PRC Influence Operations in the Philippines: Can Beijing Flip the South China Sea Script?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 9

Chinese and Philippine Coast Guard Vessels Face off in the South China Sea (source: Philippine Coast Guard)


In early March, a flotilla of more than 40 suspected Chinese maritime militia vessels swarmed around Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, the Philippines’ largest outpost in the South China Sea (SCS) (The Philippine Star, March 5; The Maritime Executive, March 5; Radio Free Asia, March 5). The incident was the latest in an ongoing campaign by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to forcefully consolidate its presence in disputed waters that fall within or near the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Beijing is pursuing this agenda as part of a wider effort to entrench its territorial hold in the strategic and resource-rich South China Sea (SCS).

While many of these kinetic-oriented courses of action have received widespread coverage in the open-source literature, one aspect of PRC statecraft that has garnered comparatively less attention is the use of covert, coercive and corrupting practices to distort the national Filipino debate on sovereign competition in the SCS. [1] This tact falls under the ambit of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) and squares clearly with the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) general emphasis on achieving information dominance. This article provides an overview of the PRC’s foreign influence operations (FIOs) in the Philippines. It will discuss the broad parameters of the UFWD’s activities in the country and examine one major disinformation drive related to the SCS, Naval Gazing, which Facebook dismantled in 2020. The piece will also examine how the United States can best assist the Philippines in countering subversive PRC interference as part of Washington’s overall effort to support a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Growing Role of the United Front Work Department in Chinese FIOs

The original United Front between the CCP and the much stronger Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party first about during the 1920s and later played a key role in collaboration against Imperial Japan during the second Sino-Japanese war between 1937 and 1945 (China Brief, October 19, 2022). The UFWD resurfaced in 1979 under the paramount leadership of Deng Xiaoping, and during General Secretary Xi Jinping’s first decade in power has assumed an increasingly central role in spearheading PRC FIOs around the world (China Brief, July 6, 2017).

The UFWD overlaps and interlinks with the PRC’s intelligence community and also works closely with the CCP International Liaison Department (中国共产党中央委员会对外联络部) and Central Propaganda Department (中共中央宣传部) to exercise political influence inside and outside of the PRC. The Department oversees an elaborate network of proxies and front organizations to reward, intimidate, surveil and “positively” influence the overseas Chinese community as well as foreign academic institutions, political parties and other influential bodies and personalities. The overarching goal is to win the hearts and minds of these targeted entities and unite them in supporting the CCP’s goals while neutralizing critics. [2] The UFWD’s calling phrase, “to rally our true friends to attack our true enemies” (召集我们真正的朋友来攻击我们真正的敌人) comes directly from Mao Zedong, and General Secretary Xi has, himself, referred to United Front work as an “important magic weapon to win the cause of revolution, construction and reform, and also realize the greatness of the Chinese nation” (Xinhua, July 30, 2015).

The UFWD and FIOs in the Philippines

The Philippines has been the focus for the bulk of PRC FIOs relating to the SCS, as much of the offshore territory claimed by the PRC in this area lies within the Philippines’ EEZ. [3] The most contentious region covers the Spratly Island Chain, which at its nearest point is situated a mere 105 nautical miles from the Filipino island of Palawan (Inquirer, June 15, 2011). The UFWD has three broad goals in the Philippines:

  • Sow discord in domestic Philippine politics to encourage the population to focus on internal conflict and tensions rather than China as a main threat;
  • Weaken the U.S.-Philippine defense alliance and promote a pro-PRC government in Manila; and
  • Shape Philippine public opinion in supporting Beijing’s claims in the SCS (Author’s interviews, Manila, April 28, 2022).

Although much is still unknown about the overall bureaucracy of the UFWD in the Philippines, United Front affiliated groups are present and active in the country. According to 2018 testimony by Dr. Amy Searight before the Congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission, four such entities exist [4], which based on their websites and/or other official PRC sources, remain in operation:

  • China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (CCPPNR; 中国和平统一促进会), which promotes universal adherence to the CCP’s One China Principle by advocating against recognition of Taiwan and, presumably, its claims in the SCS (CCPPNR, October 30, 2020).
  • Chinese People’s Association of Friendship with Foreign Countries (中国人民对外友好协会), which works to foster cordial relations with other countries to “improve” their opinions of the PRC (China Daily, March 23).
  • China Overseas Friendship Association (中华海外联谊会), which acts as a platform for information exchanges, people-to-people links and provides networking across the global overseas China diaspora (China News, April 28, 2020).
  • China Zhi Gong Party (中国致公党), which focuses on outreach to overseas Chinese individuals and communities (China Zhi Gong Party, July 27, 2020).

These UFWD proxies all have a specific remit to coopt influential Filipinos and members of the national “Chinoy” community into backing the PRC’s position on regional affairs. With respect to the SCS, the Department focuses on manipulating businessmen, civic leaders, academics, journalists and politicians to act as pliable conduits for promoting and endorsing Beijing’s presence in this littoral area (Author’s interviews, Manila, April 28, 2022).

In the run-up to the May 2022 Philippine gubernational elections, for instance, the UFWD reportedly attempted to manipulate Manuel Momba, the Governor of Cagayan Del Sur, into opposing the annual U.S.-Philippines Balikatan exercise, part of which was to involve an amphibious landing in the province’s waters off Claveria (Author’s interviews, Manila, April 28, 2022). Though the drill ultimately went ahead, it is noteworthy that Momba recently announced he would not support U.S. forces rotating through two military bases in Cagayan that Washington had requested access to last November (Sun Star, February 6). [5] This reticence may reflect that the governor remains under some degree of PRC influence, at least in terms of his opposition to an American military presence in strategically significant regions of the archipelago (Cagayan sits directly across from the Taiwan Strait).

Philippine journalists, scholars, and intelligence officials have additionally linked United Front work to  several pseudo-strategic think tanks in Manila that promote one-sided analyses and commentaries supporting President Xi’s Indo-Pacific maritime policies—and issue pejorative critiques of those who dismiss his agenda. Three pertinent examples include the Philippines Association for China Studies (PACS), the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Association and the Integrated Development Studies Institute (Author’s interviews, April 25, 28, May 2, 2022).

Apart from using these centers as a means for spreading pro-PRC propaganda, the UFWD has allegedly compromised these organizations’ senior leadership to penetrate the highest echelons of the Philippine government and security establishment. A case in point appears to have occurred in August 2022, when the President of PACS had to withdraw his candidacy to become the deputy national security advisor to President “Bongbong” Ferdinand Marcos Jr. The retraction came after officials with the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency sent an unsigned letter accusing him of having close links to China and selling classified information on the SCS disputes (South China Morning Post, August 23).

Analysts further contend that the PRC has hijacked major Filipino media outlets such as World News and the Manila Times, which they argue now effectively act as (plausibly deniable) mouthpieces for the CCP party line. Although no evidence of Beijing’s direct involvement in the ownership of either newspaper exists, the UFWD reportedly helps to foster their biases by linking their leadership to pro-CCP groups in the Philippines. [6]

The Naval Gazing Campaign

Clear verification of subversive PRC FIOs in the Philippines came in September 2020 when Facebook announced that it had dismantled a major Chinese network that used false accounts and profiles to deceive Filipinos into consuming disinformation concerning domestic politics and developments in Southeast Asia. The campaign—dubbed Naval Gazing by the social media firm Graphika—developed several clusters of connected activity that: (1) decried the U.S. presence in the Pacific; (2) trumpeted the PRC’s naval accomplishments in the SCS; and (3) promoted figures who were generally favorable, or at least not actively opposed, to Beijing’s stance in the area, including then President Rodrigo Duterte. [7] Facebook traced the individuals behind the operation back to Fujian province in China and  found that they had populated 161 accounts (Facebook and Instagram), eleven Pages, and nine Groups to attract at least 133,000 followers (Meta, September 22, 2020).

Naval Gazing began creating Facebook portals targeting the Philippines in 2018, when the CCP was paying heightened attention to regional maritime affairs. The tenor and tempo of the campaign, however, rapidly intensified in February 2019, after former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed Washington’s defense commitments to Manila in the SCS (Inquirer, March 1, 2019).

In many ways the Philippines is an ideal target for online influence operations like Naval Gazing due to its high English literacy and voracious consumption of digital information. In January 2023, there were 85.16 million Internet users in the country (73.1 percent of the population), up from 76.01 million in 2022 (Datareportal, February 9). According to advertising firms We Are Social and Hootsuite, individuals were spending an average of eleven hours and ten minutes online by the beginning of 2021, which was then the highest rate of daily interent usage of any country (Rappler, January 28, 2021). Social media penetration is even greater. The most popular platform is Facebook, which in January 2023 had 87.4 million accounts in the Philippines (NapoleonCat, January).

Although Naval Gazing is no longer active, the Philippines’ national addiction to social media will likely mean that penetrating Facebook and other platforms will remain an important component of FIOs seeking to sway the country’s attitudes towards the SCS. Moreover, disinformation aimed at inflaming negative views of the U.S. and its allies in the Asia-Pacific is also liable to play an important role in this effort. For Beijing, the overall goal is to fundamentally decouple American-Philippine defense cooperation in order to gain strategic space to press its own national maritime agenda, both in the SCS and across Southeast Asia, more broadly.

Prospects for U.S. Efforts to Assist the Philippines in Countering Chinese FIOs

PRC efforts to validate its territorial claims in the SCS, including the employment of FIOs in the Philippines, have direct implications for the United States, which has a vested interest in fostering a stable, rules-based order in the region, guaranteeing freedom of navigation (FON) throughout the area and sustaining a strong U.S.-Philippines defense partnership. These priorities find direct expression in the Biden administration’s 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States (2022), which explicitly affirms that the growing U.S. focus on the region is due in part to the mounting challenges it faces, “particularly from the PRC,” and refers to the coercive and aggressive acts Beijing has undertaken to entrench its political, economic, and military footprint in this part of the world, including “bullying of neighbors” in the SCS. In pushing back against these aspersive actions, the document declares an intent to shape the broader environment in which China operates by strengthening alliances to create a “balance of influence that is maximally favorable to the United States” (The White House, February 2022).

Several interrelated ways exist with which the U.S. could help the Philippines offset Chinese FIOs and thereby promote greater transparency in the SCS in. Since 2016, when countering Russian interference and information operations emerged as an increasingly pressing priority, the U.S. has developed significant expertise in exposing, preventing and investigating malign FIOs. [8] Drawing on this experience, which has only expanded as the PRC has joined Russia as a major purveyor of disinformation, Washington could offer invaluable advice on how to foster and tailor the functional aspects of counterintelligence to blunt FIOs directed at Manila. In more specific terms, American subject matter experts (SMEs) could provide professional insight on threat and vulnerability assessments, the mechanics of generating response options, and guidance on how best to implement, evaluate, and, if necessary, refine these modalities.

Such input would be especially useful in growing and fostering the new Countering Ideological and Political Warfare course at the Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Government (ASOG). Launched in 2021, this is the first and only closed-door formal academic forum in the country that specifically aims to promote anti-FIO cooperation between Filipino national security experts and practitioners, experienced technocrats, academics, and researchers (Author interviews, Manila, April 28, 2022). In August and October 2022, the ASOG held its first roundtable discussions between Filipino and foreign SMEs (including representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation) on modern political warfare, its tactics, techniques and procedures, as well as measures to effectively offset harmful interference (Ateneo de Manila, October 11, 2022).

Another step that Washington could undertake to support the Philippines in countering malign PRC influence would be to sponsor programs that promote a more nuanced and deeper understanding of United Front work and how it compliments the PRC’s general agenda in the SCS. Highlighting the PRC’s use of co-optation, self-censorship, inducements and intimidation to exercise subversive influence would be particularly useful as it would improve the ability of Philippine officials to quickly recognize early warning signs of a FIO in progress. In turn, this would better situate the country’s intelligence community in building relevant counter-narratives for debunking Chinese propaganda over its SCS intentions.


The PRC’s investment in cultivating its subversive influence in the Philippines reflects the general importance that Beijing attaches to achieving a favorable outcome in its ongoing SCS disputes with Manila. As a result, Chinese FIOs are unlikely to diminish and, indeed, could increase now that Marcos Jr. is in power. Although Marcos Jr. is an ally of former President Duterte, who adopted a largely pro-PRC policy stance while in office, the new president has made it clear that he will strenuously defend Philippine territorial rights in the SCS, including upholding the Permanent Court of Appeal’s 2016 ruling against Beijing’s “Nine-Dash” line in the region (Rappler, May 26, 2022). The CCP may well view this stance as inimical to its core interests in Southeast Asia, which could trigger more intensive efforts to sway elite Filipino opinion in China’s favor.

An uptick in PRC FIOs in the Philippines will be of immediate concern to the U.S. given its sensitivity to any Chinese endeavor that could endanger FON in the SCS. Consequently, Washington must further develop and strategically prioritize proactive initiatives to help Manila identify and counter foreign interference that China is specifically using to expand and entrench its littoral presence around the archipelago’s northwestern waters. This sort of engagement would provide a useful and relevant adjunct to ongoing American endeavors aimed at promoting Manila’s maritime domain awareness (MDA) capabilities. These efforts fall within the broader parameters of the Maritime Security Initiative—a $425 million program announced in 2016—and currently constitute an important programmatic focus of the Defense and Security Cooperation Agency’s Institute for Security Governance. [9]

The development of a robust and resilient counter interference network in the Philippines would not only assist in stemming Chinese territorial adventurism in the SCS, but in doing so, would also contribute to weakening the CCP’s drive to recalibrate Asia’s power structure in Beijing’s favor. Both outcomes support the basic underlying premise that has long informed Washington’s emphasis on regional MDA, namely, to augment U.S. partner nations’ institutional capabilities for resisting foreign interference and augmenting their concomitant ability to promote “the stability and openness necessary for the unimpeded flow of resources and trade” across Southeast Asian waterways (The White House, November 17, 2015).

Dr. Peter Chalk is a former senior analyst with the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, CA and is now a full-time consultant based out of Phoenix, AZ. He is a freelance contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review, Associate Editor of Studies in Conflict Terrorism and serves as a Subject Matter Expert with the Institute for Security Governance in Monterey, California.


[1] Covert, coercive and corrupting are the accepted “3 cs” that separates legitimate influence from unacceptable interference.

[2] See Alexander Bowe, “China’s Overseas United Front Work: Background and Implications for the United States,” testimony for the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission, August 24, 2018; and Laura Rosenberger and John Garnaut, “The Interference Operations from Putin’s Kremlin and Xi’s Communist Party: Forging a Response,” The Asan Forum, January-February 2023.

[3] Since 2012, successive Filipino administrations have designated all maritime areas west of the Philippine archipelago and lying within Manila’s EEZ as the Karagatang Kanlurang Pilipinas, or West Philippine Sea.

[4] Amy Searight, “Chinese Influence Activities with U.S. Allies and Partners in Europe and the Asia Pacific,” testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Washington D.C., April 5, 2018.

[5] The two bases are part of a February 2023 deal allowing U.S. forces to access four military camps. This adds to the five sites that the U.S. military already has access to under the terms of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, allowing the U.S. to station equipment and build facilities in nine locations across the country—its largest military presence in 30 years. Manila and Washington concluded the deal amid wider concerns over Beijing’s territorial aggression and assertiveness in the SCS and growing fears of a possible invasion of Taiwan.

[6] Scott Harold, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, and Jeffrey Horning, Chinese Disinformation Efforts on Social Media (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2021), 91,; Searight, “Chinese Influence Activities with U.S. Allies and Partners in Europe and the Asia Pacific.”

[7] Ben Nimmo, Shawn Eib, and Léa Ronzuad, Operation Naval Gazing: Facebook Takes Down Inauthentic Chinese Network (New York: Graphika, September 2020), 1-2, 27-31.

[8] See, for instance, James Lamond and Jeremy Venook, Blunting Foreign Interference Efforts by Learning the Lessons of the Past (Washington D.C.: Center for American Progress, August 2020).

[9] The U.S. Department of Defense launched the Institute for Security Governance in 2019 as a successor to the Center for Civil Military Relations at the Monterey Naval Postgraduate School in California. Its primary function is to advance Washington’s security interests through mobile education and training programs designed to promote partner nation institutional capabilities for addressing mutual threats and challenges. For further details see “Institute for Security Governance,” n.d.,