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OSINT and Information Environment Assessments for the Asia-Pacific Region

Summary:

The APAC (Asia-Pacific) region is key for Western governments, including the Biden administration. APAC relations are evolving as tensions between China, the United States, and their respective allies escalate. Open-source intelligence (OSINT), which gathers insights from public sources like social media, is crucial for understanding emerging events and trends in the region.

Bottom Line:

APAC populations use a variety of online networks, from mainstream social media to region-specific networks and niche defense forums. With the right OSINT tools, these sources provide valuable insights—from detecting new military technologies  to assessing public sentiment and predicting foreign influence operations.

 


 

Full Article:

Western governments are keeping a close eye on the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region. In February 2022, the Biden administration released the Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to strengthen the United States’ APAC presence and ties. Similarly, developing stronger relationships with APAC partners is key to NATO’s 2030 agenda as tensions in the region escalate.

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These objectives will require a heightened awareness of APAC information environments (if you’re wondering what an information environment is, check out our comprehensive blog here). 

For government organizations like NATO, that means monitoring adversarial and friendly APAC activities—everything from technology developments to military actions, public discourse, and media manipulation.

NATO is prioritizing capabilities for information environment assessments (IEA) to support its goals in regions like the Asia-Pacific. IEAs provide timely, accurate intelligence for target information environments, but they also pose some challenges:

  • There are many open-source networks crucial for APAC intelligence-gathering, but western analysts may be unfamiliar with them and overlook valuable insights.
  • APAC relations are changing quickly as tensions between China, the United States, and their respective allies escalate, requiring faster, up-to-date insights.
  • Intelligence teams are overwhelmed with data, which causes information gaps and minimizes speed-to-information.

What does the APAC information environment look like and how can open-source intelligence (OSINT) capabilities address these challenges?

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APAC: Current Areas of Interest

China’s role as a global power dominates the need for APAC information environment assessments—but the spread of misinformation and transnational threats are also of interest to intelligence leaders.

Geopolitical Tensions

According to NATO 2030, “[t]he scale of Chinese power and global reach poses acute challenges to open and democratic societies.” For years, China has affirmed territorial claims in the South China Sea, an area rich in natural resources. 

More recent Chinese activities include continued militarization of disputed islands, a clash with Philippine supply ships, and warplane incursions into Taiwan’s defense zone. The US is particularly concerned with China’s hypersonic missile developments. China’s growing military presence and territorial claims over the self-governing nation of Taiwan are also increasing fears of a potential invasion.

Alliances like the Quad and AUKUS, as well as cooperation from previously neutral countries like Indonesia, signal a significant shift in APAC geopolitical relations.

How OSINT Helps

  • Publicly-available content like social media, news, and satellite imagery can locate new military activities in real-time.
  • These sources are also useful for understanding the development and use of new technologies in the APAC region.

News results related to Chinese warplane incursions in Taiwan—discovered with the Echosec Systems Platform

Information and Media Manipulation

Misleading online information related to COVID-19, politics, religion, public health, and climate change has increased in the APAC region. Recent research also shows the scale of Beijing-linked misinformation campaigns on social media. 

For example, YouTube removed 10,570 channels linked to coordinated Chinese influence operations from January-September 2021—compared to just 192 Russia-linked takedowns in the same time frame.

Topics for China-linked media manipulation range from local geopolitical issues like Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, to global targets like social justice, politics, and pandemic response in the US. Experts also say that Chinese social media is being used to spread Russian disinformation to reach global audiences shielded from Kremlin-produced media.

How OSINT Helps

  • Social media monitoring is critical for proactively detecting and predicting new media manipulation campaigns.
  • Large social datasets can illuminate broader population trends, like public sentiment towards specific issues or hashtag popularity.

Transnational Issues

Climate change is now part of NATO’s action plan, recognizing it as a “threat multiplier that impacts Allied security, both in the Euro-Atlantic area and in the Alliance’s broader neighborhood.” 

Sea level changes and extreme weather events impact military effectiveness and geopolitics. They also cause famine and other humanitarian impacts leading to instability.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen how transnational concerns like the COVID-19 pandemic are interwoven with geopolitics and other risk areas like disinformation. Understanding the intersection of these issues will be critical for IEAs as climate change effects and other transnational threats evolve.

How OSINT Helps

  • Public media like aerial photography and social content can help intelligence teams assess environmental changes.
  • This content also provides early detection and real-time, on-the-ground updates for natural disasters and other crisis situations.

APAC: Social Media Sources

Excluding China, the APAC region contains a third of the world’s mobile internet users, and social media use steadily grows in the region. This provides a valuable pool of open-source data to draw from when producing IEAs. 

 

This includes a variety of non-mainstream networks that western analysts may have never heard of. Here’s a quick rundown of some social media sources to consider for gathering OSINT in the APAC region. 


A word cloud representing the hashtag #standwithukraine on the Korean social network Naver–generated with the Echosec Systems Platform.

 

  • Naver

Korean-language search engine and blogging site that’s hard to search using conventional search engines.

  • Baidu Tieba

Chinese social media network hosting self-governed communities. Baidu Tieba is valuable for sentiment analysis in the Chinese population and monitoring topics and events not covered on state-run media.

  • Defence Forum India

An expansive forum covering Indian and other Asia-Pacific defense topics. The site hosts up-to-date information for military capabilities and other activities, providing early warning indicators.

  • Douban

A Chinese social media site useful for assessing trends and population sentiment, especially for well-educated, white-collar communities.

  • Douyin

The equivalent of TikTok for users within China.

  • Pakistan Defence

Similar to Defence Forum India, this site provides current defense developments for global regions with a focus on Pakistan.

  • Sina Weibo

China’s second most popular social media platform. The network is a microblogging site similar to Twitter, but with a much larger user base.

  • Sino Defence Forum

A Western-hosted forum discussing PRC military platforms, technology, and tactics. This forum is useful for understanding Chinese military capabilities and other crowd-sourced updates in the APAC region. 

  • Tencent QQ

A messaging service and web portal owned by the Chinese tech giant Tencent. Services include social games, music, shopping, and microblogging.

  • Tianya Club

Another Chinese social network hosting forums on a variety of topics. Some forums are location-based, making them useful for monitoring regional activities within China.

  • Toutiao

A Chinese news and social media platform similar to Google News.

  • Voz

A Vietnamese forum centered on technology news and discussion. The site has been associated with extremism, including jihadist views, violence, and hate speech.

  • Xueqiu

China’s main financial platform, providing information publishing, brokerage services, online discussions, and real-time transaction data. This site is valuable for IEAs incorporating financial and economic insights.

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OSINT Solutions for Information Environment Assessments

Publicly-available web sources help intelligence teams access faster, more accurate insights for APAC information environments. Social networks like those listed above are useful for several applications, including:

  • Predictive and real-time threat detection for military activities, natural disasters, disinformation, and other risks.
  • Insights from on-the-ground locations not accessible to field sensors and other classified information sources.
  • Public sentiment, technology developments, and other regional trends.

The abundance of open-source data means that gathering efficient insights relies on specialized OSINT tools like the Echosec Systems Platform. For comprehensive, timely IEAs in the APAC region, intelligence leaders should provide the following OSINT capabilities:

  1. Wide data coverage. Analysts must have easy access to a combination of mainstream and regionally relevant APAC sources. Consolidating these sources in an OSINT platform ensures that analysts don’t overlook important insights from networks they’re unfamiliar with.
  2. Translation. APAC information environment assessments require analyzing multilingual content. OSINT tools should make it easy for analysts to translate queries and search results into a variety of languages.
  3. Data visualization. Capabilities like word clouds, sentiment analysis, and hashtag trends help expedite data analysis and show broader trends for understanding target information environments.


Provider distribution for social media content containing the hashtag #GenocideGames. This hashtag was used in a coordinated pro-China effort to dilute anti-Chinese sentiment online.

IEAs are a high priority for governments with Asia-Pacific interests. But without the right OSINT tools, intelligence teams are likely overwhelmed with data yet unaware of location-specific sources.

This prevents governments from gaining an information advantage, which is necessary to stay ahead of adversarial threats like disinformation. Advanced OSINT tools help address these issues by consolidating pertinent international data sources and generating relevant, real-time insights.

This creates faster, more reliable, and up-to-date IEAs to support strategic communications and decision-making in the APAC region.

 

Do your analysts have access to data relevant to their region of interest? Request a consultation to see if you’re overlooking any sources.

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