Kerry Gershaneck, a former US Marine officer and a university professor, speaks to The Sunday Guardian.
Alexandria, Va.: China’s Political Warfare operations are killing millions and destroying economies, yet they seldom get called what they are: acts of war. In this edition of “Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines”, we speak with Prof Kerry K. Gershaneck, a former US Marine officer and Asia-based university professor with over 30 years of national-level strategic communications and counterintelligence experience. He literally wrote the book on the topic: Political Warfare: Strategies for Combating China’s Plan to ‘Win without Fighting’.
Q: What is political warfare?
A: Political Warfare is not a new concept. State and non-state actors have engaged in it for thousands of years. The US views political warfare as the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. These means are both overt and covert, and include political alliances, economic measures, propaganda, and covert operations such as support for underground resistance against hostile states.
Q: How does China view political warfare?
A: Political Warfare is Beijing’s preferred instrument to achieve its national objectives without having to fight a major kinetic war. Its version is much more expansive—and often much more effective—than that of other countries. China’s political warfare is Total War, waged through a wide array of Unrestricted Warfares.
It is secretive and highly deceptive—characteristics government leaders globally fail to fathom. It seeks to win without fighting, primarily by ensuring that we cannot or will not fight back!
Everything is permitted to include violence, coercion, bribery, propaganda, psychological warfare, legal warfare (or Lawfare), and United Front work that builds coalitions of organizations globally to support the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) objectives.
Its active measures include assassination, kidnapping, and terrorist attacks, as well as chemical warfare and biological warfare that have killed millions worldwide and have corroded the social fabric and economies of entire nations. They also include entropic warfare to demoralize and destabilize countries via corruption and social division, and other forms of coercive, destructive attacks.
In comparing the PRC’s political warfare with that of most other nations, it is crucial to understand the ends China seeks to achieve. The PRC is a coercive, expansionist, hyper-nationalistic, militarily powerful, brutally repressive, fascist, totalitarian state. Through its political warfare, it seeks to impose its hegemony regionally initially, and ultimately globally.
The nature of the CCP-PRC party-state and the ends it seeks to achieve set China apart from all other nations and make its political warfare an existential threat to democracies worldwide.
Q: How does the Xi Jinping era correlate with PRC Political Warfare operations?
A: Since Xi Jinping’s ascent to the pinnacle of China’s Party-State a decade ago, the PRC has become even more sophisticated, ambitious, and assertive in its use of political warfare.
During this time, Xi has been the driving force behind highly aggressive and often-successful political warfare campaigns. Now that Xi has obtained his third term of office and enjoys uncontested authority, he will employ his massive political warfare apparatus even more aggressively.
There has been increasing pushback from some nations that belatedly recognize China’s increasing threat, but results are not conclusive. Yes, populations in many countries now view Xi’s PRC much more negatively. But China has achieved considerable success with United Front operations and “elite capture” in the US and other advanced industrial nations, as well as in much of the developing world. Xi’s political warfare successes must also be measured in the number of votes in the UN that China can now count on and the increases in its infrastructure and PLA access agreements globally.
The CCP has long employed propaganda and disinformation against its enemies, but under Xi it has taken Social Media Warfare to unprecedented heights. He uses social media to flood adversaries’ societies with propaganda and disinformation in order to ultimately weaken people’s faith in democracy and create political instability. In pursuit of social media dominance, the PRC has a civil and military establishment of more than 20 million, including the PLA Strategic Support Force, so-called netizens and a 50-Cent Army, and part-time commentators.
Another form of Unrestricted Warfare Xi has waged against much of the world is biological warfare. The release of the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan is now responsible for the death of more than 15 million people worldwide: it may or may not have been intentional. What is known is the PRC’s failure to fulfill its legal and moral responsibilities: as Covid engulfed China, the CCP allowed millions of infected people to travel globally, while blocking travel to Beijing. The CCP knew full well the virus would engulf and devastate the rest of the world but lied about it, and had its United Front organizations vacuum up PPE from around the world before other nations comprehended the Wuhan Virus threat. Then the CCP initiated a savage political warfare campaign to cover up the PRC’s involvement in the development and spread of the pandemic.
In the CCP’s assessment of what it calls Comprehensive National Power, it was essential that the rest of the world be weakened by the virus as much as China. This Biological Warfare was successful beyond expectations. Among other outcomes, it helped cost the CCP’s most effective adversary the 2020 US presidential election and helped devastate America’s military recruiting efforts. The CCP took close notes, so expect it to employ biological warfare again in pursuit of political warfare objectives.
Q: Has the US responded effectively to the threat?
A: No. This failure goes back decades. The Trump Administration began taking effective steps but ran out of time.
There are many reasons for the ineffective US response to this insidious, increasing destructive threat. Perhaps the most important reason is willful blindness and risk aversion. Even when informed of the existential dangers posed by the PRC’s political warfare, most officials who should be focused on this threat have chosen to ignore the evidence and have refused to act.
These shortcomings are exacerbated by lack of leadership at the top. While senior Trump Administration officials spoke out forcefully regarding PRC political warfare, not one person in the Biden Administration has spoken out on it clearly, forcefully, or consistently. As Presidents Truman and Reagan proved, to fight political warfare effectively there must be strong leadership from the top.
At nearly all levels, Mirror Imaging and the naive projection that everyone is “just like Americans and want the same thing” are serious problems for US officials. Many believed that the CCP would accept values such as democracy, human rights, rule of law, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion if the US accommodated a rising China after the fall of Soviet communism in 1991. Even after the bloody 1989 massacre of democracy protesters, many continued to naively believe that the PRC would eventually accept our values. They ignored the fact the PRC is still dominated by the party whose internal political warfare caused the deaths of an estimated 50-to-70 million Chinese since 1949. For any CCP official to accept our values would be to commit professional (and possibly physical) suicide, especially now under an all-powerful Xi Jinping.
Some in government, business, and academia have been co-opted with the lure of fame and fortune, while others allowed themselves to be compromised and blackmailed. Some are victims of the highly successful march on America’s higher education institutions by the CCP and American enablers. A key PRC political warfare objective is to infiltrate the education systems by co-opting faculty and administrators through funding and other inducements.
Another objective is to propagandize and weaponize students from the PRC at those universities to spike criticism of China by guest speakers, faculty, or other students. Well-known American education institutions proved all-too willing to self-censor and kowtow for cash, access to prestigious China-related activities, and to avoid disruptions by CCP-instigated students.
Even at US government higher education institutions such as the National War College, Army War College, and Foreign Service Institute, the prevailing theme was “Do not anger China, we need to work with it on (fill in the blank).” Consequently, many of those graduating these institutions were denied an honest education regarding the nature of the CCP regime and its political warfare operations.
Defense officials are a particularly high-value target for PRC influence. Often the PRC influences officers and officials indirectly through co-opting faculty and administrators in US military education institutions, and by co-opting American think tanks that influence those officers and officials.
The PLA employs very sophisticated political warfare operations through such organizations as the China Association for International Friendly Contact. These organizations co-opt senior active-duty and retired military officers, as well as executive assistants supporting senior civilian and military officials. Tactics used to lure in these officials include lucrative business deals if, say, a retired admiral or official is willing to support China’s position on regional issues.
Such co-option can reap significant political warfare benefits, as evidenced when a senior National Defense University official acted as both a spy and an agent of influence for the PRC, and when a former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff allegedly illegally lobbied Congress to support the PRC in its efforts to annex Taiwan.
The intelligence community has its own problems. It became highly politicized over several decades and said what its political masters wanted it to report. For many years that meant downplaying the PRC threat. Senior analysts routinely softened reports on the massive expansion of the PLA, and totally ignored the threat of PRC political warfare. Good senior intelligence officers who tried to report the PRC’s real intentions and capabilities were silenced or fired for telling the truth.
Q: What should the US do?
A: The Biden Administration must rapidly become firm, coherent, and effective in developing a strategy regarding PRC political warfare. Essential steps the Administration must take to allow it to effectively detect, deter, counter, and defeat PRC political warfare follow:
* Identify the PRC malign influence and interference threat by its rightful name: Political Warfare. The PRC is engaged in war against the United States: that is the term the CCP uses. It is not mere competition or malign influence, but war. Words matter. Correct terminology is essential to properly assess this existential threat and conceptualize national goals and objectives that form the basis of the policies, strategies, and operations to defeat the threat.
* Develop a national strategy to counter PRC Political Warfare. The US must develop a national strategy and establish an operational center of gravity like the Cold War-era US Information Agency (USIA). Without a sound strategy and a credible, empowered center of gravity to operationalize the strategy, the US has no chance of winning this war.
* Establish education programs regarding PRC Political Warfare. The US Departments of State and Defense should establish courses of varying lengths for senior-level and intermediate-level professionals. Further, civilian universities must once again offer such education to those studying international relations, national security, law, business, law enforcement, and political science.
* Vastly improved US capabilities to investigate, disrupt, and prosecute PRC Political Warfare Activities. The US Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, FBI, and Intelligence Community each play key roles on countering PRC political warfare. Based on past US failures in countering political warfare operations, it is imperative to review existing laws and policies to ensure the existence of clear mission statements, requirements for action, authorities, resources, training, and assessments of success.
* Routinely expose PRC Political Warfare operations. The US government should mandate an annual publicly disseminated report on the CCP’s political warfare against the United States, similar to the Reagan-era annual report on Soviet active measures. The report should include practical advice for leaders and citizens regarding those threats. This report should be augmented by periodic reports on PRC political warfare in geographic regions and against institutions such as the UN and the news media.
* Raise the costs for CCP interference. Too often, the US government has been weak in confronting PRC transgressions, even on American soil. For example, State Department has stopped law enforcement officials attempting to arrest PRC operatives, thereby accommodating PRC political warfare activities. While espionage is an increasing focus of the FBI, political warfare operatives currently face few or no consequences for their harmful actions against the US. It is time to raise the cost of PRC political warfare. For example, when PRC embassy officials threaten students or news media organizations the US government must revoke their diplomatic status.
* Use civil rights laws to take legal action against PRC operatives. The US must better protect Americans of Chinese descent and visiting students from the PRC. For example, although ostensibly a student support association, the real mission of Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA) is to penetrate academia to subvert democratic institutions and engage in espionage against foreign countries, academics, and Chinese students matriculating abroad. Confucius Institutes engage in censorship, coercion, and surveillance of Chinese students and academics. With existing civil rights legislation such as “Conspiracy Against Rights” law, legal action could be taken against CSSAs, Confucius Institutes, diplomatic, and intelligence officials who threaten, coerce, or intimidate Chinese people (or others) in the United States.
Q: Any areas where India could take leadership?
A: India has invaluable experience confronting PRC political warfare, and it has much to teach those in the Indo-Pacific region confronting the same danger. To this end, India should establish an Indo-Pacific-focused Political Warfare Center of Excellence (PWCE). While Europe has several such centers to deal with threats there, the Indo-Pacific lacks an institution that provides an intellectual foundation for combatting PRC political warfare. The APWCE will highlight India’s leadership, and help like-minded nations develop a common understanding of PRC political warfare and effective responses. Therefore, it is crucial that India initiate such a center.
To download a free copy of Political Warfare: Strategies for Combating China’s Plan to “Win without Fighting” by Kerry K. Gershaneck https://www.usmcu.edu/Portals/218/Political%20Warfare_web.pdf