our colleagues, our friends in the region." reported Reuters quoting from Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's recent trip to the United Nations General Assembly where he dismissed the threat of losing its South China Sea states due to China's "reassuarences".

Talk about letting the wolf into the sheep pen. There is also a proliferation of pro-CCP "news" websites and a sprawling network of social media influencers, trolls and cybertroopers to push CCP friendly messages while drowning out critics.

Disturbingly Freedom House found that even the country's state news agency Bernama is not out of reach of the UFWD with "Malay-language media, including Bernama news agency republishing Chinese state media content" and China Radio International, a known propaganda tool, being allowed to openly operate in cooperation with Bernama Radio.

"One topic commonly covered by Chinese state narratives in Malaysia is sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea (SCS). China’s territorial interests are couched in a rhetoric of “maintaining peace and stability,” implying that other foreign powers are seeking to dominate this space (or unfairly painting the CCP as an aggressor), and that Beijing is ensuring regional order and security."

While the UFWD's influence operations are broad based there is an obvious recent focus on issues surrounding the South China Sea and Malaysia should it choose to continue ignoring this threat will find it increasingly difficult to voice its concerns as its claim is slowly chipped away even in the minds of the public.

Secrecy is the problem, transparency the cure

The governments should disrupt the CCP’s capacity to use UFWD figures and groups as vehicles for covert influence. They should begin by developing analytical capacity for understanding foreign interference, hence the need to clear out think-tanks and academics, as outlined by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute which has successfully developed strategies aimed at countering UFWD influence domestically.

On that basis, they should issue declaratory policy statements that frame efforts to counter it. Countermeasures should involve law enforcement, legislative reform, deterrence and capacity building across relevant areas of government.

Law enforcement, while critically important, shouldn’t be all or even most of the solution. Foreign interference often takes place in a grey area that’s difficult to address through law enforcement actions. Strengthening civil society and media must be a fundamental part of protecting against interference. Policymakers should make measures to raise the transparency of foreign influence a key part of the response.

But most importantly is the need to raise public awareness. the public must be made able to recognise such attempts to influence them. Think-tanks, academia and the media must understand that by choosing to remain silent or being copted means the slow strangulation of Malaysia's status as a sovereign state and its eventual transformation into a satellite state in the CCP's orbit, a fate which has already befallen Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and indeed many other countries beyond ASEAN.