The United States and its allies face a comprehensive, multidimensional challenge from Xi Jinping’s China. One axis of this unfriendly competition runs through the ballot boxes of the liberal democracies, where the evidence continues to mount that Beijing is seeking to undermine democratic systems throughout the Western alliance.
Take Canada: founding member of NATO, partner in securing North American air defense, and one of the United States’ most important commercial and political relationships. To the extent that Americans think about security vulnerabilities stemming from thoroughly benign Ottawa, it might be related to the air quality from last summer’s wildfires or a wincing memory of learning about the War of 1812, where Canadians disproved of Thomas Jefferson’s optimistic conjecture that conquering our northern neighbor would simply “be a mere matter of marching.”
Beijing appears to have conducted a comprehensive attack on Canada’s political institutions: allegedly meddling in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections with the intent of producing a chaotic Liberal minority government; allegedly targeting critics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Parliament, such as the Tory shadow foreign affairs minister Michael Chong and the New Democracy Party’s Jenny Kwan; allegedly conducting efforts “to build a pliable cadre of politicians in the 2022 local Vancouver elections,” and, particularly shockingly, allegedly trying to recruit and run a candidate against Port Coquitlam, British Columbia’s anti-CCP mayor Brad West, that same year.
This unfolding scandal, the consequence of disquieting, anonymous leaks from the Canadian intelligence services, caught the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flat-footed. It took over half a year before the Trudeau ministry’s sluggish response finally yielded the necessary convening of a 9/11 Commission-esque public inquiry to, inter alia, “examine and assess interference by China, Russia and other foreign states or non-state actors, including any potential impacts, in order to confirm the integrity of, and any impacts on” Canada’s 2019 and 2021 elections and “examine and assess the capacity of relevant federal departments, agencies, institutional structures and governance processes to permit the Government of Canada to detect, deter and counter any form of foreign interference directly or indirectly targeting Canada’s democratic processes.” Canada will now embark on a sorely needed public reckoning with the CCP’s electoral espionage, which will hopefully be able to provide conclusions and recommendations well in advance of the country’s next parliamentary elections.
Other U.S. allies have been publicly coming to terms with the threat of Beijing-backed interference. In August, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) took the unprecedented step of issuing a public report giving “the public … access to NZSIS’s consolidated analysis on New Zealand’s threat environment,” particularly singling out “the continued targeting of New Zealand’s diverse ethnic Chinese communities” via “activities carried out by groups and individuals linked to the intelligence arm of the People’s Republic of China.” In sum, Chinese political and election interference is likely to remain an ongoing concern for the foreseeable future.
At a minimum, this means that America and her democratic allies must “develop safety valves for swift and dispassionate reviews of election interference claims” to “speedily vet all interference claims and identify wrongdoers.” One can only hope that Canada’s public inquiry may ultimately show part of the way. (Nor, it must be noted, must other countries wait to learn from the Canadian experience via the public inquiry—Michael Chon testified in Washington about the Chinese party-state’s agenda of “transnational repression.”) But the development of these safety valves is only a first step, a means to an end of devising a real strategy to preclude China’s next move against a Western democratic election.
In his 2008 book Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt analogized the struggle against twenty-first-century globalized, networked asymmetric warfare using the concepts of supply and demand, noting that while “most analytic work on terrorism … focused on the demand side … the characteristics and the causes that motivate” terrorists, with the upshot that a strategy focused on driving that demand curve down necessitated a deterrence strategy with all the attendant “retaliatory requirements” of such an approach. Bobbitt argued that this focus ignored ways of reducing “the supply side of terrorism”—the field of risks and targets available to malign actors.
When it comes to handling covert election interference by China and other adversaries, however, the conversation often seems flipped, with a focus on how to control supply by hardening civil society against the effects of such chicanery. In Canada, one such proposal in particular, a foreign agents registry akin to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, has been bruited about for several years. No doubt the public inquiry will burrow into “the supply side of election interference,” and make recommendations on the advisability of a registry and other “supply” issues.
But the public inquiry, and any other reviews carried out against the People’s Republic of China’s electoral espionage operations, ought to also address the question of reducing demand. One downside of a supply-side strategy against foreign interference is the risk of going too far. Going to American history, neither the Sedition Acts of 1798 or 1918, nor the domestic anti-communism crackdowns of the 1950s, are fondly remembered for good and sufficient reason. Liberal democracies function best when they maintain “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”
To that end, the public inquiry ought to consider how to restore deterrence against further and future interference in Western elections, such as by signaling to China and other interfering states that efforts to co-opt political activists, launder funds into the Canadian political system, or engage in candidate recruiting is the functional equivalent of an attack on critical infrastructure. The integrity of an election, after all, may well have the same value as the integrity of a bridge or a communications system. If it takes that path, the inquiry ought to also deal with how red lines can be communicated to adversaries and what might be considered a proportionate response. After all, the Chinese do not have similarly situated popular elections that the Canadians (or anyone else, for that matter) can execute a retorsion against.
As a result, such a conversation will ultimately need to bring in all Western governments under the threat of potential Chinese election intervention. What Professor Bobbitt noted in the terrorism context likely also holds true in these circumstances as well: “with respect to global, networked agents … the effective deterrence policy of one target state simply diverts attacks to allied states.” And while public reporting suggests that China only considered, but ultimately declined, to substantially interfere in the 2020 American elections, we should not wait for that shoe to drop in future contests here at home.
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.