Assessing Chinese Influence in the Pacific Islands States: A Media Analysis
An intern at the Center for China Analysis during Summer 2023, Rory Gates completed his doctoral work at The Institute of World Politics with a focus on great power competition and international relations theory.
In recent years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has made a concerted effort to increase its diplomatic, economic, and cultural influence in the Pacific Island States, viewing Oceania and the Western Pacific as a region of strategic importance. In particular, the region has served as a diplomatic battleground for Beijing’s global struggle for influence with Taipei and with some of the world’s few remaining states located in the region that still maintain diplomatic recognition of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan, rather than the PRC. An aggressive media campaign has accompanied this broader effort by the PRC to gain influence in the region. Chinese state media has worked in recent years to translate its content into local languages and has taken other steps to make its media products available for local outlets. What the overall impact of the PRC’s effort has been, however, is unclear.1
Measuring the degree to which China has succeeded in expanding its power and influence in the region is therefore of significant interest to policymakers as well as general observers of Chinese foreign policy — not only in Taipei but also in Washington, which maintains a national interest in retaining its own close relations with the states of the region. Such an assessment has generally proven difficult, however, as few means have traditionally been available to quantify the impact of Chinese or other influences on public and elite perceptions in these small island states.
New AI-assisted media textual analysis tools may now be able to help shed some light on the efficacy of influence efforts on overall sentiment in these countries, however, at least in the realm of domestic media. This study applies such an analysis, employing the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone’s (GDELT) Global Knowledge Graph (GKG) 2.0 and sentiment analysis tools provided by the analytic platform MonkeyLearn to assess PRC, ROC, and U.S. influence in two case study countries: the Federated State of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). These two nations (together with Palau) are part of the Compact of Free Association (COFA) established in agreement with the United States and are therefore especially important U.S. partners.2
This first-of-its-kind analysis reveals some surprising initial results that may challenge common assumptions: at least in the mainstream media ecosystems of these two countries, not only do PRC influence efforts appear to have failed to produce any substantial positive impact on local public sentiments, but they may even have backfired. Moreover, U.S. efforts — despite relatively substantial economic outlays — have also failed to have much positive impact. In comparison, Taiwan is punching well above its weight in terms of media influence. This outcome may provide policy-relevant lessons about what does and does not work in the region and in such a media environment.
The GDELT project’s GKG 2.0 database ingests all the world’s media every 15 minutes and then machine translates the content into 65 languages while coding for more than 2,000 expressed emotions and themes along with the overall sentiment of the articles. By drawing on and analyzing data from 2015 to 2023 assembled in this database, it was possible to piece together an overall picture of how the press in the COFA states is discussing the PRC, ROC, and United States, along with some sense of the themes driving this coverage.
Results from the Marshall Islands registered net negative views of both the PRC and the United States, which scored –1.79 and –1.23, respectively, on a scale of –10 to 10 (general sentiment toward other countries is assessed by the quantity and emotional valence of specific words and sentences used in news articles that make reference to the actor in question, with 10 being the most positive and –10 the most negative). In contrast, the ROC registered a net positive score of 0.22.
Notably, however, all these scores sit near the middle of the range, perhaps indicating more indifference than strong sentiment either way. Indifference is most clear in the case of the PRC, which is simply not covered very much by the RMI press. Of the more than 2,700 days for which data is available, only 18 produced a significant reading for sentiment toward China either way. By comparison, there was 470 days of press coverage of Taiwan, a media salience advantage of more than 26:1 in favor of Taiwan. The United States was even more heavily covered, with only 28 days in which the local press did not cover the United States since 2015.
In the FSM, similarly, the most striking feature of the Micronesian media environment is a shockingly low level of coverage of the PRC overall. Of the more than 2,800 days of data in the dataset, only 17 presented enough coverage to produce a statistically significant reading for sentiment toward China one way or the other. This is especially striking given the extensive investments that Beijing has made in the islands, including more than $64 million invested through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) alone.3 In comparison, the ROC — which is not a major source of financing for the FSM and does not have formal diplomatic relations with the country — receives approximately 12 times the coverage, with 213 days providing significant sentiment readings. The United States again receives frequent coverage.
As in the RMI, FSM media is again broadly negative in sentiment regarding the PRC, with not a single recorded day of coverage reflecting warm sentiment toward China.4 Overall, the PRC received a score of –1.33. In comparison, the ROC registered at –0.76, the United States at –0.43. Most of the negativity in the FSM regarding the PRC appears to be driven by concerns surrounding what shows up in the data as “taxation” — that is, the fear that repayment of debts owed to China will ultimately land in the lap of citizens. Corruption is also a topic of concern. In contrast, the United States is by far the largest donor to Micronesia, and the relatively less negative sentiment it registers appears to reflect this, with news articles announcing funding of specific initiatives producing highly positive sentiment. Discussion of limited funding can produce equally negative sentiment, however. Meanwhile, coverage of the ROC is dominated by largely neutral topics including natural disasters and general economic reporting.
Sentiment in the RMI reflects similar issues, displaying intense local concerns about debt and taxation, reflecting the potentially high long-term costs with which the PRC’s debt-driven overseas strategy can saddle recipient states. In contrast, the ROC has devoted a significant amount of development aid to the RMI, and ROC projects conducted in the RMI are covered extremely positively by local press. Other important themes of positive coverage include Taiwan’s involvement in forestry and environmental management, disaster assistance, and medical support.
The United States, which provides a far larger amount of financial assistance to the RMI than any other donor, receives disproportionately more negative coverage, (as of this writing Beijing appears to be providing no aid to the Marshall Islands).5 While the reasons for this discrepancy are not entirely clear, one factor seems to be that discussions of the United States and its aid revolve around the issue of payments made by Washington in recompense for nuclear testing carried out in the islands while they were a U.S. territory. Marshallese often register dissatisfaction with the size and continuity of those payments and appear to view payments more generally from the United States as something they are owed, rather than as more freely offered aid like that of the ROC. The Marshalls have also proved willing to withhold their participation in U.S. led initiatives for the region as a way of extracting further aid from Washington.6 It remains to be seen if the new agreement signed by the Biden administration in October 2023 will rectify tensions between the United States and the Marshall islands.7
Conclusions and Recommendations
Going forward, the West Pacific will be a key arena for strategic competition between the United States and China. Much of this competition will occur in the information realm. At present, however, there is no reason to believe that either the RMI or the FSM is in imminent danger of aligning closely with Beijing due to effective PRC influence efforts. Rather, Beijing is viewed negatively in both countries, and financial investment by the Chinese government does not appear to have produced desired results in either location.
As measured by the data in this study, the PRC’s influence efforts in the RMI and the FSM have generally failed. It appears that the local populations in both countries maintain significant anxiety regarding China’s intentions, including on debt, taxation, and corruption. This has outweighed China’s attempts to generate goodwill in the islands and therefore seems to remain a key vulnerability for Chinese influence activities in the region. In contrast, Taiwan seems to have mastered the art of media influence through a well-developed range of diplomatic and person-to-person contacts and direct grants. Meanwhile, despite the most significant funding outlays to the islands, the United States is generally depicted negatively in the media in both countries, particularly in the Marshall Islands. This suggests there is room for improvement in the U.S. approach.
In comparison, Taiwan has successfully cultivated a base of goodwill in the West Pacific by providing generous aid and by engaging in collaborative development. This contrasts with the questions and concerns surrounding Beijing’s approach, which seem to have proven a liability. While the United States also delivers a significant amount of funding to the COFA states, negative perceptions in the media persist. This suggests that economic engagement is an important but not sufficient factor for generating influence — the nature and intention of that engagement matters, and a clever and effective media and diplomatic engagement strategy must be paired with it to have any real impact.
With a proposed commitment of $7.1 billion in funding to the COFA states, the Biden administration’s 2023 budget has signaled a significant economic commitment to the RMI and the FSM.8 Ultimately, however, a higher level of diplomatic engagement and public diplomacy may be an even stronger means for the United States to improve relations and goodwill in the islands, including vis-à-vis the PRC.
- Axios’s December 2023 interviews with elites in the FSM revealed a political culture which benefits from its status as a “middle power” able to play the US and PRC against one another and comfortable with the kinds of petty corruption (such as politicians receiving free gifts) that comes from doing business with Beijing.
- Pete McKenzie, “Marshall Islands, Feeling Neglected by the U.S., Enjoys New Leverage,” Washington Post, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/01/27/us-marshall-islands-chi….
- David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina, “Exclusive: US Negotiator Signs New Deal with Strategic Marshall Islands,” Reuters, October 17, 2023, sec. World, https://www.reuters.com/world/us-negotiator-expects-sign-new-deal-with-….
- Derek Grossman et al., “America’s Pacific Island Allies the Freely Associated States and Chinese Influence” (RAND CORP, 2019). https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2900/RR29…; Dame Meg Taylor, “Pacific-led Regionalism Undermined” (Asia Society Policy Institute, September 2023). https://asiasociety.org/policy-institute/pacific-led-regionalism-underm….
- Grossman et al., “America’s Pacific Island Allies the Freely Associated States and Chinese Influence.”
- Carol Li, The Belt and Road Initiative in Oceania: Understanding the People’s Republic of China’s Strategic Interests and Engagement in the Pacific (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, July 2022), p. 11. https://www.cfe-dmha.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=FaplgGeo2ps%3D&porta….
- The PRC does not have diplomatic relations with the RMI.
- “U.S. Aims for Over $7 billion in Aid for 20-Year Pacific Islands Compacts” (Reuters, March 23, 2023). https://www.reuters.com/breakingviews/us-aims-over-7-billion-aid-20-yea….