If the recent Shangri-La Dialogue is an indicator, China’s ability to influence Southeast Asia is achieving continued — and considerable — success.
During the May 31 to June 2 dialogue in Singapore, then-acting US secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan focused on China’s “toolkit of coercion,” and its influence operations to interfere in the domestic politics of other nations and undermine the integrity of elections.
Predictably, Chinese Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和) counterattacked, presenting China as a force for stability and prosperity, defending the Tiananmen Square Massacre and all other actions the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has taken in its often-contentious relations in the region and portraying the US as a troublemaker.
As one participant said, Wei’s speech “showed China feels strong and comfortable enough to openly say obviously false things and defend even its worst actions without shame or hesitation.”
While a US-PRC face-off was expected, the comments of Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) were unexpected — and even disturbing.
In a departure from Singapore’s past defense of the international order against China’s efforts to uproot it, Lee seemed to assume a more neutral stance.
He asserted what one analyst called a “false equivalence” of US and Chinese actions in the region, and implied that the region was more afraid of China’s actions than reassured by US rhetoric.
Rather than call out China’s expansionist actions, Lee said that the US has “the most difficult adjustment to make” in terms of accepting that “China will continue to grow and strengthen.”
Singapore is a bellwether for Southeast Asia, so it is crucial to examine the roots of China’s increased success of its political warfare operations there, and the impact and opportunities the situation presents Taiwan.
Southeast Asia holds a pre-eminent position in China’s quest for regional hegemony. According to Daniel Kliman, who served as senior adviser for Asia integration in the US Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the region is “a uniquely contested space” and the outcome of this contest has immense implications for Taiwan’s continued freedom, sovereignty and democracy.
Beijing employs a well-resourced, comprehensive approach to draw Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence. Political warfare is the primary means China employs to achieve its expansionist goals.
Southeast Asia might be considered a primary case study for Beijing’s political warfare operations worldwide. China employs all means of national power to win its political war there. The effect is total war, which goes beyond traditional liaison work and the three warfares to include use of active measures that include violence and other forms of coercive, destructive attacks such as proxy armies.
China is a totalitarian Leninist state that takes a holistic approach, which melds the legal and the covert, in conjunction with persuasion, inducement and coercion, former Singaporean ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan said.
Importantly, Kausikan identified that the aim of the PRC is not simply to direct behavior, but to condition behavior.
“In other words, China does not just want you to comply with its wishes,” Kausikan said. “Far more fundamentally, it wants you to think in such a way that you will of your own volition do what it wants without being told.”
China’s political warfare is, above all else, a weapon of compellence. In Beijing’s immense arsenal of political warfare weapons, economic coercion is especially visible.
Beijing entices Southeast Asian countries with its Belt and Road Initiative, military sales, foreign direct investment, market access and “debt traps” to compel them to comply with political and security objectives.
Further, China shapes public opinion “to undermine academic freedom, censor foreign media, restrict the free flow of information and curb civil society,” Ely Ratner told the US House Committee on Armed Services last year.
Its strategies include “fracturing and capturing regional institutions that could otherwise raise collective concerns about China’s behavior, and intimidating countries in maritime Asia that seek to lawfully extract resources and defend their sovereignty,” he added.
The PRC’s propaganda organs increasingly dominate, co-opt or subvert international news media, and savage as “immoral” those who criticize its egregious human rights abuses.
The countries of Southeast Asia are poorly equipped to counter these challenges. Some eagerly accept China’s hegemony, but for those willing to resist, Taiwan can help.
For Southeast Asian countries under attack by China’s political warfare apparatus, today is — effectively — May 3, 1948.
George Kennan is best known for his Long Telegram of Feb. 22, 1946, in which he delineated containment as the strategy to defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Two years after proposing this ultimately successful grand strategy, on May 4, 1948, Kennan published another seminal memorandum, The Inauguration of Political Warfare.
Kennan’s second landmark of strategic thinking identified a crucial shortcoming:
“We have been handicapped by a popular attachment to the concept of a basic difference between peace and war, by a tendency to view war as a sort of sporting context outside of all political context ... and by a reluctance to recognize the realities of international relations, the perpetual rhythm of [struggle, in and out of war],” he wrote.
Kennan called the threat by its proper name: political warfare — the same name the communist opponents use for their perpetual struggle against democracies.
Properly naming the threat elevated the fight to its rightful level in US national security prioritization. Naming the threat “warfare” — as opposed to merely “countering malign influence” or “competition” — provided the organizing principle that democracies needed to fight the war.
Accordingly, they fought the political war as they would a kinetic war, with policy, strategy, psychological preparation, education, training, labor and financial resources, and on many fronts.
Kennan’s memo played an important role in the West’s containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
For much of the world that is facing the Chinese Communist Party’s political warfare today, it is still May 3, 1948: No one has received a 2019 version of Kennan’s memo.
Most elected officials and other leaders do not even realize they are under attack. It is understandable: Little in their training prepares them to recognize and fight this threat. The few countries that recognize the threat are poorly prepared to fight back.
In the naive euphoria that engulfed the free world after the fall of the Soviet Union, democracies dismantled their institutions and capabilities to fight hostile political warfare. Discrete functions continue to exist, but they are “stove piped.”
Worse, in the absence of a guiding counter-political warfare strategic framework, the terminology employed for these functions can undermine national response.
Political warfare encompasses a rich lexicon of terminology and jargon such as propaganda, information warfare, information operations, psychological operations, influence operations, hybrid warfare, public diplomacy, public affairs, proxy armies and more.
It is easy to see why many elected officials and national security bureaucrats fail to view the fight holistically. The terminology diffuses effort and distracts those responsible for policy and operational response, because few see their role in the broader context of a total war.
While democracies unilaterally disarmed their political warfare capabilities after the Cold War, China did not. In fact, under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), China has dramatically increased its funding and operations in this war.
“The scale of these operations is difficult to overestimate,” former US government analyst Peter Mattis wrote. “Beijing has pumped billions of dollars into special initiatives, such as expanding the global reach of official media platforms... [These] challenge democratic governments in ways fundamentally different than traditional security concerns.”
For democracies, the outcome of an inability to coherently confront the Chinese political warfare threat is foreseeable: inept response and ultimate defeat.
What can be done?
In kinetic warfare, good commanders think in terms of combined arms operations. By virtue of sound training, victorious generals know they cannot fight only one component to the exclusion of the others.
That “combined arms” mindset is lacking in democracies’ response to China’s political war.
As the vital first step, education is required to intellectually equip leaders and policymakers about political warfare.
Taiwan has long been the primary target of China’s political warfare, so it can play a major role in Southeast Asian education efforts.
Based on its long history in which Taiwan has been under attack by China’s political warfare apparatus, and as the only democracy in Asia that still retains a political warfare college, Taiwan is well positioned to take the lead in educating others about this threat.
Taiwan could foster a nascent Southeast Asian ability to cooperate against the political warfare threat, thereby becoming a key component of the government’s New Southbound Policy.
Accordingly, Taiwan should establish systematic education programs for government, business, academia, media, nongovernmental organizations and other key organizations regarding China’s political warfare.
Such education programs were employed successfully during the Cold War, with threat briefs and public discussions as a routine part of the programs.
To this end, Taiwan should establish instruction in professional courses provided to government officials and establish standalone political warfare-related courses for public information purposes. All of the courses should be open to ASEAN representatives.
A quick victory in this effort would be to establish a five-day program of instruction. With competent leadership, such a program could be operating within 30 days.
A longer-term victory is for Taiwan to establish a regional “Asian political warfare center of excellence,” similar to the Hybrid COE — the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats based in Finland.
The mission would be similar to the Helsinki COE: “To develop a common understanding of PRC political warfare threats and promote the development of comprehensive, whole-of-government response at national levels in countering political warfare threats.”
Specific functions might include examining political warfare targeted at democracies by state and non-state actors; mapping participants’ vulnerabilities to improve their resilience and response; conducting tailored training to enhance participants’ capabilities in countering political warfare threats; conducting research into political warfare threats and methods; and engaging with experts to improve situational awareness of political warfare threats.
China’s political warfare poses an imminent existential threat to Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Taiwan must invest in counter-political warfare education now to safeguard its freedom and sovereignty, along with that of like-minded Southeast Asian nations.
Kerry Gershaneck is a fellow at National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies and a senior research associate at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Law in Bangkok.
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