China is in conflict with a world order and a system of rules and beliefs that it now regards as an impediment to its ambitions. As its influence activities corrode the democratic firewall that unites and protects us, we must respond with our own united front.
As the world begins to understand the scope and ramifications of China’s “sharp power,” it has become evident that in the 21st century, Taiwan will be an indispensable partner to the international community as it strives to counter efforts by revisionist forces and defend the democratic values that we cherish. More than ever, it is clear that China’s unending — and intensifying — assault on Taiwan is an assault on the entire liberal democratic order that has underpinned our societies since the end of World War II.
During a session on the rise of China at the Aspen Security Forum last week, Michael Collins, deputy assistant director of the CIA’s East Asia Mission Center, observed that:
“What [China] is waging against us is fundamentally a cold war, a cold war not like we saw during the Cold War, but a cold war by definition. A country that exploits all avenues of power licit and illicit, public and private, economic and military, to undermine the standing of your rival relative to your own standing without resorting to conflict. The Chinese do not want conflict.”
“At the end of the day [China] wants every country around the world, when it’s deciding its interests on policy issues, to first and foremost side with China and not the United States.”
It is a cold war, and this is exactly the expression (a “cold war mentality”) that the Chinese have used to discredit those of us who are trying to make this fact known to the public.
I have, however, one small quibble with Mr. Collins’s remarks: whether the Chinese want conflict or not (Collins argues that they do not) — we are in conflict, there is a conflict, and it is becoming more serious. It is over the very future of the global order and the rules and values that define it. What the Chinese seek to avoid, at least for the time being, is armed conflict.
China is in conflict with a world order, and a system of rules and beliefs, that it now regards as an impediment to its ambitions. For the decades when China was focused on rebuilding itself, its efforts to undermine, corrode and transform others outside its borders were relatively limited. However, now that its ambitions have become regional, and arguably global, it knows that it cannot hope to secure the place it sees for itself without challenging rules — chief among them liberal democracy — that stand in the way of its ambitions.
Beijing has scored its greatest successes in countries where rule of law and democratic institutions are weak, if not inexistent. But that isn’t enough. If authoritarian China is to become a true global power, it needs to break through the democratic firewall. And to do so, it uses “sharp power” or “united front activities” — a combination of political and psychological warfare, corruption, co-optation, disinformation — as well as economic incentives and sometimes its rather clumsy “soft power,” to change our institutions, and to change us.
It is engaged in an all-front assault on the appeal and legitimacy of liberal democracy in a time of weakness the likes of which we probably haven’t seen since the Dark Valley of the 1930s.
The CCP has created a powerful incentive for societies that now find themselves threatened by sharp power to reach out to Taiwan and learn from its experiences.
In doing this, China has benefited from our distractions and lack of knowledge, within our societies, about the ideology that drives the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It has benefitted from the belief that we are dealing with a known, normal entity that acts in ways similar to our own. Our societies, our media, academic institutions and even our governments, have been largely unprepared to conjugate with the challenge at hand.
A group of researchers from around the world, some of whom are here with us today, has begun shedding light on this new reality, on the practices, the players, and the goals behind those activities. Interestingly, something that many of the pioneers in this field all have in common is the fact that they have been threatened by the CCP for exposing these inconvenient truths. Three of us here today — Dr. Anne-Marie Brady, Dr. Clive Hamilton and myself — have been victimized by the CCP and its affiliates in different ways: censorship, break-ins, threats, fears of legal action, or, in my case, being sued, here in Taiwan, by a Chinese entity. John Garnaut, another leader in the field back in Australia, is in the courts as we speak. There are many others, and there is bound to be several more as China expands its influence via neo-imperial projects like the New Silk Road, or the Belt and Road Initiative, which worryingly involve many countries where rule of law and democratic norms are weak indeed.
Similar assaults on freedom of research, print and expression have occurred on multiple occasions worldwide, and the fact that this is happening is a clear sign that we are onto something — that we are unearthing the very sinews of the CCP’s global strategy of transformation. If the party didn’t feel threatened by such exposure, it would not go to such lengths to silence, intimidate, and punish us.
Interestingly, most if not all of the things we that have heard on this panel, and have heard about in the news over the past 24 months or so, are taken as a fact of life in Taiwan, as something that has been around for decades.
What the CCP has done with its growing ambitions is to export that model abroad. One unintended consequence of this is that by doing so, the party has created a powerful incentive for societies that now find themselves threatened by such behavior to reach out to Taiwan and learn from its experiences. Thus, as Beijing tries to isolate Taiwan, its actions create the need for the rest of the world to deepen its engagement with the democratic island-nation. Most, if not all, of China’s application of “sharp power” worldwide now has been tried, tested, and refined after years of practice in Taiwan, which, like many of the targeted societies today, is armed with the “firewall” of democracy, a firewall that Beijing still hasn’t figured out how to break. Thus, we can learn from each other. We must learn from each other.
In the end, our greatest tool is knowledge: first, awareness that we are facing a problem, then identifying the problem itself, the principal players, the techniques, and objectives. Only when we have clearly identified those — and we are still in the process of doing that — can we implement the appropriate defense mechanisms, such as revising our laws, plugging the “gray areas” in our open societies, and strengthening our democratic institutions.
A lot of what China does through its “sharp power” is illegal, but not all of it is. Some of its influence activities are merely unethical, which creates additional challenges for our open societies in deciding how best to respond. The last thing we want to do in our response is to become more like our opponents who seek to undermine our democratic institutions.
Among other things, our response means strengthening our commitment to transparency and accountability, to freedom of expression and of the press, and ensuring that our academics, journalists and thinkers can continue to investigate these activities without harm to their selves, families, or career prospects.
As we do so, we must also ensure that our reactions are commensurate with the nature of the threat, and must avoid casting too wide a net. The last thing we want to do is alienate the Chinese communities that, in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada, have made large contributions to our prosperity and richness of our culture.
In fact, in our efforts to protect ourselves, we have every advantage in reaching out to our Chinese communities to both learn from them and, just as important, to reassure them. We need to make it clear that the enemy isn’t China or the Chinese, but rather the CCP and its growing efforts to undermine and displace the very values that make us who we are.
This article is adapted from a talk given by the author during Panel II (“China’s Sharp Power and its Challenges to the Democratic World”) of the Ketagalan Forum: 2018 Asia-Pacific Security Dialogue, held in Taipei on July 24 and organized by the Prospect Foundation. It is reproduced here with permission. (Top photo: Grizzle)