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Challenges for the US and Australia in the grey zone

Posted By on May 6, 2021 @ 06:00

Australia and the United States share an increasing security burden thanks to the growing sophistication of information warfare, according to Jake Wallis, a senior analyst at ASPI, and Katherine Mansted, senior adviser at the ANU’s National Security College.

In a panel discussion last week for ASPI’s masterclass on ‘The US–Australia alliance in a more contested Asia’, Mansted and Wallis explored the challenges of dealing with a strategic environment in which grey-zone actions, especially involving information, are becoming a permanent feature.

The information warfare experienced by the US and by Australia over the past half-decade has similar characteristics.

Russian grey-zone activities against the US have grown and evolved, but information warfare remains the key component. It is relatively cheap and, using social media’s unparalleled power as a propaganda vector, can be extraordinarily effective.

The most recent US intelligence assessment on foreign influence in the 2020 presidential election concludes that Russia coupled its online efforts with political influence campaigns. In some cases, Russia directly provided domestic political actors with disinformation talking points, which were then recycled through traditional media outlets.

Russian disinformation is especially geared towards discrediting powerful elements of democracy, the free press and elections, to infect every area of political, social, economic and cultural division in a society with partisanship, and to delegitimise shared truths. It works even better if domestic actors start to use the same tactics in the pursuit of profit and power.

The Australian grey-zone experience is mostly about China—although a recent ABC Four Corners report explored the extent of Russian information and intimidation operations among the Russian diaspora in Australia.

And while Russia has been a relatively noisy grey-zone actor against NATO allies, Chinese grey-zone efforts are better funded, more widespread and highly integrated, warns Wallis. China has a lot more capacity than Russia, and its grey-zone efforts span economic coercion, cyberattacks, political and media influence campaigns, science and technology talent recruitment, and direct targeting of corporations that cross Beijing’s red lines.

Wallis listed some recent examples from China’s playbook, including bans on Australian coal, beef, barley and wine, talent recruitment programs in Australian universities that aim to gain access to expertise on sensitive technologies, as well as the growth in coordinated online disinformation campaigns driven by artificial intelligence.

But Wallis also noted that China’s grey-zone activities are becoming more overt and seem to be increasingly comfortable with raw displays of dominance. Information warfare narratives are now geared towards not just creating confusion and division, but eliciting fear and compliance.

China’s cancellation of NBA broadcasts in response to a tweet by the general manager of the Houston Rockets in support of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong is instructive, as are China’s threats to banks not backing its authoritarian actions in the territory.

All of this is complemented by the so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy typified by foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who rose from being an envoy in Pakistan to his current position through his deployment of hyperaggressive anti-Western rhetoric on Twitter.

This kind of information warfare is quick to exploit any opportunity to amplify set narratives of a West in terminal decline, heirs to a wasted democratic system that can’t compete with China’s techno-authoritarianism. China’s information war on the West’s Covid-19 vaccines and troubled response to the pandemic is one example.

Effective multilateral responses to global crises are vulnerable to this kind of disinformation churn and narrative jostling. But, as Wallis pointed out, in China’s strategic calculus, it doesn’t need to convince the West. It is aiming to convince everyone else.

Therefore, Australia should also be extremely concerned about its near region, where fragile democracies and their fast-growing economies are especially susceptible to information warfare by both external actors and internal enablers.

What should Australia and its major ally be doing to counter grey-zone coercion and information warfare?

Mansted explained that after five years of disinformation wars, US Department of Justice investigations, comprehensive intelligence assessments and Senate inquiries on Russian foreign interference, the Biden administration is now viscerally aware of the threat. What’s more, President Joe Biden has made democratic resilience the centrepiece of US foreign policy.

So far, the Biden administration has responded to Russia with a suite of targeted sanctions. It is also carefully assessing the domestic propaganda environment.

Biden has been assertive about the need to actively challenge China’s and Russia’s narratives about democratic decay. In the administration’s foreign policy statements to date, Biden has continually reiterated his worldview that only strong democracies, polities that retain some notion of the public interest, can effectively address civilisational challenges such as climate change.

The administration’s public diplomacy is about consistently and clearly articulating democratic values and demonstrating their strength. Australia should be ready to do the same.

But Mansted also pointed out that we should also recognise the difference between democratic resilience—that is, getting our own house in order—and democracy promotion. In the alliance context, Australia may have an important role to play in translating Biden’s democracy agenda to our regional Indo-Pacific context—lest partners perceive it as imposing values on them, rather than working collectively to defend shared values.

Ultimately, Mansted sounded a note of cautious optimism. While China’s increasingly sophisticated coupling of economic, informational and diplomatic tools of influence and coercion is worrying, she argued that there are limits to the effectiveness of each of these tools.

The US experience with interference has shown that more public awareness of Russian tactics may have reduced their impact. Efforts by the US government to expose Russian operatives, and their proxies, have degraded their ability to operate deniably, while more timely cooperation with social media has resulted in the disruption of more state-coordinated propaganda.

Australia and the US can consolidate these gains. At an inter-government level, there’s more work to be done to establish a shared lexicon on grey-zone homeland security challenges and to continue to build domestic resilience through transparent public communications.

To adapt the deterrence capability of the Australia–US alliance to 21st-century grey-zone challenges, shared frameworks for attributing and responding to grey-zone threats are imperative. Early diagnosis and response, narrative trackers, active disruption of disinformation campaigns, and consistent public communications will be key elements of active defence in the grey zone.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/challenges-for-australia-and-us-in-the-grey-zone/

[1] US intelligence assessment: https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/ICA-declass-16MAR21.pdf

[2] Four Corners : https://www.abc.net.au/4corners/putins-patriots/13156348

[3] bans on Australian coal, beef, barley and wine: https://www.afr.com/world/asia/australian-wine-stopped-at-chinese-ports-in-latest-trade-spat-20210225-p575t2

[4] China’s cancellation of NBA broadcasts: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/19/opinion/sunday/china-nba.html

[5] China’s threats: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/business/hong-kong-china-business.html

[6] Zhao Lijian: https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/2095227/chinas-wolf-warrior-diplomats-howl-at-xinjiang-critics

[7] establish a shared lexicon: https://nsc.crawford.anu.edu.au/publication/18456/domestic-security-grey-zone-navigating-space-between-foreign-influence-and-foreign