‘Both India and the US have pro-China factions, for reasons ranging from simple greed to leftist, pro-totalitarian ideology. Consequently, it has been difficult to develop a national consensus to fight Beijing’s malign influence. But this lack of will and ability to confront it almost guarantees ultimate victory for the PRC.’
China is using political warfare (PW) to try to weaken India, the United States, and any others the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants to dominate. Understanding how to identify, combat and push back on the PW front is essential, especially for democracies where our open communications systems are our strength and—in the context of a malign actor like the CCP—our weakness.
One of the world experts in PW is Prof Kerry K. Gershaneck. Prof Gershaneck was a Visiting Scholar (Taiwan Fellow) at the National Chengchi University in Taipei over the past three years. He was also the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Thailand’s Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy and the Royal Thai Naval Academy for six years. He is a former US Marine officer, and has extensive national-level strategic communications and counterintelligence experience over the course of more than 30 years.
We interviewed him about some of the findings in his recently published book Political Warfare: Strategies for Combating China’s Plan to “Win without Fighting”, as well as recent events in India and the US.
Q: All countries wage political warfare to some extent, to include India and the US. Why write a book on China’s political warfare?
A: The nature of the regime matters greatly, as does the extent of the threat it poses. China is an expansionist, hyper-nationalistic, militarily powerful, brutally repressive, fascist, and totalitarian state. It is essential to understand each word in that indisputable description. The CCP poses an existential threat to the freedom and democracy that India and the US represent. Failure to understand the nature of the CCP regime undermines our countries’ ability to fully understand the danger the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) PW poses and to build our capacity to combat it.
I wrote the book because many American elected officials and others in key policy, national security, and education positions simply do not understand the nature of the PRC threat. They do not understand—or simply refuse to recognize—that the PRC is at war with us. During the Cold War, the US used to be pretty good at fighting totalitarian political warfare, which is a key reason the Free World won that prolonged Cold War with the USSR. It’s worth noting that the non-aligned nations won as well when the USSR collapsed.
But we abandoned those skills in the early 1990s, when we naively assumed the collapse of the Soviet Union meant we had won and that there would never be a threat again from a totalitarian communist regime. The communist Soviet regime had collapsed but not the CCP. The CCP studied the Soviet Union’s collapse closely and learned lessons regarding how to keep its totalitarian system alive. And it vastly improved its political warfare capabilities to ensure that it could overcome the democracies’ efforts to reform the PRC to help it to become like them.
Q: You mention in your book that the PRC is “at war” with the rest of the world. When did this war start, and why has it taken so long for governments to realize they are under attack?
A: Chinese communists have used political warfare to influence, co-opt, and subvert their enemies for almost 100 years. Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists called for revolutionary wars to (in his words) “liberate the peoples of the world” well before the founding of the PRC. The CCP used political warfare to defeat the Nationalist Chinese forces on mainland China in 1949, and to successfully repress the peoples of countries like Tibet and Xinjiang that it conquered immediately thereafter. The PRC now wages political warfare daily against its own population as well as against countries such as India to support its global expansionist, totalitarian ambitions.
Officials in democracies such as India and the US have been too easily deceived about PRC’s political warfare for several key reasons. When the Soviet Union collapsed around 1990, many in our countries naively believed there would be no more expansionist, totalitarian threats. They were wrong, of course. Chinese communists still quietly harboured plans for regional (and ultimately global) hegemony. As PRC rulers proclaimed China’s “peaceful rise”, they built massive economic and military strength and engaged in global political warfare operations to subvert the democracies.
Meanwhile, the US and other democracies dismantled their Cold War political warfare capabilities and foolishly assumed the PRC would join the community of nations as a “responsible stakeholder”. Even though India has fought a major war with China and has had to contend with China’s routine military incursions and attacks, as a nation it has not developed a full awareness of the CCP’s political warfare against it, nor systematically studied it and countered it.
The democracies’ blindness to PRC political warfare severely undermines the ability to conceptualize the threat. However, now many countries are waking up to the threat, but some leaders do not have the strength and will to implement appropriate countermeasures. For example, both India and the US have pro-China factions, for reasons ranging from simple greed to leftist, pro-totalitarian ideology. Consequently, it has been difficult to develop a national consensus to fight Beijing’s malign influence. But this lack of will and ability to confront it almost guarantees ultimate victory for the PRC.
Q: How does the PRC wage political war around the world? Do tactics vary from country to country, region to region?
A: From the CCP perspective, PW is total war—it is unrestricted warfare using every means just short of large-scale military combat. The PRC’s form of political warfare is generally standard worldwide: it uses the same playbook to achieve its political, economic, and military objectives globally without having to fight conventional wars. Tailored strategies and tactics, however, are adapted for each region and country.
It’s important to understand that PRC’s PW—this unrestricted warfare—is designed to get others to do what the CCP wants them to do. The PRC says unrestricted warfare means “the battlefield is everywhere” and there are no boundaries between “war and non-war, and between military and non-military affairs”. In essence, the PRC says that everything, legal or illegal, is permissible in order to achieve its ends. Specific examples the PRC gives of how to conduct its unrestricted warfare include biological and chemical warfare and terrorism, means particularly pertinent to note and consider in the Covid-19 era.
The list of weapons the PRC employs is long. It includes propaganda, psychological warfare, media warfare, disinformation, corruption, economic and sexual enticement, and coercion. It also includes active measures such as hybrid warfare, proxy armies, assassination, kidnapping, and brutal physical attacks. The PRC’s PW doctrine also includes concepts such as lawfare (using international and national laws, bodies and courts to shape decision making in the CCP’s favour), cyberattacks, terrorism, espionage, bribery, censorship, deception, subversion, blackmail, enforced disappearances (kidnapping, abduction), attacks by criminal gangs, and hybrid warfare.
A noteworthy recent addition to this list of PW weapons is social media warfare. The PRC uses social media to amplify its psychological warfare, intimidation, coercion, and propaganda. With social media, the CCP floods societies with propaganda and disinformation to weaken people’s faith in democracy and create political instability. In pursuit of social media dominance, the PRC has established a PLA cyber force of perhaps 300,000 soldiers as well as a netizen “50 Cent Army” of perhaps 2 million individuals who are paid a nominal fee to make comments on social media sites supporting CCP propaganda and coercion. In conjunction with the PLA Strategic Support Force, many of these so-called “netizens” use social media to intimidate and coerce multinational corporations, celebrities, foreign governments and organizations, and critics of PRC genocide and expansionism.
This is all part of the CCP’s totalitarian thought control. The CCP employs thought control tactics internally to control its 1.3 billion subjects, such as the CCP’s internal censorship of western search applications and the use of social networks to savagely repress dissent and non-CCP approved thought.
These tactics are now routinely employed abroad. For example, university professors in India and the US routinely self-censor when it comes to the PRC, for a number of reasons. Some are ideological: they simply support the PRC’s totalitarian model. Others fear any criticism will damage their prospects for obtaining visas to the PRC or invitations to high-status conferences. Yes, this constitutes both intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice, but it is a fact of life in both India and the US.
Q: What is the PRC’s ultimate goal in waging political war? What are some of its intermediate objectives?
A: In general, the PRC’s rulers wage political warfare for three key reasons: (1) to achieve regional and global hegemony; (2) to maintain absolute control over China’s subjects internally; and (3) to co-opt or coerce other nations into becoming vassal or tributary states and to destroy states perceived as adversaries.
Based on the CCP’s Sino-fascist interpretation of an invented history, the CCP seeks to elevate China above all other nations. That is, the CCP wants to restore the myth of “One China” and its supposed former imperial grandeur as the Middle Kingdom. To use CCP terminology, the PRC wants to be the all-powerful hegemon. Accordingly, it wages political warfare to ensure the CCP’s total control over China’s population and resources, as well as those of foreign nations that the Chinese historically called barbarian states both nearby and throughout the world.
Q: What is your view of the new Biden administration? Will Joe Biden work to rein in the PRC’s aggression, or will he facilitate it?
A: The Biden-Harris administration will have to prove itself trustworthy—through strong actions and not simply empty rhetoric—to India and other democracies worldwide. Frankly, we will need to watch both the actions and words of the Biden-Harris administration over a period of time to assess if it has both the resolve and skills to confront the PRC. There was simply too much accommodation—appeasement, actually—of the CCP during the Obama-Biden administration to instill complete confidence in the new administration. Many of Biden’s current key appointees served during that time and failed to effectively identify and confront the existential threat the PRC poses. But they are older now and, one hopes, wiser.
The Biden administration also has the great advantage of being able to build on the steps the Trump administration took to confront the PRC. As one example, ideally Biden will work to expand the Quad concept, rather than simply dismiss as a Trump-era initiative. The new administration also needs to continue with the excellent work the Trump administration began regarding exposing and confronting PRC PW in the US and globally.
Conversely, to help ensure the Biden-Harris administration has the requisite resolve and skill, it is vital that India’s leaders continuously remind the US government of the threat that the PRC poses, and provide ways to work together to confront this existential threat. India must help lead!
Q: How can states like India fight back against the political warfare the PRC is waging? How can India help rally countries together and cooperate to fight back?
A: India should help lead the Indo-Pacific region in countering the PRC’s totalitarian expansionism, along with the US, Japan, and Australia and other willing partners such as Taiwan. It is in India’s clear self-interest to do so, and it has the intellectual, technological, economic, diplomatic, and military capacity to lead.
Specifically, India should work with the US to build a “Free World United Front” of like-minded nations to deter, counter, and defeat PRC political warfare. India could also work with other countries under assault to assess their own vulnerabilities, capabilities, and strategies in the face of Beijing’s political warfare campaigns against them, and to develop national strategies to counter the attack. The democracies should work together to routinely investigate, disrupt, prosecute, and expose covert and overt PRC political warfare operations.
India must also lead in encouraging academic study that focuses on combating PRC political warfare. It must support research into this existential challenge and how to contain, deter, and/or defeat it, and provide funding to students and recognition of their contributions in the fight.
Related to this crucial education effort, India’s think tanks and academic institutions could develop curriculum specifically focused on PRC political warfare, for both government and private sector leaders. The focus of these courses will be on building internal defences within the most highly valued PRC target audiences: elected officials, senior policymakers, thought leaders, national security managers, and other information gatekeepers. Similar governmental, institutional, and public education programs were employed successfully during the Cold War, with threat briefs and public discussion a routine part of each.
To this end, India could display regional leadership by establishing an Asian Political Warfare Center of Excellence (APWCE) similar to the Finland-based European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. Its mission would be similar to the Finland COE: “To develop a common understanding of PRC political warfare threats and promote the development of a comprehensive, whole-of-government response at national levels in countering PRC and other political warfare threats”. The APWCE will provide the intellectual foundation and education needed to develop and synchronize India’s counter-political warfare and offensive political warfare capabilities to effectively combat China’s malign influence, and it will assist the countries in the Indo-Pacific Region and even globally as well.
To download a free copy of Political Warfare: Strategies for Combating China’s Plan to “Win without Fighting” by Kerry K. Gershaneck https://www.usmcu.edu/Portals/218/Political%20Warfare_web.pdf