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Researcher: US aiming to influence Finland's ties with China

One researcher told Yle that an influence campaign is also attempting to sway universities in Finland.

Yhdysvaltain ulkoministeri Mike Pompeo saapuu Rovaniemelle toukokuussa 2019.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arriving in Rovaniemi in May 2019. Image: AOP

The United States is actively trying to influence Finland’s relationship with China, according to a leading expert on China.

"There have been observations in Finland too that the people from the United States have come here to hold discussions," said researcher Jyrki Kallio of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA).

Kallio also cited Foreign Ministry sources who have said that US interest in Finland’s cooperation with China has increased in recent years.

Kallio and his colleague Bart Gaens have written about the subject in a paper published by the European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC). The segment of the report on Finland claimed that pressure from the US is bearing fruit.

The Finnish government, municipalities and universities have begun to view China as more of a threat than an opportunity, the researchers said. The report even speaks of panic regarding China and notes that the change has been rapid and in part due to pressure from the US.

"Small players such as municipalities, businesses and universities are much more likely to be scared off by pressure if they encounter it," Kallio said.

One year ago, The Atlantic magazine wrote that the Donald Trump administration has been leaning on its European allies to turn their backs on China. The publication said that the US State Department had hired 150 diplomats to specifically focus on China’a role in Europe. Some of them work in Europe, others in the United States.

US embassy: Chinese threat undermines democracy

According to Kallio, the US has attempted to influence at least one university in Finland.

"It is known that the US embassy has visited a university in Finland and called on it not to increase cooperation with China. It is unprecedented," Kallio said.

The researcher would not identify the university in question. He said that he did not know whether or not the pressure tactic worked -- at least not yet.

He noted that a Danish university in Copenhagen had ended its cooperation with the reputable Fudan University in Shanghai.

"There has been speculation in Denmark that there was US pressure involved," Kallio added.

Yle asked five Finnish universities engaged in research on China whether or not they had faced similar influence attempts. None would admit to any.

William Couch, head of public affairs at the US embassy in Helsinki, said that the claims of US influence do not ring true. He told Yle that no one at the Helsinki embassy focuses exclusively on China.

However he did acknowledge that the message of the threat posed by China is an important part of US diplomatic work.

"Our diplomats communicate about these concerns around the world, also here in Finland," he added.

Couch said that China is trying to damage relations between Europe and the United States using cyber campaigns and misinformation.

"The Chinese threat is undermining democracy internationally. It is only natural that we are alert to threats against our freedom," Couch commented via email.

He listed examples where he said that the US communications strategy had yielded results. For example, the UK is reconsidering working with Chinese technology giant Huawei on using its 5G technology. Sweden meanwhile, has shuttered all of its Confucius Institutes, educational partnerships between universities in China and other countries.

Helsinki University ponders motive of visit

Helsinki University development manager Markus Laitinen said that the institution’s management was not aware of any attempts at influence.

Representatives of the US embassy in Helsinki have visited the university’s Confucius Institute twice during Donald Trump’s term in office, most recently at the end of last year. Institute head Professor Julie Chen said that the visitors did not present any demands.

Chen said that the discussion with embassy officials was positive. "I got the impression that the US wanted to proactively understand sources of contention in issues related to China," Chen added.

The institute head said that the visitors wanted to see the facility’s library and spoke about its operations and staffing in a general sense. However she said she wondered about the reason for the visit.

"I think it was interesting. Why didn’t the French or German embassies approach us? What was the motive?"

Arctic Centre also in focus

US embassy officials have also paid annual visits to Lapland University’s Arctic Centre where China is part of the research field.

Arctic Centre director Timo Koivurova said that the meetings have gone well and that he was pleased that embassy representatives have kept in touch, "although the discussions sometimes have a controlling tone," he added.

Koivurova had previously written a blog post about his shock during a speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a visit to Rovaniemi in May last year, when Finland held the chair of the Arctic Council.

Recounting the incident, Koivurova said that participants were taken aback by the image Pompeo painted of China and Russia as threats, at a meeting that aimed to advance cooperation in areas such as combatting climate change, safeguarding the status of indigenous peoples and promoting environmental protection.

"The speech was very hostile. It was a long catalogue of the evil that China has done in Africa, Asia and elsewhere in the world," Koivurova said.

In the blog post that he wrote after the incident, Koivurova warned that the US was jeopardising peaceful Arctic cooperation and promoting strategic and military competition. The blog was read 50,000 times and it came up during a subsequent meeting with US embassy representatives.

"US officials wanted to say that there had been a misunderstanding between Finland and the United States on the matter. I think that actions do not always reflect words. During the Trump administration language related to military security has been used more,” he added.

During his 2019 speech in Rovaniemi, Pompeo mentioned China as a military threat to the Arctic. Koivurova said he disagreed with the assessment. In a research group report for the government, he wrote of the challenges of Arctic cooperation with China.

"Our view is that China’s actions in the region are not that of a military player. Russia is also making sure that China’s role is limited to that of an economic investor. The real world does not currently correlate with the US perspective," Koivurova said.

Huawei a bone of contention

Sabre-rattling by superpowers like China and the US put Europe in a difficult position, Kallio said.

"One shouldn’t be näive about China and other superpowers," he noted.

China uses questionable means to advance the competitiveness of its companies, Kallio said. He added that it is also important to monitor its growing influence in international organisations.

China’s authoritarianism is also a cause of concern in Europe. The latest example is new national security laws introduced in Hong Kong, which analysts believe will undermine autonomy and freedom of speech in the former British colony.

The United States wants Europe to see China as a security threat. But European countries also want to cooperate with China on trade and global issues such as addressing climate change.

The goal of increased US influence is for other countries to break with China, according to the FIIA’s Kallio. He said this is also evident in attempts to pressure Finnish universities.

"It says that the US sees China as an economic and political competitor and is making every effort to engage in a superpower contest in other countries as well," Kallio said.

One of the most recent high-profile bones of contention for the US has been the Chinese technology firm Huawei. The US has threatened to ban global firms using American technology from working with Huawei.

According to the US, China is using Huawei technology for spying and it considers the company to be a part of China’s military threat. Many European countries still use Huawei technology.

According to the ETNC report, the United States is also actively lobbying in Finland to prevent cooperation with Huawei. Yle has received confirmation from Foreign Ministry sources that Finland has also been warned against technology cooperation with Chinese firms.

The US recommendations in Europe reflect the approach of President Donald Trump. However his policies are unpredictable and haphazard and during his administration the US has distanced itself from international cooperation.

"Sometimes you are attacked as an enemy, sometimes you are a friend. You never know who will get a dressing-down," Koivurova noted.

After Pompeo’s speech in Rovaniemi, he wrote in his blog entry, "As long as Trump is President of the United States … the Arctic Council’s climate change work will be under threat. We must also understand that one of the parties is an administration that will bring tensions from other parts of the world to the Arctic region."

Wolf warriors: China's diplomatic army

Analysts in Europe say they have also seen China’s global diplomacy become more blatantly aggressive. A recent compilation of researchers’ views by the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation has found that the Chinese Communist Party has become more demanding, more relentless and more aggressive in its international relations.

Chinese diplomats in the United States, Australia, the UK and elsewhere have become more vocal and hostile in defending China’s interests. The media have dubbed them the "wolf warriors", named after a Chinese war film.

"Wolf warrior diplomacy’s attempts at influence are clumsy. China is shooting itself in the foot," Kallio said.

The researcher said that diplomacy in superpower relations has changed considerably in recent years. He noted that the language and behaviour of social media have migrated to the arena of international diplomacy.

"Things are being said that would not have been expected of diplomats in the past," Kallio noted, adding that Trump has set the tone with China following in like fashion.

Kallio said that it is worrying that as the rhetoric hardens, talk of a new cold war will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"It would be problematic if the US positions itself for a new cold war against China. It would put the European Union in a difficult situation."

Edit: Updated at 6.40pm to include Kallio's comments on China's authoritarianism.

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