The Chinese government has been running a coordinated disinformation campaign in Solomon Islands, suggesting that Australia, the United States and Taiwan fomented the riots that rocked the capital Honiara last year, according to new analysis by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
Chinese diplomats also intensified efforts to criticise Western countries after the political controversy surrounding the China-Solomon Islands security pact, with state media trying to paint Australia and the US as colonialist bullies, ASPI said.
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However, China's attempts to shape public attitudes — and undermine both Australia and the US in Solomon Islands — have achieved mixed results, with Beijing gaining only limited traction online.
The findings are contained in a new report, which has closely analysed Chinese state information campaigns in Solomon Islands over two time periods spanning a total of 18 weeks.
It found Chinese state media outlets published 67 articles on Solomon Islands over that period, with 70 per cent of those pieces directly aimed at undermining Solomon Islands' relationships with the US and Australia, or supporting Chinese state narratives.
However, those 67 articles were only shared 11 times on public Facebook pages, where the vast majority of Solomon Islanders access information online.
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"They were publishing an article nearly every second day, but only a handful of those were even shared on Pacific Island Facebook groups," Blake Johnson, the report's main author, said.
"And, even when they were, they were receiving very little engagement, and the comments were mostly negative towards China.
"So these two avenues were quite ineffective."
Mr Johnson said China achieved more success by convincing Solomon Islands outlets to republish Chinese government press releases and state media pieces.
"They were much more active in this area than other diplomats in Solomon Islands. They were almost [as active] as the Solomon Islands government itself," he said.
Language echoed from Chinese state narratives
Mr Johnson said analysis of comments on Solomon Islands social media found "a strong correlation with a decline in anti-China sentiment and a rise in anti-West sentiment" after the coordinated information campaigns.
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For example, after Honiara exploded in riots last November, Chinese officials and state media started to accuse "outside forces" of cultivating the unrest, suggesting the US and Taiwan deliberately inflamed tensions or sponsored the rioters in order to stoke tension between Beijing and Honiara.
Before this campaign, three in four Facebook comments on this subject were critical of China, but that figure dropped down to 57 per cent over the following weeks.
Negative comments about the West ticked up slightly, but were still only 7 per cent of the total.
A similar dynamic emerged when Chinese officials and state media outlets accused the West of "interference" and "bullying", after the US and Australia criticised the China-Solomon Islands security agreement.
Both Canberra and Washington are anxious that China might use the agreement to establish a military presence in Solomon Islands, although Honiara has repeatedly denied that will ever happen.
The ASPI report found that negative comments about China dropped from 49 per cent of the total to 29 per cent during this campaign, while positive comments about Beijing jumped sharply, from just 8 per cent of the total to 41 per cent.
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Critical comments about the West bounced up, from zero to 18 per cent.
The report also found more than one-in-four negative comments about the US and Australia from Solomon Islands Facebook users echoed language found in Chinese state narratives, with many commentators accusing the West of "threatening", "controlling" or "bullying" Solomon Islands.
False narratives aimed at damaging Australia
Mr Johnson said it was unsurprising China would do everything possible to shape public opinion in Solomon Islands, and officials in Canberra should be aware of how state media was working to deliberately tarnish Australia's reputation.
"It's not somehow unique or wrong that the Chinese Communist Party is engaging with media in Solomon Islands. If anything, I think the US and Australian diplomats should be engaging with the media at a similar level," he said.
"The difference is the fact that, at times, they're engaging the media to spread clearly false narratives that have a clear objective that is damaging to Australia."
The report recommends the federal government should push back against these campaigns by supporting more research into foreign government disinformation in the Pacific, increasing the transparency of Australia's aid program, and working with other like-minded countries to expand Pacific Island journalist training.
The ABC has approached the Chinese embassy in Australia for comment.