May 17, 2024 | Max Bell School of Public Policy

Remarks by Craig Singleton on Security at Home: Canada, the United States, and an Ascendant China

May 17, 2024 | Max Bell School of Public Policy

Remarks by Craig Singleton on Security at Home: Canada, the United States, and an Ascendant China

Craig Singleton:

Good morning,

Today, the U.S. and Canada stand at a critical juncture in our relations with China, particularly in the context of North American security.

As we peel back the layers of diplomatic engagements that often portray a facade of cooperation, we are confronted by the stark reality that China is intent on pursuing policies that directly threaten our democratic values.

The essence of today’s discussion revolves around Chinese hostile activities that span a spectrum of interference, espionage, economic coercion, disinformation, and relentless cyber-attacks.

Of course, these activities are not random, and China’s activities do not amount to mere disruptions.

They are calculated and insidious attempts to undermine our democratic institutions, economic stability, and national security from within.

And, they are only likely to intensify in the coming years.

Fracturing the West through proxy wars in Europe and the Middle East fits neatly within Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping’s instructions to his bureaucratic foot soldiers to seek opportunity in international turmoil.

Speaking before a seminar of Chinese Communist Party leaders in 2021, Xi remarked, “The most important characteristic of the world is, in a word, ‘chaos,’ and this trend appears likely to continue.” In that speech Xi noted, “The times and trends are on our side.”

Similarly, as Mr. Xi departed a Kremlin meeting in March 2023, he went further, effectively declaring himself and Mr. Putin agents of chaos. Xi said, “Right now there are changes, the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years,” and we are the ones driving these changes together.”

For the purposes of today’s discussion, I would like to focus on two key facets of China’s malign interference – cyberwarfare and disinformation operations aimed at meddling in our democracies.

In the realm of cyber warfare, the threat from China is both sophisticated and pernicious.

Today, China and other adversaries are deftly maneuvering within our communication networks.

I think it’s fair to say that today’s digital arms race is taking place on the front lines of our own communication networks, the very backbone of our modern societies.

China’s cyber tactics are not merely about gathering intelligence though. Increasingly, they are aimed at creating significant disruptions that could cripple our critical infrastructure when we least expect it.

Put differently, these hackers are not merely seeking access to our networks, they are pre-emptively positioning to compromise and control them.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Cyber Strategy, China’s peacetime penetration of our networks directly informs its preparations for potential conflict, blurring the lines between peace and war.

Moreover, the People’s Liberation Army has long prioritized the targeting, penetrating, and compromising of what they term our “information detection sources, information channels, and information-processing and decision-making systems.”

The goal of such operations, according to PLA planners, is clear: to sap the enemy’s morale, disintegrate their will to fight, and ignite anti-war sentiment, all without firing a single conventional weapon.

The recently exposed “Volt Typhoon” operation is a stark reminder of this reality. All told, this Chinese state-directed cyber initiative saw Chinese hackers manipulate thousands of network devices, laying the groundwork for potential catastrophic disruptions at naval ports, internet service providers, and key utility sectors.

Chinese hackers did not just happen upon these targets; they are vital points in our communications infrastructure, chosen to maximize disruption and induce societal panic.

As we look ahead to the next generation of communication technologies, China is already laying the groundwork to dominate these arenas as well.

Their proactive positioning in standard-setting bodies like the International Telecommunications Union aims to advance global telecommunications norms that favor Chinese technologies and strategic interests.

Such moves are a clear indication that China likely intends to embed dependencies in next generation technologies that could be exploited for intelligence gathering or geopolitical leverage.

Turning to disinformation, China’s efforts to manipulate public perception and influence political outcomes are becoming more refined and pervasive.

China routinely leverages social media platforms to spread false narratives, create fake news stories, and amplify divisive issues that can sway public opinion and disrupt the political stability of our nations.

The recent elections in Taiwan have shown us the lengths to which China will go to ensure outcomes favorable to its geopolitical interests.

As the top target of disinformation globally, Taiwan faced an onslaught of false narratives designed to undermine the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and bolster other parties favoring closer ties with Beijing.

These tactics are now being replicated in our own backyard. Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community has already warned about Chinese interference in the upcoming 2024 U.S. presidential election, having declassified information about Chinese meddling during the 2022 midterms.

In the United States, what we are seeing are attempts by Chinese actors to manipulate state-level elections through covert funding, disinformation, and the cultivation of political allies. These efforts aim to sow discord, erode trust in democratic institutions, and diminish the West’s ability to project global influence.

The impact of these campaigns is profound, as they not only target individuals but also seek to undermine trust in our democratic institutions.

By casting doubt on the legitimacy of electoral processes, China aims to create a pervasive sense of mistrust and cynicism among the electorate, both at home and across the world.

The urgency of addressing these threats cannot be overstated. If left unchecked, Chinese disinformation and cyber interference will continue to grow in terms of sophistication and intensity.

And, the path forward requires a unified and robust response from Canada and the United States.

All told, we must enhance our defensive and offensive capabilities, not only to deter and withstand these threats but also to preserve the core values that underpin our societies.

For starters, to counter cyber threats, enhancing our cybersecurity frameworks is imperative. This includes not only bolstering our defenses against network intrusions but also developing capabilities to retaliate against cyber aggressions in real time.

The collaboration between our nations in sharing intelligence and cybersecurity technologies will be crucial in this endeavor.

Similarly, to counter the scourge of disinformation, the democratic world’s defenses must be hardened, namely by equipping government officials, journalists, political parties, the private sector, civil society, and the general public with the tools and information needed to reduce their exposure to China’s malign discourse.

Efforts must also be made to modernize campaign finance, counter-interference, and espionage laws to enhance transparency and disclosure requirements for individuals/entities acting on behalf of China, as well as to toughen sanctions and enforcement provisions to deter potential violators.

Of course, government alone cannot accomplish these objectives, which means that public-private partnerships will be essential.

Of particular importance is the need for enhanced coordination in the civic technology space to identify and respond to China’s discourse provocations.

Last, in the arena of international diplomacy, we must be vigilant. We cannot allow Chinese overtures of cooperation to distract us from the underlying strategic maneuvers that threaten our national interests.

It is essential that we maintain a clear-eyed view of China’s international ambitions and the implications they have for our security.

And, with that, I’ll turn back the remainder of my time.  

Issues:

China Cyber Disinformation Indo-Pacific U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy