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When It Comes to Political Warfare, China is at the Head of the Class

Beijing appears to be engaging in political warfare where it is attempting to fester animosity between foreign governments that show favor to Taiwan, a threat to the long-standing policy of “One Country, Two Systems” with regard to the island.  In a recent instance, a fake announcement appeared to be from Taiwan’s Presidential Office on Facebook that asserted that the Taiwanese government intended to accept contaminated wastewater from a Japanese nuclear power plant.  A second incident occurred in December 2020 when Taiwanese authorities investigated two Taiwanese with ties to Chinese mainland spreading a similar fake Presidential Office announcement that alleged U.S. and Taiwanese in involvement in protests in Thailand.  Though these announcements were ultimately identified and subsequently reported to authorities, the incidents demonstrate Beijing’s continued use of producing disinformation/information in support of its political goals, particularly against Taiwan.

Taiwan has been the subject of a variety of Beijing’s information activities, which have ranged from propaganda, disinformation/misinformation, and cyber attacks.  There is some evidence that even suggests that Chin uses Taiwan as a testbed for future activity against other countries like the the United States.  In the steps leading up to Taiwan’s 2020 presidential elections, one computer security company found a marked uptick in influence operational-related activity between October 2019 and January 2020.  Many of these activities focused on issues intent on dividing Taiwanese society and promoting pro-China issues, not unlike the type of influence China conducted against the 2020 U.S. presidentialelection.  In some instances, these efforts are propelled via Beijing’s use of pro-China Taiwan-based media outlets, at least one of which coordinates with China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, prior to disseminating messaging.  The intent and goal of these efforts are clear: weaken Taiwan’s government, undermine its authority, and weaken public confidence.

The attention given to Beijing’s soft-power endeavors should not come as a surprise.  Since Xi Jinping has consolidatedpower, China has assumed a more aggressive posture in the world, willingly standing up to governments on those issues it deems necessary to preserve and protect Chinese interests.  In addition to combating foreign perceptions of its culpability for spreading COVID-19, Beijing has confronted the U.S. at its first engagement under the Biden Administration.  It has also taken on the U.K.’s media outlet the BBC for revoking the license of China’s overseas broadcasting company CGTN.  These incidents indicate that no issue is too small for China to challenge as Beijing pursues Xi’s vision of a “China Dream,” one in which China has emerged as a prosperous society and into the role of undisputed global leader.

Instrumental in achieving this objective is Beijing’s implementation of political warfare, a multi-faceted strategy that incorporates both kinetic and asymmetric means to influence foreign governments’ policy calculus.  The sustained planning of political warfare requires the incorporation of a variety of means (e.g., legal, diplomatic, communication, influence, etc.) to shape the target’s perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors to favor China’s position.  As such, Beijing has aggressively exhibited its use of disinformation and misinformation to influence a variety of global and internal audiences, to include both officials as well as the publics that they serve.  The core of such campaigns is to craft narratives that put Beijing in a favorable light while deflecting negative perception to alternative parties, and so far, its efforts have not been in vain.

For example, Beijing has successfully manipulated the COVID-19 controversy blaming everything from the U.S. Army to contaminated frozen food to keep global focus of its culpability at bay.  As a result, China has escaped outright condemnation, promoting itself as a partner to poor countries by providing COVID-19 vaccines, and citing the World Health Organization’s findings that wildlife, not the Wuhan Lab, was the likely cause of the outbreak.  Beijing’s ongoing influence efforts via disinformation and misinformation have been seen in other areas as well, to include deflecting accusations of the mistreatment of its Uighur population, as well as its activities against Australia and countries in Southeast Asia, where it seeks to draw governments under its sphere of control.

Which leads us back to Taiwan. The situation between China and Taiwan is consistently cited as being a hotspot that could escalate into the next major global conflict.  Taiwan’s defense largely rests on its treaty with the United States, and Japan’s recent overtures suggesting that it might side with the United States is disconcerting for Beijing, who rebukedJapan for its apparent shift in its long-standing One-China policy.  Such a move should elicit aggressive Chinese influence operations against Japan, looking to sow distrust in the government and undermining its authority.  However, according to one source, such activities haven’t traditionally fared well in Japan, as in other places, and may account for a series of cyber attacks originating from China targeting Japanese organizations since 2016.  When carrots don’t work, there are always sticks available.

While military engagement may be the ultimate act that resolves state disputes, it’s clear that Beijing does not view this as a favored option, at least until its military is on par with countries like the United States.  Instead Beijing has leveraged a global 24/7 news cycle where it has demonstrated its ability to consistently put forth messages and craft a variety of narratives that support its overall strategic interests.  And this is where the soft power of political warfare comes into play – the ability to address numerous fronts with a bombardment of influence campaigns on a diverse number of topics and subject areas (e.g., COVI-19, South China Sea, trade, renewable energy, the Arctic).  While all efforts may not yield the same level of success, China has proven it has the apparatus to handle volume and intensity, a capability that very few can match.

What’s more, China’s political warfare – as executed via influence operations and disinformation/misinformation campaigns – supports what Chinese writings have long promulgated – winning a “war” without fighting.  In this context, the war purposefully does not reflect a physical military conflict, but one of ideas, government decision making, and policy calculus, and one that finds Beijing ahead of its competitors at the end of the day.

This raises into question President Biden’s strategy to use coalitions to reign in and contain adversaries. While many may join in curtailing countries like Iran and North Korea, China’s burgeoning status as a global leader and its strong economy may present benefits that far outweigh any preferred courses of action against it.  China’s influence operations and disinformation/misinformation campaigns are exactly the types of activities Beijing will use to cast doubt and sow division in order to weaken the resolve of some of the more malleable alliance members.  This may result in the White House settling for a mild Plan C when it comes to addressing China instead of going with a strong Plan A.

China’s political warfare embodies the types of activities Beijing implement against such an alliance.  They will be used to cast doubt and sow division to weaken the resolve of some of the more malleable members.  What’s more, political warfare (in tandem with its broader “Three Warfares” strategy) exemplifies the tenets expressed in Chinese writings of “winning a war without fighting.” When it comes to shaping perceptions, China has excelled in the information space.  If the United States does not put up is own counter to these activities, it may find itself incorrectly thinking its strength remains behind a Maginot Line that’s crumbling from its base.

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Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello has nearly 20 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in such peer-reviewed journals as Parameters, Journal of Strategic Security, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Cyber Defense Review, among others. All comments and opinions expressed are solely his own.