Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy

The US Needs a Better Strategy for China

Beijing’s influence operations are working. Washington needs a better strategy to respond.

By Ian J. Lynch for
The US Needs a Better Strategy for China
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Last year, a single tweet by an NBA executive sparked immediate backlash from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). With China a massive market for the NBA, that executive, Daryl Morey, quickly deleted the tweet and backtracked his public display of support for the pro-democracy protests roiling Hong Kong. The tweet cost the basketball league between $150 and $200 million in revenue.

The level of censorship the CCP was able to extend into a major American entertainment industry touched off a storm of U.S. media coverage examining the ways the Chinese government is able to influence American businesses through its market power, but that influence is nothing new. Direct pressure from the CCP, self-censorship, and fears of complicity in Chinese illiberalism have beguiled American tech companies, Hollywood, universities, hotel chains, high fashion, and even video game companies.

Google has struggled with Chinese censorship laws and in 2010 shuttered its flagship search engine there before later reentering the Chinese market with other products. More recently, after facing fierce criticism from Beijing, Apple removed an app from its platforms that Hong Kong protesters were using to track and avoid police. Weathering subsequent criticism in the U.S. for the move, Apple demonstrated how China’s carefully leveraged market power can hold far more sway than disjointed responses from U.S. entities.

A new, congressionally mandated report from the Center for New American Security (CNAS) offers a holistic set of nearly one hundred recommendations designed to address the pervasive, multifaceted challenge of China’s growing clout in the Indo-Pacific and around the globe on military, diplomatic, economic, and ideological fronts.

The CCP clearly recognizes the power of perception. In addition to its efforts to overtly and subversively influence businesses, media, and universities in democratic societies, the report notes that “China has been spending tremendous resources around the world employing propaganda, public diplomacy, and strategic messaging to promote a narrative of its inexorable ascendance coupled with America’s inevitable decline.”

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Coupled with its military buildup, technological advances, and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investments, CNAS writes that “Beijing’s narrative has successfully convinced large parts of the Indo-Pacific that momentum is on its side, even when the facts on the ground are more mixed.”

The United States has no strategy to compete with the CCP’s well-honed set of narrative vectors. The report says the U.S. government’s under-resourced, “Public affairs operations are not well coordinated across government agencies and are mostly tactical in posture—focused on day-to-day talking points, rather than on strategic messaging campaigns executed over months or years.”

Revamped American public diplomacy needs to adapt to the digital age. While U.S. public diplomacy must expose and condemn Beijing’s efforts to undermine freedom and democracy at every turn, CNAS rightly argues that it will be even more important for it to highlight the quality and quantity of American economic and development assistance initiatives.

At the same time, the U.S. needs to strengthen domestic protections from Chinese influence efforts that manipulate public debate in democratic societies and induce censorship within American businesses, media, and educational institutions. China’s extensive market power, now inextricably integrated into the functioning of the global economy, gives Beijing advantages in this realm, but CNAS proposes ways the U.S. can still build resilience to China’s influence operations.

To increase transparency in American academic and policy circles, the report proposes significantly lowering the funding level that requires U.S. institutions to disclose foreign contributions. It also recommends that the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) should be expanded “to require universities to set standards and limits for student organizations and cultural exchange institutions that rely on external, especially foreign government, sources of funding.”

CNAS notes that the U.S. government is working to enforce FARA more systematically, but it further recommends that, “Congress should also bring greater scrutiny to U.S. media outlets that legitimize Chinese state-run propaganda by running it on their websites and in print in ways that are barely distinguishable from content that is generated or approved by the host platform.”

Beijing is actively pursuing its vision for transforming the norms and institutions that underpin global governance and, while there is growing consensus in Washington that China is a long-term strategic competitor, U.S. responses are scattered and reactive. 

When China evokes the term “democracy” it does so to assert an interpretation of sovereignty that can repress domestic dissent free from the interference of other states. When it calls for an open and inclusive global economy, Liza Tobin wrote in the Texas National Security Review that Beijing believes “connectivity between China and the world will require the world to adapt to Beijing’s preferences as much as — or perhaps more than — the other way around.”

Countering the CCP’s narrative strategy, backed up by its real-world economic heft and increasing military capabilities, is an immense challenge, but the good news is, as CNAS points out, that “Most elites and publics in the region still prefer American leadership, meaning that countries in the Indo-Pacific are primed to welcome a more coherent and positive American narrative.” Furthermore, there is even general discontent with China in authoritarian countries like those of Central Asia that are heavily dependent on China’s BRI.

The predisposition to prefer U.S. leadership in the Indo-Pacific and beyond means little though if the U.S. does not proactively lead. American-led economic, political, and military initiatives are necessary, but they also require a well-resourced narrative strategy to tie them all together into a holistic response and to counter the Chinese influence operations undermining democratic ideals.

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Ian J. Lynch recently graduated with a Masters in Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asian Security Studies from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He previously led the development of girls’ education programs in Afghanistan. He tweets at @Ian_J_Lynch.