When an arbitral tribunal under the UN Convention on Law of the Sea in The Hague in July 2016 ruled that China’s claim to most of the South China Sea was illegal under international law, Beijing’s propaganda organs angrily stated that China “will neither acknowledge nor accept” the ruling.
Two years later, in the wake of a rising outcry against China’s rapid militarization of the contested maritime region, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-run Global Times last month said China would “act tougher” with foreign naval vessels traversing the South China Sea, and that its firmer posture “could lead to military conflicts.”
China’s propaganda organs implement, including via threats, Beijing’s “political warfare” — a little understood but vital weapon in China’s growing arsenal aimed at achieving regional and global hegemony.
“With well-orchestrated political warfare campaigns, China has achieved significant successes in tilting the regional, and even global, balance of power in recent years. Only recently have a few countries been willing to acknowledge it and confront it,” said Anders Corr, a New York-based expert on China’s influence operations.
If, as military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “war is the extension of politics by other means,” then it is fair to say that China’s political warfare is “an extension of armed conflict by other means.”
There is a dizzying array of terms in the public lexicon associated with the tools that governments employ for influence, including psychological operations, public diplomacy, public affairs, public relations, disinformation, censorship, misinformation, information warfare, soft power, hard power and sharp power.
What is unique about China’s political warfare — and perhaps most difficult for the countries that China has targeted to understand — is that it entails all of these practices together. It is, in effect, total war.
Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and his followers learned from the Soviet Union about traditional methods of influence and interference. They later took these methods to new levels.
Australia and New Zealand have discovered one of China’s most powerful political warfare weapons embedded in their midst: the so-called “united front,” whose role is to build coalitions of groups and organizations to conduct influence operations.
China’s “united front” operations date back to the 1920s, but they have taken on new impetus with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) ascension to the CCP leadership in 2012. Xi has referred to the “united front” as his “magic weapon” for achieving “rejuvenation of the Chinese race.”
A “united front” consists of groups either originated or co-opted by Beijing.
A prime example of the former is the Chinese Association of Friendly International Contacts, an organization that attempts to influence retired US military officers; a good example of the latter are overseas Chinese associations that are persuaded or coerced into actively supporting Beijing.
China’s political warfare also employs what its practitioners reverently call “the three warfares,” that is: strategic psychological warfare, overt and covert media manipulation and the use of law (known as “lawfare”) to defeat enemies.
Using these tools, China shapes public opinion, undermines academic freedom, censors foreign media and Hollywood movies, and restricts broadly the free flow of information that detracts from its agendas and interests.
It compromises international organizations such as the WHO in regard to human rights in global health and silences environmental groups on issues such as the massive ecological damage caused by its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Media manipulation includes buying respected newspapers, journals and overseas Chinese-language media, and then turning them into thinly veiled propaganda organs.
China’s political warfare’s active measures include street violence, espionage, subversion, blackmail, assassination, bribery, deception, enforced disappearances, arrests, coerced censorship and self-censorship — it even uses proxy forces, as seen in Myanmar via its aligned insurgent United Wa State Army.
“The scale of these operations is difficult to overestimate,” wrote Peter Mattis, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation think tank.
Political warfare efforts “challenge democratic governments in ways fundamentally different than traditional security concerns … [by] infringing on core values like sovereignty, as well as freedom of speech,” Mattis said.
China prefers to win its battles by never having to fire a shot. Through the use of political warfare and deception, it has notched notable strategic victories, including the seizure of the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal [Taiwan, which also claims it, refers to it as Huangyan Island (黃岩島)] in 2012.
Beijing persuaded both Manila and Washington that it would negotiate in good faith and withdraw its forces from the shoal per a US-brokered agreement. However, almost before the ink on the agreement had dried, China occupied the shoal and has ever since.
Despite a personal appeal by then-Philippine president Benigno Aquino III to his US counterpart Barack Obama, the US failed to act due to effective political warfare that apparently convinced the Obama administration that it was too dangerous to “anger China.”
China’s political warfare in the South China Sea has also successfully neutralized resistance to its militarization of what are now being called the “New Spratly Islands,” which it began building up in earnest in 2012.
However, China faces growing pushback to its wide-reaching claims in the area, as evidenced by forceful statements from senior US officials and naval actions by other concerned countries, including the UK and France.
If China’s rulers perceive that political warfare alone will not deliver the results it desires, it might fulfill them through threats of military conflict.
Beijing militarized the South China Sea in late 2015 by deploying a surface-to-air missile system on the Paracel Islands [Xisha Islands (西沙群島).]
Once Beijing completed runways and infrastructure on seven artificial islands that it illegally built in the Spratly Islands [Nansha Islands (南沙群島)], it then breached a 2015 pledge made by Xi and commenced militarizing that area as well.
Beijing has since completed airbases, radar systems and naval facilities, and established long-range anti-ship cruise missiles and air-defense missile systems that provide significant offensive reach.
In May, it added further offensive capabilities through the deployment of long-range, nuclear strike-capable H-6K bombers.
Beijing can now deny freedom of navigation and block rival Southeast Asian claimant states from accessing resources there, said Christopher Roberts, director of the National Asia Studies Center at the University of Canberra in Australia.
China has repeatedly asserted that it is willing to fight to retain its newfound control over the maritime area.
Doctrinally, China would employ political warfare before, during and after any hostilities it initiates in the South China Sea.
China has used political warfare to support past combat operations, seen in the 1950 invasion of Korea, the 1951 occupation of Tibet, the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the 1969 border battles with the Soviet Union, the 1974 assault on the Paracel Islands, the 1979 invasion of Vietnam, the 1988 Spratly Islands attack, the 1995 occupation of Mischief Reef [Meiji Reef (美濟礁)] and the recent standoff with India and Bhutan at Doklam.
Prior to a military confrontation, China often initiates a political warfare campaign worldwide, including the employment of “united front” organizations and other sympathizers to initiate protests, support rallies and other actions, and the use of mass information channels for propaganda and psychological operations.
Retired US Navy captain James Fanell, an expert on China’s security and foreign policy issues, has described how armed conflict might begin in the South China Sea.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would “gain the initiative by striking the first blow,” he said, adding that it is China’s “absolute requirement to seize the initiative in the opening phase of a war.”
China’s policy stipulates that “the first strike that triggers a Chinese military response need not be military; actions in the political and strategic realm may also justify a Chinese military reaction,” Fanell said.
That could be a perceived slight, diplomatic miscommunication or statement by a government official that “angers, irks or upsets” China enough to commence a shooting war in the South China Sea, he said.
As the PLA Navy, Air Force, Strategic Rocket Forces, Strategic Support Forces and other forces are engaged in kinetic combat in the South China Sea, China’s fight for worldwide public opinion would quickly become the second battlefield.
The focus of its political warfare would likely be to support China’s position and to demonize, confuse and demoralize US leaders, and those of its friends and allies.
Such a campaign would be important to mobilizing mass support for the fight inside China, while externally the campaign would attempt to win support for China’s position from initially undecided nations.
China’s political warfare is a key weapon in its drive for regional and global hegemony. It would be a potent weapon to wield on the battlefield of public opinion during any future military conflict in the South China Sea or globally.
Recent actions by Australian intelligence agencies and the US Congress have provided greater public understanding of the scope and effect of China’s political warfare operations, but it might be too little, too late.
The structures that played such a key role in countering Cold War-era Soviet Union political warfare, including the former US Information Agency, were disbanded about two decades ago.
“The United States should revive its ability to engage in information operations and strategic competition, which have not featured prominently in US-China policy for decades,” Ely Ratner, a senior fellow in China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, testified before Congress in February.
The first step would be for the US, and other governments and institutions, to recognize the problem, and build institutions and capabilities that can effectively counter China’s rising political warfare tactics.
As the US improves its dormant political counterwarfare capabilities, other countries targeted by China would need to better identify and counter the day-to-day threat, as well as the foreseeable threats in what appears to be an approaching confrontation.
Kerry Gershaneck is a Taiwan fellow at National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, a guest lecturer at the National Defense University in Washington, a senior research associate at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Law in Bangkok and a distinguished visiting professor at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, Nakhon Nayok, Thailand.
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