Australia must stand strong against Beijing’s political warfare
China’s extraordinary growth as an economic and military power has been a defining development for Australia. But managing our future relationship with an increasingly assertive and authoritarian China will require a reassessment of our assumptions about the nature of the Chinese political system and a willingness to learn from past mistakes.
Since former senator Sam Dastyari opened our eyes to Beijing’s extensive influence operations, we’ve come a long way towards understanding the nature and extent of the China challenge and developing effective responses. Yet we still don’t have a clear-eyed view of China, judging by the persistent refusal of apologists and boosters to acknowledge the dark side of the Chinese Communist Party’s exercise of power.
Naivete, vested interests and wilful ignorance are partly to blame. But so is Beijing’s highly effective use of political warfare to cloak and advance its strategic interests. Andrew Hastie, the chairman of the joint parliamentary committee on intelligence and security, says Australia needs to push back hard “to preserve peace and avoid war”. Former ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma argues that we should borrow from Israel’s experience and boost our offensive political warfare capabilities by taking the fight to authoritarian regimes in a way that is consistent with our values.
They are right. It’s now dawning on democracies that interference and influence operations are only part of a suite of instruments in the political warfare toolkit of authoritarian states. They include propaganda, aggressive diplomacy, disinformation, media manipulation, subversion, financial inducements, the theft of intellectual property, lawfare, coercion and the use of economic and military pressure for strategic purposes. Understanding how and why the CCP conducts political warfare is the key to crafting a fit-for-purpose China policy.
Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell was an early identifier of the importance of political warfare in the armoury of authoritarian states and the need to defend against it.
Another is strategist Ross Babbage, the author of a major study on the subject for a US think tank. Babbage identifies the four primary goals of the CCP’s conduct of political warfare as maintaining the party’s uncontested rule domestically; establishing China’s preponderance in the Indo-Asia-Pacific; building influence and prestige; and exporting its authoritarian model.
The problem is that these goals cannot be achieved in the CCP’s zero-sum world without suppressing dissent, eroding the sovereignty of other countries, undermining the rule of law and weakening democracies. But why is it that so many democracies have difficulty in discerning the CCP’s strategy and intent?
One reason is that we have different, much narrower concepts of war and peace and little experience of political warfare since the end of the Cold War. Deception and propaganda are central to its practice.
The CCP deliberately hides its weaknesses and intentions within a concealing narrative of victimhood (a hundred years of national humiliation at the hands of foreigners) and soaring achievement deliberately calculated to create the impression of inevitable progress towards global pre-eminence.
Western elites mistakenly assumed that China would transition from a revisionist to a status quo power. Although they never thought China would become a Jeffersonian democracy, their folly was to assume that China would become more like us and a responsible stakeholder in a liberal international order. It’s abundantly clear that Xi Jinping has no intention of doing either.
In her latest book, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, respected political economist and veteran China-watcher Elizabeth Economy concludes that Xi’s China is an increasingly ideological state that feels imperilled by liberal values. Xi considers constitutional democracy, human rights, academic freedom, judicial independence and freedom of the press as fundamental threats. That’s why he devotes so much time and effort to exporting elements of his authoritarian model and undermining Western democracies.
Seventy-four years ago, a Moscow-based American diplomat named George Kennan wrote a penetrating analysis of the Soviet Union that Pulitzer Prize writer Louis Menand later described as the primal document of Western Cold War foreign policy.
Kennan’s 8000-word telegram, unimaginable in today’s world of superficial tweets and sound bites, captured Stalin’s aggressive mindset and astutely dissected his then little-known strategy for making the Soviet Union the dominant global power.
Kennan noted that Stalin weaponised every instrument of state power to advance the interests of the Soviet Union, foreshadowing today’s use of political warfare by authoritarian states. He also co-opted friends, including useful but expendable “democratic progressives”, using the Communist International and other front organisations.
Conversely, Stalin sought to undermine the political and social cohesion of Western democracies to reduce their strength and influence, “collectively, as well as individually”. He invested heavily in deniable, covert operations and an “elaborate, far-flung apparatus” for influencing other countries while obscuring the internal workings of the Soviet Union through secrecy and repression to keep opponents in the dark and conceal weaknesses.
Although Xi is not Stalin, the parallels in their approach to power and use of influence operations are strikingly similar, unsurprisingly, since Russia and China have traditionally emphasised the importance of political warfare in their strategic cultures. Grand dreams of world domination are an integral part of communist ideology and the CCP is deeply communist and ideological.
It’s erroneous to assert that the CCP is a communist party in name only. Xi himself categorically rejects the notion that China is not really a communist state. He is an enthusiastic adherent of Marx and a self-identifying communist who has urged CCP members to “be firm believers and faithful practitioners of the lofty ideal of communism and the common ideals of socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
For Xi, there can be no party or China without faith in Marxism and “a socialist and communist conviction”. If anyone harbours doubts, says Xi, the “constitution clearly stipulates that the party’s highest ideal and ultimate goal is to achieve communism”.
We should believe what Xi tells us and not dismiss the communist descriptor as “reds under the bed” scaremongering. Xi would dispute Paul Keating’s belief that the US is “the most ideological major society on Earth” because he proudly claims the title for his own country. Ideology, says Xi, “determines the direction a culture should take and the path it should follow as it develops”. It’s the glue that holds the party together and the means by which China’s leaders claim political legitimacy in the absence of free elections. Ideology is pivotal to Xi’s rule and the holistic strategy that informs all aspects of domestic and international policy, says Economy.
The real problem is that critics of our necessarily tougher approach to China don’t take the time to read or listen to what Chinese leaders say about the world and their place in it. You don’t need to speak Mandarin to read their core documents and speeches in translation. Xi’s 97-page Work Report to the 2017 Party Congress and his 2013 speech setting out the reasons for the CCP’s eventual triumph over capitalism provide revealing insights into the distinctly illiberal ideology of his party-state. They are a repudiation of Keating’s assertion that we should take countries as we find them and disregard their political character.
Knowing how the CCP conducts political warfare doesn’t explain everything about China, nor is everything the party does egregious. But it certainly helps to better understand the CCP’s mindset and tactics, as well as to join up the dots of what may otherwise appear to be benign, opportunistic or disconnected actions.
At home, the CCP wages political warfare systematically and with ruthless ferocity against those deemed a risk to the party’s control and authority, whether they be university intellectuals, dissident artists or ethnic minorities. The surveillance state is a logical and extreme extension of a mindset that views control of people and the information domain as key performance indicators.
Internationally, Beijing tries to set the terms of debates in targeted countries and create a favourable environment to recruit or influence elite opinion using tactics and inducements that have become all too familiar to Australians. CCP political warfare strategists see universities and educational institutions as an important target because of their valuable intellectual property and the opportunity to identify and shape future Australian elites, which may explain the cyber attack on the Australian National University’s data base. Covert intelligence operations supplement and reinforce above-the-horizon activities by China’s diplomats and businessmen.
Beyond influence and interference operations, CCP political warfare tactics include the use of economic and trade punishments to show displeasure and cow countries into compliance. Harsh interrogations and torture of foreigners, especially those of Chinese ethnicity, has become an increasingly favoured tool along with what amounts to hostage-taking. Witness the arbitrary detention of two Canadians to pressure Ottawa into refusing US requests to extradite the daughter of Huawei’s founder for allegedly helping to evade US sanctions on Iran.
Paramilitary forces have featured extensively in China’s successful attempts to dominate the South China Sea, with an accompanying propaganda campaign portraying them as innocent fishers and coastguard officers helping to maintain law and order and safety of navigation at sea.
Last month, pilots of an Australian maritime patrol aircraft flying over the South China Sea reported another case of a laser attack by a Chinese fishing boat. Hard evidence that fishing and coastguard vessels have been complicit in Beijing’s militarisation of artificial islands is typically met with silence, alternating with shrill denunciations of “Cold War thinking”. Denial and obfuscation are straight from the political warfare playbook.
Less known is the use of sophisticated legal and paralegal strategies for justifying the “principled” nature of their actions. Babbage draws attention to the efforts of both China and Russia “to make claims for international rights, treaty adherence, territorial acquisitions and other interests that are at variance with established facts, based on falsified history and other evidence and in clear breach of international law”.
Protecting our sovereignty in this contested environment is a critical national security issue for Australia because there are few areas of policy where Beijing’s power, interests and preferences are not a consideration. In his recent Quarterly Essay on the China Challenge, journalist Peter Hartcher urges Australians to stand “up for ourselves”, echoing Malcolm Turnbull. But we can’t do this without a coherent strategy that safeguards the country from actions designed to weaken our democracy and capacity for independent thought and action.
Kennan’s point that governments must lead in educating the public and formulating a response to political warfare is as valid today as it was in 1946. So far, the efficacy of the government’s response has been mixed. Balanced against sensible bureaucratic and legislative initiatives on foreign interference, and calling out China on its human rights abuses and debt trap diplomacy, the government’s response has been overly reactive and its messaging confused.
Our strategy should be proactive, bipartisan and whole-of-nation. It must engage the wider community, diversify against China risk and enshrine reciprocity as the relationship’s guiding principle. Why should the CCP be allowed the freedom to operate here in ways that would never be permitted in China?
If Beijing is going to force Australian businesses in China to provide access to their encrypted data, risking their commercial IP, then we should require the same of Chinese businesses operating here. Getting on the front foot would enable the government to shape China’s responses to our interests and concerns rather than constantly being on the defensive and developing policy on the run. Co-ordinated headland speeches by Morrison and his senior ministers should set parameters for a more hard-headed approach to China that, in measured terms, signals our determination to protect core Australian values and interests while reassuring Beijing of our desire for a constructive relationship. If we want Xi to recalibrate his assessment of our risk tolerance, we need to toughen up.
Extending bipartisanship on foreign interference and influence operations to China in economic, foreign and defence policy is a logical next step. Insulating the economy from the CCP’s use of financial and trade pressure to leverage strategic advantage requires a closer alignment of economic, trade and strategic policy; a reduction in our dependence on China trade; and greater protection of commercially valuable IP and sensitive personal data.
Foreign policy must be strengthened to deal with the challenge of political warfare. Beijing is a practised devotee of the art of divide and rule. It has successfully neutralised Southeast Asia’s capacity to do anything about its illegal militarisation of disputed South China Sea islands. And it constantly tries to drive a wedge between Australian jurisdictions and communities on domestically polarising issues such as Australia’s commitment to Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.
A strategic approach requires a sustained effort to chip away at the confected narrative of the CCP’s political warfare designers with action as well as words. We could start by conducting genuine freedom of navigation operations within the faux territorial boundaries of China’s artificial islands, which are proscribed under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that China has signed and ratified. These operations should be co-ordinated with fellow democracies which share our concerns.
Authoritarian political warfare is vulnerable to an evidence-based counter-narrative that exposes self-serving myths, lies and half-truths. Shining the disinfecting light of sunshine is the best way to hold China to account for broken promises, unlawful behaviour and policies that contravene universal values. There is a long list to choose from, ranging from the persecution of Christians, Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan monks and human rights activists, to reneging on promises not to militarise the South China Sea islands, conduct commercial cyber theft or undermine Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
Morrison should also empower Defence to take a more active counter-political warfare role. Xi understands all wars are fought for political objectives and the ability to dominate the political and psychological domains is the key to victory, arenas that Western defence forces have neglected since the Cold War, to their cost.
You would expect our best military thinkers to be intimately involved in developing strategies to defend against political warfare. But some national security officials appear reluctant to concede such a role for defence professionals. This makes no sense given the prominence of China’s military elites in conceptualising unrestricted warfare and the ADF’s experience with psychological operations during the Vietnam War.
Defence must be able to build on that knowledge and participate fully in the whole-of-government effort needed to defeat the vastly more sophisticated political warfare techniques China and other authoritarian states employ. We should remember Kennan’s advice. Their success or failure will be determined by our response, especially “the degree of cohesion, firmness and vigour which the Western world can muster”.
Alan Dupont is chief executive officer of geopolitical risk consultancy The Cognoscenti Group and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.