Tell China: We Will Defend Our Democracy

Tell China: We Will Defend Our Democracy

The time is now for the West to establish deterrence for democracy, just as we do with any other piece of critical infrastructure.

Chinese election interference is on track to become just another cost of doing democracy in the West. From New Zealand to Australia, Canada to the United States, the liberal democracies have learned, often the hard way, that the West’s unfriendly competition with Beijing seems to ultimately involve the Chinese government targeting their political systems.

Most recently, the Canadian government announced that “Members of Parliament, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Official Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre, were the targets of a disinformation campaign … carried out by the Chinese government in August and September.” This particular effort involved “Spamouflage … .a tactic that uses networks of new or hijacked social media accounts to post and amplify propaganda messages across multiple platforms.” In particular, this “spampaign” appeared to involve the use of deep fake videos and a bot network which “post[ed] waves of social media posts and videos that called into question the political and ethical standards of [legislators] … using a popular Chinese-speaking figure in Canada.”

Notwithstanding the revelations that China appears to have interfered directly in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 federal elections, this rollout strongly suggests that Beijing is not letting accusations that it is picking winners and losers in foreign elections slow down its targeting of America’s allies.

We often call this sort of activity “political” or “election interference,” whether it involves targeting specific lawmakers for victory or defeat, allegedly recruiting malleable candidates in Vancouver, or impersonating Americans on social media to promote an electoral message. It is an accepted term, but it is an incomplete one. These types of election-focused or political system-targeting operations are best understood as an act of political warfare.

As George Kennan defined it in 1948, “Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace … the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert.” Warfare without warfare, if you will. Understanding foreign political interference through this lens is psychologically important. Election interference can be complacently withstood as just something that regrettably happens. Recognizing election operations as political warfare, even if they are well to the left of military-to-military conflict, counsels a different response. Put simply, with apologies to American hero Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer, “if it’s warfare, we can deter it.”

Western governments seem to have recently experienced at least three forms of election-related political warfare from adversary states: attempts to influence the electorate through astroturf social media campaigns, hack-and-leak operations of personal data of the politically powerful, and direct campaign interference, such as efforts to recruit individuals to stand as candidates or other backing of a preferred candidate.

Positioning against all of these tactics will inevitably vary with the threat level they pose. Hack-and-leak operations, for example, might be deterred merely through better or more robust cybersecurity protocols—which may account for why “China, thus far, has not employed [such] target hacks to power their election influence operations against the U.S.” Coordinated defense, user education, and the like could raise the cost of carrying out such targeted hacks by rendering the operation less likely to succeed.

The other two buckets of interference, however, are more challenging to build resiliency against. Fundamentally, they require high levels of social trust and citizen patience—and a willingness of governments to own embarrassing facts and elevate national security above party politics to “develop safety valves for swift and dispassionate reviews of election interference claims.”

Such post hoc analyses of an election operation carried out by China or other adversaries may well provide lessons learned that the target state and its democratic allies may take advantage of. Still, the downside is that relying on absorbing political warfare and then figuring out how the hits were played is inherently reactive and operates on a significant time lag. The Canadian public inquiry’s preliminary report into China’s activities in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections is scheduled for release at the end of February 2024 and, accordingly, may be helpful for the United States in preparing for potential Chinese interference in its November 2024 election. But it will, of course, be years late for any members of parliament who were unseated by China’s efforts and impossible for any voters who may have been hoodwinked to recall their cast ballots.

Moreover, even when election operations are not well-targeted, their revelation can have second-order effects that send a democracy into a tailspin. Even if China failed as a matter of voter persuasion, recent experience in the United States after Russia engaged in largely fruitless pro-Donald Trump activity in the 2016 election suggests the mere revelation of a serious effort by Beijing to back one nationwide candidate over another would have profound effects on the public discourse surrounding any ensuing elected administration.

China’s efforts in Canada and elsewhere demonstrate that the Chinese Communist Party is comfortable conducting political warfare through spampaigns. According to the New York Times, citing intelligence and other elected officials, China “has built support for its positions in diaspora communities and interfered in elections.” Governments must protect and defend their citizens and political systems from Beijing’s political warfare, and it pays best to do so proactively through deterrence. Every election where the attacked government only responds after the fact with public inquiries and efforts to reduce the supply of targets by hardening civil society, however well-intended, ultimately will only further normalize Chinese meddling.

And once Chinese election operations have been normalized, it will be harder for Western democracies to take back control. Even assuming they have the political will to do it, responding after a long interval of relative passive absorption will be perceived by China and others as a sudden, even unprovoked, act, inadvertently risking a disproportionate Chinese climb up the escalation ladder in response.

Establishing deterrence against these election operation tactics, then, will require openly telling China what to expect if it is caught. The democratic West needs, perhaps with the Five Eyes nations in the lead, to develop a “code of conduct” to respond to political warfare aimed at its elections. In doing so, the United States and its allies must communicate to the People’s Republic of China what commensurate targets Western governments would be willing to hold at risk should Beijing further interfere in democratic systems.

Liberal democracy is critical infrastructure, as vital to the functioning of the United States and our democratic allies as advantages in high technology or communications networks. The CCP knows it. The time is now for the West to establish deterrence for democracy, just as we do with other critical infrastructure.

At the 2023 New York Times DealBook summit, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen noted that Chinese election operations are just a fact of life on the island of Taiwan. That could be the American future if we do not, like Ebenezer Scrooge, take heed of the lessons of past, present, and yet-to-come before it is too late.

Zac Morgan is an attorney specializing in First Amendment and campaign finance law. He previously worked for the Institute for Free Speech and currently serves as counsel to Commissioner Allen Dickerson of the Federal Election Commission. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not express an official view of the U.S. government.

Image: Shutterstock.