The Federal Bureau of Investigation is expanding efforts to counter foreign election meddling by targeting China, a state engaged in aggressive operations aimed at blocking President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election.
“Make no mistake, China is aggressively pursuing foreign influence operations,” said Nikki Floris, deputy assistant director for the FBI’s counter-intelligence section.
“They use economic levers, [and] their end goal is really to unseat us as a global economic superpower.”
Floris heads a new FBI unit called the Foreign Influence Task Force. She testified at a congressional hearing on October 23 that China, along with Russia, Iran and other adversaries are working to sway the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
Both China and Russia pose what the FBI counterspy called pervasive and persistent influence threats. “It’s not just based on the electoral cycle, therefore. [Their] influence operations are essentially always present,” Floris said.
A day after the House testimony, US Vice President Mike Pence punctuated the warning he made a year ago about Beijing using economic and strategic means to shape public opinion and influence the upcoming election. “China wants a different American president,” Pence said.
The FBI and other agencies believe the main foreign threat to the 2020 American presidential election will come in the form of cyberattacks and social media disinformation and influence operations – similar to those used by the Russians in 2016. That program involved hacking into sensitive emails and releasing them to the public as well as using Facebook to organize political operations and sow discord.
A more likely election threat from China, however, would involve Chinese financial warfare aimed at triggering a sharp downturn in the US financial markets in the weeks before November 2020.
Just as few foresaw the 2008 economic crash that crippled then-US Senator John McCain’s bid for the White House, current efforts on election security are missing the potential danger of a Chinese foreign covert operation to engineer an economic crisis triggered by a sharp fall in the US stock market.
The vulnerability of stock markets to such manipulation was highlighted in 2013 when the Associated Press Twitter account was hacked and a bogus tweet from AP falsely declared an explosion had injured then-President Barack Obama.
Within minutes, an estimated $130 billion in stock value plummeted. Although the markets later recovered, the incident highlighted the vulnerability of the stock market to fake news reports.
US intelligence assessments of Chinese election meddling remain secret over concerns disclosing the activities will prompt China to change tactics and make future detection more difficult.
Few signs of influence operations have been made public. One example was Beijing’s purchase of inserts in American newspapers in US farm states seeking to spread state-run Chinese propaganda designed to drum up anti-Trump sentiment over his use of tariffs.
Another was the leak and publication of an internal Chinese government directive, mentioned by Pence last year, urging Chinese propagandists to use all means to divide Americans politically.
The China strategy for financial warfare was disclosed 20 years ago in what is likely a blueprint for any covert action next year.
That blueprint was contained in the financial warfare section of the 1999 book Unrestricted Warfare by PLA colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. The authors stated that financial warfare will become a dominant form of warfare in the future, and will be a new “hyper-strategic weapon.”
“This is because financial war is easily manipulated and allows for concealed actions, and is also highly destructive,” they stated. The officers called the combination of conventional military power, cyberattacks, financial war and other irregular warfare “our real hand of cards.”
China’s secretive military has not elaborated on plans for using financial warfare in a future conflict. Occasional threats have been made by Chinese generals warning of plans to dump China’s large holdings of Treasury bonds to punish the United States for arms sales to rival Taiwan.
Financial analyst Kevin Freeman believes China’s government is fully prepared to cause an economic downturn prior to next year’s election. “Would they attempt it? Absolutely. It’s part of the unrestricted warfare strategy,” he says.
“There’s no question the Chinese have the capability to move the markets, and the markets can move the White House,” Freeman added.
As a contractor for a Pentagon irregular warfare unit, Freeman produced a report in 2009 examining how foreign adversaries could have enhanced the impact of the 2008 economic crash.
That downturn then had a direct impact on the election. Similar economic warfare methods could be used by the Chinese next year to engineer a market collapse in the late summer, Freeman believes.
For example, the current US-China trade talks provide one vehicle for the Chinese to influence the outcome of the election.
In this scenario, China could launch a carefully orchestrated influence campaign involving the use of both cyberattacks aimed at manipulating markets, and the use of strategic information. A harsh statement in August or September of 2020 by lead Chinese trade negotiator Liu He could include an announcement that China has given up on reaching a trade deal and would instead put the entire nation into an all-out trade war.
Such a statement could send the stock market into a downward spiral, and even though China would likely be harmed in the ensuing global recession, Beijing could take steps to limit the economic fallout to its own economy.
In addition to the use of fake news, other market manipulation tools China could employ include attacks using various large-scale and covert market manipulation tools, such pump-and-dump stock schemes, spoofing to create a market crash, and bear raids – the illegal practice of pushing a stock price lower through short-selling and spreading rumors about targeted companies.
The entire financial warfare attack would be closely coordinated through Chinese intelligence services and state-run Chinese companies that are required to do Beijing’s bidding under Communist Party of China orders.
Other nations are vulnerable to the same types of attacks, and the US government, along with governments in Asia and elsewhere, should anticipate such actions and be ready to block them through the use of counter-financial warfare programs designed to detect market manipulation and rapidly expose the attacks.
Bill Gertz is a Washington-based national security journalist and author of Deceiving the Sky: Inside Communist China’s Drive for Global Supremacy.