Elephants in the Room

The United States Is Not Doing Enough to Fight Chinese Influence

Beijing’s authoritarian political warfare demands a strong response.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Hudson Institute in Washington on Oct. 4. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Hudson Institute in Washington on Oct. 4. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington that drew needed attention to China’s efforts to influence the United States. “Beijing has mobilized covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policy,” he noted. The remarks came on the heels of President Donald Trump’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly, where he called out Beijing for interfering in U.S. domestic politics.

Although new to many Americans, none of this came as a surprise to those who study Chinese influence operations abroad. Extensive research by enterprising and courageous scholars such as Anne-Marie Brady, Clive Hamilton, and John Garnaut has documented a pattern of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) activity in New Zealand and Australia, and, more recently, reports by U.S. scholars and journalists have begun to document the influence of Chinese government-affiliated Confucius Institutes on American college campuses, Chinese funding of universities and think tanks, the distribution of CCP propaganda through U.S. news sources, and lobbying efforts by former U.S. elected officials on behalf of the Chinese government. These efforts have sought to shape academic, political, and public discourse in ways that favor the CCP and muzzle debate over topics such as Taiwan, Tibet, and China’s continental and maritime claims, along with the CCP’s treatment of the Chinese people and Chinese economic practices.

It has become apparent that the CCP has been active not only in the continental United States, but also in the United States’ island territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa, along with the Western Pacific states that have compacts of free association with the United States—Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. There, the CCP has used economic power to buy political influence, sometimes to the detriment of the United States.

Exposure of this Chinese activity is welcome but by itself insufficient. These tactics are part of a broader strategy to strengthen the rule of the CCP at home and influence attitudes toward it abroad in ways that suit Beijing’s interests. As my colleagues Ross Babbage and Toshi Yoshihara and I argued earlier this year, the CCP’s tactics are part of a broader authoritarian political warfare strategy that Beijing is waging against the United States, its allies, and others. Its features include:

  • A clear vision, ideology, and strategy.
  • The use of overt and covert means to influence, coerce, intimidate, divide, and subvert rival countries in order to force their compliance.
  • Strong centralized command of political warfare operations by the CCP through organizations such as the United Front Work Department.
  • Capable bureaucratic instruments and implementation mechanisms.
  • Tight control over the domestic population.
  • Detailed understanding of targeted countries.
  • Employment of a comprehensive range of instruments in coordinated actions.
  • Willingness to accept a high level of political risk from the exposure of its activities.

Such campaigns are particularly difficult to counter because they exploit conceptual and bureaucratic seams in the United States and other democratic states. Whereas Americans tend to see a big distinction between peace and war, with peace as the norm, China’s leaders view struggle as the normal state of affairs. Whereas U.S. law draws boundaries between government and nongovernment actions, and between overt and covert ones, the Chinese leadership frequently ignores such distinctions. Identifying and responding to authoritarian political warfare is thus challenging.

More needs to be done to expose Chinese influence operations in the United States and abroad to build additional independent, nonpartisan sources of information on Chinese influence activities. Bringing to light such operations is a vital predicate to discussion and action.

The discussion of Chinese influence activities needs to be taken beyond elites in Washington to business leaders and to the American people. The public needs to understand the CCP’s efforts for what they are: an attempt by a foreign government to infringe on the sovereignty of the United States. Such activities ultimately pose a threat to U.S. values and institutions, whether through limiting free speech in the classroom or currying favor with business or political elites in ways that are harmful to U.S. interests.

Finally, the United States and its allies need to formulate counterstrategies to respond to Chinese influence operations. Any such efforts must have both defensive and offensive elements. On the defensive side of the coin, perhaps the most important way to reduce vulnerability is through increased transparency. Absent the ability to identify and expose the perpetrators, enablers, and mechanisms of manipulation, targets of political warfare may not realize they are being influenced—or, if they do, may not be able to engage in effective denial or credibly threaten serious punishment.

Defense alone is unlikely to be enough, however, and should be complemented by measures to raise the price of manipulating Western public and political opinion. Although authoritarian regimes might be difficult to influence and better equipped to address political warfare threats in comparison to their more open and less centralized democratic counterparts, they are arguably more fearful of those threats because of their tenuous legitimacy as well as their extreme concentration of wealth and power. Consequently, efforts to introduce new information into relatively closed societies—from sharing alternative perspectives on current events that differ from government-approved narratives to exposing political and economic acts of corruption—can be a method of competition that imposes significant costs on regimes that constantly worry about maintaining domestic control. The CCP has, for example, shown considerable sensitivity to the exposure of corruption among its leaders. It has also sought to exert a growing measure of control over Chinese civil society, including churches and other groups. Efforts, particularly by nongovernmental organizations, to provide the Chinese public with accurate sources of information may go a long way to counter the CCP’s efforts.

As the United States responds to this challenge, it needs to be careful as much as possible to achieve and maintain a political consensus in favor of action. Unlike the issue of Russian meddling, which has become dangerously polarized, to the extent possible Chinese political interference should remain outside the realm of partisan politics. It is a threat that demands a nonpartisan diagnosis and bipartisan response.

Thomas G. Mahnken is president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He is a senior research professor at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and has served for over 20 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

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