Hastie’s right: it’s time to protect ourselves
16 Aug 2019|

Andrew Hastie’s warning that an intellectual failure to accept that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision for the world will test our democratic values, economy, alliances and security as never before is a blunt wake-up call that Australians need.

The Chinese embassy moved rapidly to shut down any balanced discussion of the issues Hastie raised, labelling the Liberal MP’s remarks as ‘Cold War mentality’ and displaying an ‘ideological bias.’ Some Australian business leaders said Hastie’s views were ‘unhelpful’.

But Australians not only have the right to know the truth about Chinese and Russian political interference in our country, they have a need to know.

Two years ago, analysts from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) began examining the political warfare campaigns Beijing and Moscow have been conducting against Australia and our security partners for some years.

They’ve researched what the Chinese and Russians have been doing and whether this coercive activity is new or has its roots in an earlier era. That included examining how the USSR and China conducted their political warfare campaigns during the Cold War—and how the West countered these campaigns and eventually prevailed.

The team also wanted to know what Beijing and Moscow have been trying to achieve with these intrusive operations and how successful they’ve been, how Australia and its allies can best deter and defeat such interference and what practical steps should be taken now.

International experts were commissioned to prepare case studies on eight Chinese and Russian political warfare campaigns. Russian operations were examined in Estonia and the other Baltic States, in Crimea and in Southeast Ukraine. Chinese operations were examined in the US island territories in the Western Pacific, in the island states of the South Pacific, in New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia. They also examined the political operations embedded in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

These diverse case studies paint a disturbing picture of how the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia are using a diverse mix of unconventional instruments to subvert the cohesion of the Western allies and their partners, erode their economic, political and social resilience, and undermine the West’s strategic positions in key regions.

The primary instruments employed are intense information campaigns, diverse espionage and cyber operations, corruption of key officials, media personalities and community leaders, theft of troves of intellectual property, the use of economic inducements and economic pressures, coercion by military and paramilitary forces, the seizure and militarisation of contested territory and the assertive use of legal and paralegal instruments. All of these measures are backed by well-coordinated propaganda programs to help justify their international interference and their re-writing of history and international laws.

These operations are being conducted by large Russian and Chinese organisations directly controlled by regime leaders. They are carried out by well-trained personnel with extensive experience in these ‘grey zone’ operations.

As Australia’s defence force chief Angus Campbell told an ASPI conference, there’s a strategic and operational mismatch between the major authoritarian states and the West. The authoritarian states possess deep traditions and cultures of offensive political warfare, have clear political warfare strategies, are actively conducting such operations in multiple theatres and, in recent years, have won a succession of political warfare victories.

By contrast, most decisionmakers in the West still consider themselves to be in a state of ‘peace’ and are not inclined to initiate actions that, they fear, Moscow or Beijing may consider provocative. Western political warfare arsenals are weak at best, poorly organised and grossly under-resourced. In a future crisis, the primary instruments available to Western leaderships will be standard diplomacy and kinetic military forces. This is a recipe for arriving late to a battlefield that has been chosen by an adversary with an inappropriate mix of weaponry and being out-flanked and out-manoeuvred upon arrival.

In its report, the CSBA team identifies a need to thoroughly understand and discuss the challenge we face, to develop a powerful narrative championing the values of democratic societies, and contrasts them starkly with the police-state realities of the West’s opponents.

States and international organisations must stand together as a coalition against authoritarian interference and they must define a strategy providing an important role for everyone from the smallest island community to the US.

This coalition must make active denial of foreign interference an early priority and build a world-class suite of political warfare instruments that’s especially strong in the information domain. That must include special provisions to help small and vulnerable states defend themselves.

Governments and non-government organisations must be given the resources to deliver world-class capabilities to deter and defeat such threats. That includes overcoming the shortage of personnel skills to conduct such operations.

The team warns that this struggle is likely to take several decades to win and says the West must overcome its deep aversion to risk and take offensive political warfare measures more frequently to impose costs on authoritarian regimes’ international operations. It says that while the budgetary expense of fighting and winning this struggle will likely be modest for most countries, it will require firm political stances and strains will be felt in some government agencies.

Hastie has done us a great service in drawing attention to the serious challenge posed by authoritarian state political warfare campaigns. Australians need to do their homework, develop a clear understanding of what is happening and debate how best to deter and defeat this threat.