Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Political Warfare, Sharp Power, the U.S., and East Asia
Political Warfare, Sharp Power, the U.S., and East Asia

Political Warfare, Sharp Power, the U.S., and East Asia

The following is the Editor’s Corner for the Spring 2020 special issue of Orbis on “Assessing Political Warfare and Sharp Power in—and from—East Asia. To access the complete issue, click here.

Authoritarian regimes use the weapons of political warfare and the tools of sharp power to influence, and sometimes undermine, liberal-democratic polities. As classically defined by George Kennan, political warfare is “the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in the time of peace” and includes “the employment of all means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.” Its modern form includes overt and covert uses of diplomatic, political, economic, and information means to affect policy decision-making or the political context affecting such decision-making in another state through means that are neither violent nor limited to persuasion or voluntary transaction. Distinguished from coercive hard power and persuasive soft power, sharp power seeks, as Christopher Walker puts it, to “pierce, penetrate, or perforate” political, media, and social environments of targeted countries, to manipulate their politics and, at times, to erode their political institutions.

Political warfare and sharp power, and the attention paid to them, have been increasing, with the Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election being

a pivotal moment. East Asia has not been immune to the phenomenon. Polities in the region have been both sources and targets, with the People’s Republic of China’s increased capacity and seemingly growing will to use political warfare and sharp power being the most transformative development.

In this special issue of Orbis, our contributors examine questions of political warfare and sharp power in—and from—East Asia from a range of perspectives and with a focus on several critical cases. In a framing article, Jacques deLisle considers China’s turn to political warfare as a means to influence U.S. policy toward China and on issues that Beijing considers important. He attributes Beijing’s reliance on political warfare and sharp power to the limited effectiveness of China’s hard power and soft power. China’s much-expanded hard power is too blunt, risky, and potentially counterproductive an instrument to achieve many of China’s key ends. China’s soft power was never formidable with the United States and has waned as China’s hard power and perceptions of its sharp power or political warfare agenda have grown. Other factors contributing to Beijing’s choice of methods include the resonance between political warfare or sharp power and broader themes and traditions in China’s political repertoire, and the relatively high vulnerability of the United States, with its open society and polarized politics. DeLisle also examines U.S. responses to China’s efforts and perceived efforts on many fronts, including business, media, culture, and education. After noting China’s assessment that the United States has been engaged in something akin to political warfare and sharp power targeting China, he concludes that political warfare, sharp power conflicts, and similar clashes will worsen if, or as, U.S.-China relations continue to become more adversarial.

Michael Clarke, Jennifer S. Hunt, and Matthew Sussex analyze China’s uses of sharp power toward the United States and Australia. They distinguish between “influence” operations (seeking to change immediate exercises of the state’s sovereign power in areas of interest to China) and “interference” efforts (seeking to alter views of China among the public and elites, indirectly affecting democratic states’ policies toward China). They find that China has used both methods to target the United States and Australia in pursuit of China’s goals of securing the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule, and propagating the “China Dream” (which sees China as offering an alternative model to the West’s in structuring the international order). The authors find that Australia—faced with evident Chinese efforts in targeting political parties, physical and communications infrastructure investments, and universities—has undertaken concerted legislative, regulatory, and rhetorical efforts to expose and mitigate China’s impact. China’s actions and Australian responses have broken a former pro-engagement consensus on China policy among Australia’s elite and public. In contrast, long-standing Chinese influence and interference operations in the United States—ranging from campaign contributions, to technology-targeting espionage, to pressuring companies to toe China’s line on sensitive issues—have been lesser concerns than Russian intervention. Recognition of China’s influence and interference operations has generated a growing elite and public consensus favoring tougher policies toward a “China threat” although there remains partisan disagreement over policy details.

Toshi Yoshihara examines the roots of China’s contemporary political warfare in the CCP’s deep-seated tradition of “united front” work. Partly drawing on evidence from the United Front Work Department (which has regained prominence under General Secretary Xi Jinping), Yoshihara argues that united front work entails a permanent campaign to target an identified enemy—whether at home or abroad—and includes both defensive aims (protect the CCP’s hold on power, national territorial integrity, and so on) and offensive ones (undermining the enemy, in part by shaping its preferences). In China’s united front work, Yoshihara sees near-seamless continuity between political warfare at home (the CCP’s fight against domestic adversaries, partly through cooperation with other social and political forces) and abroad (to encourage foreign support—particularly among Chinese nationals and ethnic Chinese—for China’s positions on issues important to Beijing, to sow divisions among and within liberal-democratic polities, and to weaken external responses to China’s assertive foreign policy). There is a certain symmetry between China’s political warfare and China’s threat perception, which focuses on foreign-backed efforts—often in alignment with domestic forces purportedly corrupted by Western ideas—to weaken the PRC from within. Yoshihara prescribes responsive strategies by liberal-democratic regimes: recognize the CCP’s fundamentally ideological worldview, China’s engagement in offensive political warfare, and the need to take countermeasures, both defensive ones to protect democratic institutions and offensive ones to limit China’s domestic foundations for conducting political warfare.

June Teufel Dreyer addresses China’s long-running political warfare against Japan. She traces the evolution of these efforts from early post-World War II attempts to spread communism to Japan, to drive a wedge between Japan and the United States over nuclear weapons, to influence Japanese public opinion through leverage over Japanese media and Japanese companies seeking access to China, and to mobilize Anti-Japanese nationalist sentiments among the Chinese public. Dreyer observes that Japan has been relatively insusceptible to China’s political warfare. She attributes this, in large part, to Japan’s relatively closed and homogeneous society and polity. Dreyer also points to the significance of Japan’s recognition of, and responses to, threats posed by China’s political warfare in recent years, including China’s leveraging of asymmetric economic relations to political ends, use of large-scale educational programs to try to shape Japanese views of China, cyberattacks and fake news targeting Japan, attempts to cultivate influence within Japanese government and society, and stoking the controversy in Japan over U.S. bases in Okinawa to strain U.S.-Japan ties. Japan also likely gains a degree of immunity from particular features of China-Japan bilateral relations. At least where China’s tools of political warfare seek partly to persuade and not just to coerce, China’s influence is undercut by the unresolved “history question” of Japan’s actions in China during World War II and the anti-Japanese focus of some of the more virulent strains of Chinese nationalism.

David Shinn and Joshua Eisenman shift our focus from one of the oldest targets of the PRC’s political warfare to one of its newest: Africa. For many decades, China pushed shared adherence to principles of state sovereignty and mutual non-interference in internal affairs to build China’s influence with African states. China helped insulate authoritarian regimes in Africa from the effects of criticism and condemnation by liberal-democratic states. In return, those states aligned with China on issues that mattered to Beijing, including rejection of foreign assaults on China’s human rights record and authoritarian politics. As China has become more powerful (and thus less concerned about foreign criticism) and has developed far-flung and substantial economic and strategic interests, Beijing’s commitments to sovereignty and non-interference have frayed. China under Xi Jinping has offered the “China Dream” (an agenda of internal rejuvenation that evolved into proffering a Chinese model for others and pursuing economic resources and security assets abroad) and the “Community of Shared Future” (which frames China’s Belt and Road Initiative in benign, win-win terms). China’s greatly increased economic, diplomatic, security, and technological presence in Africa, Shinn and Eisenman find, has provided new leverage to induce African governments to side with—or at least not challenge—China on issues Beijing defines as “core national interests,” including especially Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, human rights, and the South China Sea territorial disputes.

The next three articles examine China’s political warfare targeting areas along the Chinese mainland’s periphery that Beijing considers to be fully part of China’s sovereign realm. Victoria Hui details Beijing’s and the Hong Kong government’s methods for targeting the pro-democracy and pro-autonomy protests that erupted in response to the Special Administrative Region government’s ill-conceived effort to pass legislation that would have permitted extradition of Hong Kong residents to face prosecution, possibly for political or politicized offenses, in mainland Chinese courts. In Hong Kong, the collision between Chinese political warfare and local democratic politics is especially pointed: Beijing has sought to undercut activists (and their supporters) whose agenda includes movement toward democracy in Hong Kong. Hui describes the “hard and soft” tactics of repression that have been employed in Hong Kong. While Beijing has eschewed direct use of hard power (loosing the People’s Liberation Army or PRC paramilitary forces in Hong Kong), it has coopted the coercive power of Hong Kong’s once-locally-legitimate police. At the same time, neither Beijing nor the local authorities have relied on soft power methods of persuasion. They have resorted to intermediate, sharp power methods of repression, targeting both protesters and many types of professionals—whose work provides vital support for the protests—through means that include arrests, job loss, and polemical denunciations. In Hui’s account, the effectiveness of such measures remains uncertain, and there are significant signs that they are backfiring.

Chia-Chien Chang and Alan H. Yang, and Thomas J. Shattuck focus on Taiwan. Chang and Yang argue that Beijing has “weaponized” the asymmetrical economic inter-dependence and extensive social ties that have burgeoned between Taiwan and mainland China during the last 30 years. They disaggregate several ways that Beijing employs its sharp power to influence Taiwan’s democratic politics, including: economic leverage (selectively granting or withholding access to economic opportunities in China, and acquiring control over Taiwanese companies), social ties (gaining influence over religious and other voluntary organizations in Taiwan, sponsoring cross-Strait exchange tours, and cultivating allies and collaborators on a more ad hoc basis), and disinformation (promoting pro-China views openly or surreptitiously in old and new media in Taiwan, and deploying mainland-based “information troops” to hack Taiwan targets). Chang and Yang prescribe responses that include strengthening the resilience of Taiwan’s democracy through increased vigilance against the full range of Beijing’s methods, and strengthening external partnerships between Taiwan and other democratic states, which themselves are facing similar Chinese tactics, similar vulnerabilities due to their own links to China in a globalized economy, and similar risks to their own democratic orders as China seeks to make the world safe for autocracy.

Echoing Shinn and Eisenman, Shattuck assesses China’s methods for pressuring other states’ governments to back China’s position on Taiwan. He addresses China’s efforts—increased after Tsai Ing-wen’s ascension to the presidency in Taiwan—to press Taipei’s dwindling cohort of diplomatic allies to switch allegiance to Beijing and, thereby, to pressure Taiwan—and the Taiwanese public—to be more accommodating toward the PRC’s position on cross-Strait relations. Adopting a transactional approach that offers economic carrots and occasional sticks, or relying on the impact of China’s economic importance to so many countries, Beijing’s tactics toward Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are a form of political warfare or sharp power, falling between hard power or coercive threats, on one side, and soft power or normative persuasion, on the other. This aspect of Beijing’s political warfare may be facing diminishing returns, or worse. Taiwan’s recently lost and still-remaining diplomatic partners have not offered Taiwan much in economic gains, or access to international organizations. Their value has been to voice Taiwan’s claims to status in international forums and to offer the international legitimacy that formal relations can confer. But their contribution on these fronts is fading as Beijing poaches more of Taipei’s partners. Shattuck addresses the possible future of this “race to zero” and how it might be shaped—for good and for ill—by U.S. policies and laws signaling stronger support for Taiwan.

Finally, In-Bum Chun turns to a case of political warfare in East Asia waged by an authoritarian regime other than the PRC. Like Yoshihara’s analysis of China, Chun’s account of North Korea finds deep historical roots of political warfare and dense connections between measures targeting domestic and foreign audiences and enemies. Chun details how the Kim regime has used its own juche ideology and propaganda, exploitation of class and social divisions (in both North and South Korea), multifaceted appeals to Korean nationalism, and other ideational weapons to crush opposition at home, influence South Korean policy on unification, and destabilize the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) security alliance and, in turn, the threat that the United States poses to North Korea. In Chun’s view, North Korea’s political warfare, along with hard power initiatives, such as nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, has been impressively successful in enhancing the regime’s security and international stature, especially during the Moon administration’s tenure in Seoul and the Trump administration’s in Washington. Still, Chun concludes, the impact of North Korea’s political warfare is limited by Pyongyang’s lack of soft power, the resilience of South Korea’s democratic values and institutions, and the strength of U.S.-ROK security ties amid deteriorating U.S.-China relations and Washington’s adoption of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Chun warns that checking risks from North Korea’s political warfare requires vigilance, especially given the challenges that beset U.S.-ROK relations and the danger that Pyongyang will misperceive support from China, opposition from the United States, and receptivity in South Korea.

Several general insights emerge from this collection of articles. First, for China and North Korea—and likely for other authoritarian regimes as well—political warfare begins at home. There is no clear distinction—and, indeed, there is a close connection—between domestic and international uses of political warfare or sharp power methods to influence or undermine those whom the regime identifies as adversaries.

Second, the scope and content of political warfare or uses of sharp power—in China’s case and, surely, beyond—are broad and varied, with uncertain or disputed boundaries. As framed by contributors to this issue and other scholars as well, political warfare and sharp power arguably take in almost everything between hard power and coercion, on the one hand, and soft power and ordinary diplomacy, on the other. The methods range from high-pressure diplomacy to affect other states’ policies to surreptitious measures to influence the choices of political and economic elites, opinions of the broader public, and the functioning of democratic processes.

Third, as used in and from East Asia, political warfare and sharp power target and exploit the characteristic vulnerabilities of open societies and liberal-democratic polities, including businesses that seek access to China, new and traditional media that are porous to foreign influence (some of it clandestine), publics that are receptive to divisive and bias-confirming messages, civil society structures and educational and cultural spaces that provide many unguarded points of entry, and politicians eager for foreign and economic policy wins and campaign donations. The methods can be especially potent where the targets are culturally proximate (as is the case along the PRC’s periphery or on the Korean peninsula), and where the target’s politics are polarized or polarizable (as is the case in South Korea and Australia).

Fourth, political warfare or sharp power can be deployed not just to influence policies and political preferences, but also to attack democratic politics and political autonomy—albeit with mixed success and sometimes with perverse results. Among the most evident examples of such targeting, addressed in this collection, are Taiwan and Hong Kong, where Beijing’s efforts have threatened to compromise democratic institutions (Taiwan) or sought to crush democratic aspirations (Hong Kong). But analogous undertakings have occurred—without dramatic effect—in other cases as well, including by China toward Japan in the post-War era and by North Korea toward South Korea over many decades. Beijing’s repertoire also includes more diplomatic variations on this theme: using economic and political sticks and carrots to induce governments of developing countries to bend to China’s will on Taiwan and other issues. The governments targeted—and induced to outsource part of their foreign policymaking—are sometimes themselves authoritarian regimes or fragile democracies.

Fifth, liberal-democratic polities can, and have, taken effective countermeasures. These have been primarily internal “self-help” projects, but they can, and sometimes do, extend to international cooperation. Examples of such efforts, and prescriptions for more earnest and elaborate ones, run throughout the articles in this issue, which variously address initiatives and potential initiatives—primarily, though not exclusively, by governments—in the United States, Japan, Korea, Australia, and Taiwan.

Finally, political warfare and deployments of sharp power in and from East Asia are likely to endure and escalate. In a region where great powers and nuclear armed states face off, the risk of catastrophic conflict makes a resort to hard power risky and of limited efficacy. The regional authoritarian regimes most prone to, and practiced in, the use of political warfare and sharp power—China and North Korea—lack potent soft power. Amid China’s pursuit of more assertive and geographically wide-ranging foreign policy agenda, a more contentious U.S.-PRC relationship, North Korea’s perennially fraught external relations, and recurring tensions over fundamental issues of sovereignty for Taiwan and autonomy and democracy for Hong Kong, the incentives for Beijing and Pyongyang to resort to existing and evolving techniques of political warfare and sharp power—and the imperatives for targeted liberal and democratic polities and proponents of liberal and democratic politics to detect and counter them—are likely to persist and may increase.

Although it is largely beyond the scope of the issues addressed in this collection, political warfare and sharp power—or something like them—are, and are likely to remain, a two-way street. In targeting China, the United States resorts to what former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton famously endorsed as “smart power”—a combination of soft and hard power as part of a diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural toolkit to achieve national objectives and to build international influence, thus reducing reliance on hard power and compensating for soft power’s inadequacies in targeting competitor states (as well as non-state actors). The United States is adopting what the Trump administration has dubbed a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach, employing both defensive and offensive measures to counter perceived threats from China and elsewhere to U.S. democracy, national security, and allies. The United States traditionally has pursued what orthodox and official Chinese sources have long denounced as impermissible efforts to “peacefully evolve” China into a regime of a political type more to Washington’s liking and more supportive of international institutions and norms favored by the United States. And influential U.S. policy thinkers now advocate a deliberate embrace of political warfare to mirror and counter efforts by China and other strategic competitors or rival powers.

Ed. Note: Thanks to Thomas J. Shattuck for his indispensable role in planning this issue.

Access the entire Special Issue here