October 1, 2020 | Newsweek

Why Downplaying China’s Election Interference Could Backfire

October 1, 2020 | Newsweek

Why Downplaying China’s Election Interference Could Backfire

Following the release of U.S. intelligence assessments exposing Russian, Chinese and Iranian interference in the 2020 election—as well as revelations that cyber actors from all three countries were actively targeting the Biden and Trump campaigns—Republicans and Democrats predictably wasted little time in making partisan fodder of the new information.

The White House, eager to avoid new allegations about Russia’s preference for President Donald Trump, used the intelligence community’s findings to claim that former vice president Joe Biden was China’s preferred candidate. Democrats, still frustrated about Russian interference in 2016, countered that Donald Trump and his advisers were distorting assessments about China’s influence operations in an attempt to distract the public from Russia.

Neither argument does China’s meddling justice.

Years before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, Beijing initiated a well-resourced and multi-pronged campaign to positively influence public opinion about China worldwide and neutralize potential threats to the regime’s carefully crafted international image. Such efforts began with relatively benign person-to-person exchanges and the cultivation of discreet relationships with influential U.S. business executives and decision makers. In the intervening years, these efforts have expanded to include disinformationcoercion; threats of retaliation; clandestine operations and the weaponization of the West’s regulatory, legal and lobbying loopholes.

The goal of these interference operations extends far beyond safeguarding Chinese business interests and promoting one candidate or party over another. At their core, they seek to achieve political outcomes in the United States and other democracies that are beneficial to Beijing.

On nearly every issue, from public health and commerce to global governance and even human rights, China’s influence efforts have been fairly successful. In some cases, they even resulted in revisions of history, including cultural whitewashing of atrocities in Tiananmen, Tibet and Xinjiang. That is, until COVID-19, when Beijing’s overt coercion and intimidation of politicians, businesses and populations alike seriously undermined attempts to repair China’s international image. The message was suddenly clear—cross Beijing at your own risk.

Beijing’s newfound aggressiveness has resulted in surprisingly unified pushback from many unexpected corners of the world. And yet, in a trend reminiscent of 2016, the issue of China’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. presidential election has divided the American political class, largely because Beijing’s efforts appear on paper to be less threatening than Moscow’s brutish maneuvers. In reality, of course, the threat from both Russia and China has less to do with the tactics used and more with the desired end state—undermining Americans’ trust in our public institutions and form of governance.

With phrases like “deep fakes” and “bot farms” now mainstays of our political lexicon, it has become easy to overlook the seemingly unsophisticated ways in which China is attempting to influence democratic elections around the world. Yes, efforts by Russia to weaponize social media platforms deserve attention, particularly in the lead up to the 2020 election. But the far simpler methods China and other authoritarian regimes use to influence electoral outcomes and shape public opinion in liberal democratic countries can be even more effective.

Hasty attempts by some Democratic lawmakers to downplay China’s election interference run the real risk of signaling to China—and American voters—that the U.S. government considers Beijing’s meddling troublesome but not treacherous. Beyond potentially normalizing China’s behavior, such a move almost certainly emboldens Beijing to continue such operations as far as it can, short of provoking direct U.S. intervention. China has of course employed similar strategies in pursuit of other geopolitical objectives, including its increasingly maximalist approach in the South China Sea.

Premature remarks by executive and legislative officials about Chinese election interference also ignore the stark reality that the U.S. government’s knowledge of this topic appears limited at best. Currently, the West largely lacks the ability to expose and disrupt malign Chinese actors in real time, in stark contrast to advanced technologies developed by social media and cybersecurity companies to address the Russian threat.

If Chinese political interference operations in Australia—Beijing’s other top interference target—are any guide, it can often take years to unravel complicated Chinese political influence operations. Worse yet, the hyper-partisan political environment in the United States does not easily lend itself to the same investigative framework employed in Canberra, which relies heavily on unbiased contributions from civil society, academia and the intelligence and business communities.

In the absence of a more unified approach to China’s U.S. election meddling, as well as a concerted effort by both political parties to educate the general public about the scope of the threat, it appears all but certain that the United States will find itself facing a similar situation in 2022 and 2024, if not beyond. Other democracies will be at risk of confronting similar interference. That is, unless, liberal democracies adjust their approach to China’s influence operations and devise appropriate, apolitical countermeasures.

Bipartisan acknowledgement of the threat in the United States would be as good a place to start as any.

Craig Singleton, a former U.S. diplomat and national security expert, is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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China Military and Political Power Russia