China is actively waging political warfare against the United States and its allies, a group of experts told a conference in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.
While Chinese actions are usually viewed through a military lens, some have stressed that they should be examined as part of a broader effort to influence the thoughts and actions of foreign governments, groups and individuals in a manner favorable to Beijing’s own objectives – activities known as political warfare or influence operations.
“The objective here is to shape how things are perceived,” Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, the co-host of the conference along with the Project 2049 Institute.
Chinese political warfare, said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, is deeply rooted in Chinese history, with origins from both Chinese strategic thinkers like Sun Tzu as well as Marxist-Leninist influences. While the practice is not illegal and Beijing is hardly the only one employing it, Stokes argued that the degree to which Beijing has been distorting objective reality and the lengths to which it has been willing to go to do so has been particularly striking.
The practice also enjoys high-level bureaucratic support within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Political warfare – known euphemistically in China as “PLA military liaison work” – is supported by an elaborate organizational structure that includes elements of the PLA’s General Political Department as well as the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.
The priority countries for Chinese political warfare, according to Stokes, are Taiwan, followed by Japan and then the United States.
With respect to the United States, Aaron Friedberg, now a professor at Princeton University, argued that Beijing has been using political warfare as an important part of its ongoing strategic competition with Washington. The goal, Friedberg said, is to persuade the United States to accept China as an equal (and eventually dominant) global power.
In recent years, Chinese political warfare in the United States, Friedberg said, has become broader and more complex such that it now seeks to influence three particular groups – “old friends” of China, who were rewarded with dialogues and business ventures; elites or “influentials” in business, diplomats and the military who were courted through visits, exchanges, and joint research projects; and “mass perceptions” swayed through mass media.
“It has become more sophisticated,” Friedberg said. “The focus is still at the top, but activity is now at all levels.”
Some of the instruments of political warfare are often cleverly disguised, Friedberg said. For instance, he said, the China-United States Exchange Foundation, founded in 2008 with a mission to build understanding and trust, is hardly the “privately funded, non-government, non-profit entity” it claims it is. In fact, it is funded by Hong Kong tycoons and state-owned enterprises and is supported and advised by government-linked entities including the Shanghai Institute for International Studies and the PLA Academy of Military Science.
“This is not anything like the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation,” Friedberg added.
Friedberg, who served briefly as the deputy assistant for national security affairs in the office of the Vice President from 2003 to 2005, said he saw clear evidence of instruments of political warfare being used to shape the narrative in the United States on important questions related to China. In 2006, the idea spread that Hu Jintao was “very angry” at a North Korea nuclear test ended up being so pervasive that it influenced White House discussions, serving as fodder for those who believed that the United States need not pressure Beijing further on the issue.
A more recent example, he said, was the oft-debated topic of whether Chinese officials in 2010 had referred to the South China Sea as a “core interest.” While China subsequently mounted a significant effort denying that the term was used, Friedberg said the evidence had led him and others to believe that it was used to gauge the U.S. response before the waters were muddied.
“In fact, Chinese officials did use this language because they were floating a trial balloon, and then they reeled it back in and muddied the water,” he said.
On Taiwan, Stokes, who was previously the senior country director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the objective was to ensure that all countries would recognize the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate representative of all of China including Taiwan by working to implement the “one country, two systems” formula.
“The goal here is to consolidate the successor state theory,” he said.
Liu Shih-Chung, deputy secretary-general of the Tainan City government in Taiwan and a member of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), argued that Chinese political warfare in Taiwan had faced growing backlash from Taiwanese society despite some inroads under the first term of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) government under President Ma Ying-jeou.
Liu said he feared that China would move towards more unilateralist measures as Taiwan approaches elections next year, which will likely see the DPP, which many in Beijing associate with Taiwanese independence, return to power. China, he said, could suspend tourists and dialogues as well as restrict Taiwan’s international space to influence the election outcome.
“They possess the tools to deepen political warfare against Taiwan,” he said.
With respect to Japan, Randy Schriver, the president and CEO of the Project 2049 Institute, said that China is using history as a major part of its political warfare. In particular, Beijing has sought to link WWII-era atrocities committed by Japan to Tokyo’s increasing willingness to play a more active security role under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe today in order to create a distorted narrative of Japanese “remilitarization” and to sow divisions within the U.S.-Japan alliance.
“I think the goal is to see a weak and diminished alliance,” Shriver said.
Beijing’s selective reading of history, Schriver said, not only largely leaves out the last 70 years – during which the U.S.-Japan alliance has been one of the foundations of Asian prosperity, including China’s – but hides China’s own abuse of history in its museums and textbooks. As just one example, he noted that Zhao Ziyang, the general secretary of the Communist Party who opposed martial law during pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, had effectively been erased from history.
“They are probably the greatest abusers of history,” Schriver, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the George W. Bush administration, said.
The conference participants acknowledged that Chinese political warfare did face some serious limitations, including the growing tension between words and deeds as well as the broadening of the conversation on China in Washington which makes it more difficult to control narratives.
For the United States, Friedberg said, since most of Chinese political warfare activities are legal, the focus should be on hardening the country against it. Efforts could range from increasing transparency through an open database on links between the CCP and “private” foundations to constructing “counter-narratives” to undermine Chinese messages and expose either weaknesses in capabilities or transgressions of various kinds including the maritime realm.
“It seems to me transparency is the best defense,” he said.