When the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague ruled in July 2016 that China’s claim to most of the South China Sea was illegal under international law, Beijing’s propaganda organs angrily stated that Beijing “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 Global Times mouthpiece newspaper thundered in June that China will “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 are doing precisely what propaganda organs are designed to do: 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.
“China’s worldwide political warfare is a critical component of its security strategy and foreign policy,” says Anders Corr, a New York-based expert in China’s influence operations.
“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.”
So what is the nature of China’s political warfare? And if China’s threats of military conflict in the South China Sea materialize, how would political warfare work in conjunction with its kinetic forms of combat?
Conflict by other means
If, as military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz wrote, “war is the extension of politics by other means”, then it’s 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 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 China has targeted to understand–is that it entails all of these practices together. It is, in effect, total war.
Chinese revolutionary leader and former Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong 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 recently discovered one of China’s most powerful political warfare weapons embedded in their midst: the so-called “United Front.” The United Front’s role is to build coalitions of groups and organizations to conduct influence operations.
China’s United Front operations date back to the 1920’s, but they have taken on new impetus with President Xi Jinping’s ascension to the Communist Party’s 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 World Health Organization 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, and even the use of proxy forces, as seen in Myanmar via its aligned insurgent United Wa State Army.
“The scale of these operations is difficult to overestimate,” writes Peter Mattis, a fellow at The Jamestown Foundation think tank.
“Beijing has pumped billions of dollars into special initiatives, such as expanding the global reach of official media platforms, and, even modest programs, like the Confucius Institutes, probably run in the tens of millions of dollars annually.”
These 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.”
Political warfare for the South China Sea
China prefers to win its battles by never having to fire a shot. In fact, through the use of political warfare and deception, it has notched notable strategic victories, including the seizure of the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal 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 to his American 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.
Today, 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 United Kingdom and France.
If China’s rulers perceive that political warfare alone will not deliver the results it desires, it may fulfill them through threats of military conflict.
China is preparing for just such a conflict, according to Christopher Roberts, director of the National Asia Studies Center at the University of Canberra in Australia.
Beijing militarized the South China Sea in late 2015 by deploying a surface-to-air missile system in the Paracel Islands. Once Beijing completed runways and infrastructure on seven artificial islands it illegally built in the Spratly Islands, it then breached a 2015 pledge made by President 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.
Roberts says Beijing can now deny freedom of navigation and block rival Southeast Asian claimant states from accessing resources there. China has repeatedly asserted it is willing to fight to retain its newfound control over the maritime area.
Doctrinally, China will 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, and the recent standoff with India and Bhutan at Doklam.
Prior to a military confrontation, China often initiates a political warfare campaign worldwide. That includes the employment of United Front organizations and other sympathizers to initiate protests, support rallies and other actions, including the use of mass information channels such as the Internet, television, and radio for propaganda and psychological operations.
History shows political warfare efforts are often tied into China’s strategic deception operations, designed to confuse or delay adversaries’ defensive actions until it is too late to effectively respond.
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 predicts. Fanell says it is China’s “absolute requirement to seize the initiative in the opening phase of a war.”
Fanell says 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.”
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, Fanell says.
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 will quickly become the second battlefield.
The focus of its political warfare will 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 will be important to mobilizing mass support for the fight inside China, while externally the campaign will attempt to win support for China’s position from initially undecided nations.
In addition to old-fashioned propaganda, experts expect Beijing to disseminate disinformation such as false reports of surrender of forces, atrocities, violations of international law and other reports intended to paralyze decision-making by the US and its allies.
Countering the political warfare threat
China’s political warfare is a key weapon in its drive for regional and global hegemony. The apparatus is immense and its doctrine, strategies and tactics well-honed.
Through such campaigns, China exports authoritarianism and undermines the credibility of democracy and individual freedoms. Further, its political warfare will 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 impact of China’s political warfare operations. But it may be too little, too late.
The structures that played such a key role in countering Cold War-era Soviet Union political warfare, including the US Information Agency, were disbanded roughly two decades ago. America’s skillsets and interest in this uniquely challenging enterprise have thus since atrophied, as have those of its friends and allies.
“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 of 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 counter-political warfare capabilities, other countries targeted by China will need to begin to better identify and counter the day-to-day threat, as well as the foreseeable threats in what appears to be an approaching confrontation.
Professor Kerry K Gershaneck is a scholar at the Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, National Chengchi University, ROC; a guest lecturer at the ROC National Defense University; a senior research associate with Thammasat University’s Faculty of Law (CPG); and the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, Thailand. He is a former US Marine Corps officer, with extensive experience in national-level strategic communications.