Xi Jinping, Chinese president and general secretary of the Communist Party of China. Photo: Xinhua

With the great-power competition between the US and China intensifying, much attention is on the military dimension of the rivalry. For example, the Quad was purportedly designed to spread out Chinese military assets thinly across the Indo-Pacific region. However, China is well aware that an overt military action would invite retaliation.

Washington should encourage its allies to contribute to regional security in areas beyond the traditional military aspect. Chinese operations aimed at influencing foreign governments in particular pose threats as grave as its military might – the US and its allies need to collaborate to counter them collectively.

The allies could deepen and expand areas of cooperation including intelligence sharing, cyberattacks defense, artificial intelligence and machine learning. A network of US partners could cooperate with specializations based on each of their strengths and weaknesses.

The Five Eyes consisting of the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada in recent years has renewed a focus on countering China. The group should extend collaboration with key allies across the globe. In particular, there have been growing calls to incorporate Japan into the structure given its intelligence capacity and regional importance in Asia.

As a RAND Corporation report asserted, the key to competing with China in the “gray zone between peace and war” is shaping “a context supportive of US and partner objectives over the long term.” Relevant measures include deterring extreme forms of gray-zone aggression such as election interference and “denying aggressor participation in key economic and social institutions.”

Deterrence can be restored when the allies unfold a united front against a common threat. So far, the US has been fighting a lonely battle against Chinese influence agendas. While Beijing’s maritime claims, border clashes with its neighbors and oppression of minorities are relatively well documented and criticized, the West has been largely muted on China’s quiet approach to subverting and corrupting free and open societies. 

As former Australian prime minister Malcom Turnbull asserted, China is launching influence activities that are “covert, coercive or corrupt.” A report titled “Understanding and Combating Russian and Chinese Influence Operations” by the Center for American Progress provides a framework to analyze the Communist Party of China’s tactics.

China seeks to enhance its own legitimacy and “tilt the playing field in its favor,” according to the report. It also projects legitimacy by leveraging governments, individuals, academic institutions, businesses and media organizations.

The United Front, which the Communist Party of China (CPC) calls its “magic weapon,” and affiliated apparatuses provide financial support to Western politicians and individuals, distort information presented in the media, engage in economic espionage and harass expatriates and ethnic Chinese. 

Chinese influence operations undermine democratic communities’ norms and values. The CPC especially seeks to strangle open discussion on issues such as concentration camps in Xinjiang, human rights in Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

There are dozens of cases in which seemingly harmless organizations engage in influence operations directed by or on behalf of the CPC. For example, the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA) – installed worldwide by the Chinese government – politically mobilized students on US campuses in support of Beijing’s foreign policy.   

A relatively novel element of foreign influence operations comes from cyberspace, where autocratic governments can “concoct disinformation, inject it into the public discourse, and amplify it through self-improving algorithms.” Facebook now flags disinformation and fake news. Twitter labels government and state-affiliated media accounts.

These are welcome developments, but much more work is required. Social-media platforms need to go further to detect and block bots deployed by authoritarian regimes to stymie free and open discussions in democratic societies.

So far, the aforementioned efforts inevitably center on activities in the US media. They seldom address attacks specifically targeting US allies. The US government should request that social-media companies and friendly governments across the world share their nation-specific information and experience with Chinese digital influence operations. 

A point of particular concern is that Chinese operations are often long-term and undetected. United Front operations in Australia and New Zealand reveal that they not only target notable politicians but also relatively unknown figures at the grassroots political levels, “helping them reach positions of influence.”

The CPC compiled digital dossiers on millions – a revelation last September put the number at at least 2.4 million – of influential foreign citizens and even their children. The CPC uses the collected materials to influence, blackmail and intimidate the subjects when necessary.

The CPC also pressures the subject to self-censor, creating a guise of voluntary choice. Critically, the pressure is often outsourced to “self-interested or naive intermediaries.”

Josh Rogin, a columnist at The Washington Post, claimed that China gets Americans to carry its message to other Americans to strengthen the purported veracity of Beijing’s propaganda. The CPC’s “friendship envoys,” who often go on to assume important government positions, help formulate a pro-China atmosphere in think-tanks, universities, or governments.

Responding to foreign-influence operations starts with harnessing the will and ability to resist them. While former US attorney general William Barr may have been overstating the case when he called US tech companies “pawns of Chinese influence,” he was correct to criticize them for succumbing to Chinese influence for the sake of short-term profits, “even at the expense of freedom and openness.”

Apple decided to transfer some of its iCloud data to servers in China; Cisco is allegedly selling sophisticated systems that aid China’s Great Firewall. Kowtowing to China’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy, Hollywood is changing the nationalities of some of its characters and altering movie plots – some even “portray Beijing as a benevolent global leader.”

Disney was comfortable with filming a movie in Xinjiang, where more than a million Uighur Muslims are allegedly being detained in concentration camps. One wonders how corporations in America’s allies, coveting China’s market, would be even more susceptible to coercion.

Granted, the very power of open and free societies comes from free markets and free choice. Directly interfering with private companies’ marketing strategy and their sales content goes against those fundamental values. However, the people of the free societies can make a choice. It is within the rights of Washington and allied governments to call out specific companies for disregarding universal human rights. 

Equally important, the US and its allies should protect Chinese people abroad – and at home, where possible – against the CPC. Professing racism simply plays into the CPC’s hands, alienating ethnic-Chinese populations and Chinese citizens, the vast majority of whom have no malign intentions.

In fact, US allies will have to increase support for Chinese students and facilitate more transparent contacts with China’s academic programs. Free and open societies should issue more visas and citizenships for more Chinese citizens unrelated to the CPC or affiliated organizations.

As a priority, the people of Hong Kong should be able to find a home in Western democracies as a testament to how the free world will always stand up for freedom-loving people under the CPC’s oppression.

Former US president Donald Trump’s administration’s official China strategy document noted, “the US values the contributions of Chinese students and researchers … it also supports and welcomes international students and researchers conducting legitimate academic pursuits; we are improving processes to screen out the small minority of Chinese applicants with malign intent.”

The US and its allies should “view Chinese expatriate communities as a strength” – after all, they are clear evidence of democracy’s superior qualities: acceptance, accommodation, and assimilation while retaining traditions. 

However, defensive postures are not enough on their own. Former US deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger suggested two modes of response against Beijing’s influence operations.

First is reciprocity. The US and its allies should establish the idea that when a country injures their interests, they will “return the favor.”

Second is candor. Democracies are safest when they “speak honestly and publicly about and to their friends, adversaries and themselves.”

Portraying truth-telling as an act of belligerence is how “autocrats badger democracies into silence” – in reality, it is “basic prudence.”

Decades of reckless engagement with Beijing was highlighted by the naive belief that China deserves special treatment for its market potential, impending domestic reforms and latent goodwill. Such complacency in trade terms, environmental obligations, institutional membership and security relations simply aroused the CPC’s appetite for more aggressions and deviances. A response based on reciprocity and candor is long overdue.

As the leader of the free world, the US has a responsibility to call out the Chinese government for its campaign to “covert, coerce and corrupt” its neighbors through economic might. The Trump administration was right to demand “tangible results and constructive outcomes” instead of engaging with Beijing “for symbolism and pageantry.”

An open, honest dialogue on the nature of China’s ambitions is critically necessary to alert the otherwise nonchalant constituents in America’s partners. A report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission notes that Taiwan and Australia, which have long been testing grounds for United Front tactics, can “coordinate international best practices for responding to the CPC’s subversion of democracy abroad.”

While the US has been relatively more vigilant on combating Chinese influence operations, key US allies such as South Korea and Japan have been largely complacent. Considering that CPC foreign policy prioritizes establishing firm regional dominance, it would be unthinkable to assume that the United Front only targets American and European entities.

In fact, given China’s cultural ties to South Korea and Japan, organizations such as the Confucius Institutes – which are funded by the CPC Propaganda Department and have formal ties to the United Front Work Department – could find easier routes of penetration. Therefore, Washington should help American allies benchmark its pertinent legislations.

For example, the Foreign Influence Transparency Act “requires organizations that promote the political agendas for foreign governments to register as foreign agents” and “require universities to disclose certain donations and gifts from foreign sources.” The Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act strengthens the US government’s ability to preclude foreign influence operations within American educational system.

These measures could be models for Korean and Japanese policymakers, who are gradually coming to grasp the extent of China’s global influence operations. 

China’s influence operations are intended to export its model and construct new rules and norms for a new international order. They seek to enhance Beijing’s image as a responsible superpower. At the same time, however, the CPC’s efforts are clear reflections of a mix of “outward confidence and inner apprehension.”

Beijing’s foreign-influence operations and domestic suppression are two sides of the same coin. They are both deeply rooted in the fear of the power of democracy and the Party’s obsession with keeping everything under control for an authoritarian regime to function. 

Subsequently, the US should lead its allies in devising a collective offensive component against Chinese influence operations. Expelling diplomats and imposing sanctions alone could be insufficient. If authoritarian regimes continue to attempt to penetrate Western democratic institutions and ideas, the US could spearhead efforts to breach the Chinese government’s own “Great Firewall.”

As Aaron Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, argued, Western allies should “amplify critical Chinese voices and to enable accurate information about what is happening inside China’s borders to flow back into the country.”

China’s extensive human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet are relatively unknown to the Chinese public. Disseminating the truth about the CPC’s “benign state control” should help the Chinese people debunk the myths surrounding the Party’s leaders, who hide their corrupt wealth abroad and send their children to elite American universities while denying basic rights to their own citizens.

At the same time, free and open societies need to be open and honest about their own democratic systems, which admittedly are clearly not beyond reproach. Domestic resilience and vigilance are ultimately the strongest defense against influence operations. 

The CPC’s initial cover-up of the Covid-19 outbreak provided a critical watershed moment for the struggle for “discursive power” both in China and globally. The battle of narratives between authoritarianism and democracy started long before China’s rise and is not limited to great-power competition.

For example, South Korean citizens have been engaging in a battle of narratives against North Korea, to which they have been sending leaflets, American dollars, newspapers and USBs filled with K-Pop and dramas to help their Northern compatriots’ search for truth.

The US and its allies should warn the authoritarian regimes that their influence operations will be met with countermeasures that threaten the very legitimacy of their rule.

Taehwa Hong is an international relations student at Stanford University. His work has been featured in YaleGlobal Online, The Business Times, The Jakarta Post, The Huffington Post and WorldPost. His research focuses on East Asia and the Middle East.