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Talk by Dr Jean Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer on Chinese Influence Operations, Presentation of the IRSEM Report

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  • July 22, 2022
    Only by Invitation
    1400 to 1500 hrs

    On 22 July 2022 Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) organised a talk by Dr. Jean Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, Director, Institute of Strategic Research of the Ecole Militaire (IRSEM) on Chinese Influence Operations. Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General, MP-IDSA chaired the session and delivered the welcome remarks. Dr. Vilmer’s talk was followed by signing the Letter of Intent (LoI) between MP-IDSA and IRSEM.

    Executive Summary

    In recent years Chinese influence operations have emerged as a major threat. Beijing’s clandestine operations have become tougher and more sophisticated. It is noteworthy that Chinese influence operation techniques are increasingly becoming similar to ones used by Russia. Further, China like Russia has shown considerable willingness to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries by manipulating elections, amplifying socio-political divergences and running misinformation and psychological warfare campaigns against governments, individuals and businesses. In this context Dr. Vilmer delivered a talk on scope, techniques, targets and impact of Chinese influence operations around the world.

    Detailed Report

    The session began with welcome remarks by Ambassador Chinoy. He stated that Dr. Vilmer’s visit was emblematic of the deepening ties and cooperation between India and France and was in order with the high-level visits recently exchanged between the two countries. Reflecting briefly on the basis of India-France bilateral ties, he opined that the partnership is rooted in mutual trust, commitment to international law, vision for a multipolar world and effective multilateralism. These factors will be critical drivers for the deepening of bilateral ties. Ambassador Chinoy highlighted the prominence of defence ties in India-France relations and expressed appreciation for France’s commitment to ‘Make in India’ and participation in India’s efforts to achieve self-reliance in the defence sector. Describing the convergence of interest between India and France, he observed that the most important facet of the bilateral relationship is emerging in the Indo-Pacific and in view of France’s long tradition of engagement with the region, India recognises French interests in the region as well. He welcomed France’s interest in QUAD, its interest in IPEF and Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative and expressed that these endeavours are likely to draw France closer to the emerging cooperation matrix that is currently evident in the Indo-Pacific. Considering the increasing cooperation between India and France at the international stage, Ambassador Chinoy observed that this is the right time to step up cooperation between two institutions by signing the Letter of Intent (LoI).

    With regard to China’s influence operations, Ambassador Chinoy opined that these influence operations are not new and having dealt with China closely India has best understood the Chinese. He observed that Europe’s policies towards China are not entirely in line with the way India sees China and that explains the different approaches India and Europe adopted towards the Ukraine crisis. Also, Europe has woken up late to the threat of Chinese operations. Elaborating briefly on functioning of Chinese influence operations, Ambassador Chinoy contented that many countries including India are reeling under the challenges of China’s three-warfare strategy. Thereafter, he invited Dr. Vilmer to present the IRSEM report to the audience.  

    Dr. Vilmer, at the outset of his talk, concurred with Ambassador Chinoy’s observation about Europe being late in its awareness regarding the threat of Chinese influence operations. He added that Europe’s internal division with respect to viewing China is also a major problem to tackle at the institutional level of the European Union. Referring to the report he explained that the research is premised on the idea of ‘Russification’ of Chinese influence operations. In recent years, China like Russia has showed increasing willingness to coerce and infiltrate countries to fulfil its political and geo-strategic objectives and its influence operation techniques are becoming very similar to those employed by Moscow. According to Dr. Vilmer this recent trend is a shift from China’s earlier emphasis on soft-power projection. However, Beijing now appears to be standing at a Machiavellian turn where the CCP is more inclined to evoke fear (threat) than love (persuasion).

    Elaborating on different aspects of the report, Dr. Vilmer informed the audience that it focuses on the evolution of Chinese influence operations and covers the whole spectrum of influence in terms of soft power, sharp power and some elements of hard power. He highlighted that the report constitutes of four parts; the first deals with concepts in Chinese influence operations like the United Front, Three-Warfares Strategy and Active Measures. It is noteworthy, that Beijing imported the third concept from the Soviet doctrine of influence operations. The second part of the report deals with actors implementing Chinese influence operations and they involve individuals or groups from within the Party, State, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and public private companies. These actors are involved largely in collection of data and setting the targets for influence operations. Dr. Vilmer observed that for now most of the influence operations are directed against Taiwan, Hong-Kong and other countries in Chinese periphery. Part three of the report discusses the actions implemented by Beijing in its influence operations abroad. The actions primarily intend to captivate foreign audience by projecting a positive image of China and then attempt to infiltrate and coerce. Finally, the report focuses on case studies, situations and offers instances of influence operations in different countries. In the concluding section the report examines the extent of Russianisation of Chinese influence operations and how effective Chinese endeavours have been.

    Towards the end of his presentation Dr. Vilmer, while comparing the Russian and Chinese influence operations, noted the similarities and differences between the two countries. He contended that Chinese military has publicly acknowledged drawing inspiration from Russia and that China is using trolls, fake accounts and bots the same way as Russia does. Moreover, Beijing, emulating Russian techniques, is interfering in local elections in Taiwan, Australia and Canada. It is using sensitive regions like Hong Kong and Taiwan as a testing ground for its influence operations.  Both, Russia and China are moving closer to political radicals in a bid to amplify socio-political divergences in target societies. With regard to divergences Dr. Vilmer pointed out that while China possesses more strategic levers than Russia to attain its political objectives, Russian influence operations are far more sophisticated and advanced.

    Following Dr. Vilmer’s presentation, the floor was opened for question and answers.


    During the Q&A session various issues were raised through questions and comments. With regard to the scope of Chinese influence operations the scholars queried about the extent to which certain European leaders and industries have been compromised by China’s clandestine activities and the functioning of Chinese influence operations in South Asia in terms of debt diplomacy. Dr. Vilmer affirmed that certain European leaders and industries have been compromised and Serbia and Hungary are two soft underbellies of Europe where Chinese influence is strong. However, there is an increasing backlash against China from other European countries like France and Sweden and this hostility is likely to increase in the foreseeable future. He added that the economic lever continues to be one of the most powerful instruments of influence although the issue of debt diplomacy needs to be studied in further detail. Other questions pertained to symbols of Chinese soft power, indoctrination of Chinese students prior to their arrival in western countries, role of Chinese economic interests in directing influence operations, Beijing’s assistance to Russia in building its firewall system and safeguards that can be undertaken to prevent undesirable interference by China. Dr. Vilmer responded briefly to each of the questions. He expressed that it is difficult to understand whether the Chinese students are indoctrinated or being coerced to act in a certain way. He also observed that China mostly uses its economic power to influence decisions of foreign governments and that China and Russia are collaborating on multiple fronts in the cyber domain. On the issue of safeguards Dr.Vilmer noted knowledge building and planned decoupling from China as two important measures to mitigate the threat from Chinese influence operations.

    The Report has been prepared by Ms. Mayuri Banerjee, Research Analyst, East Asia Centre.

    Press Release [+]