China waging political warfare against its neighbors

by J Michael Waller, adapted from article in Insight magazine, May 26, 2003

Might the People’s Republic of China (PRC) be waging covert political operations to weaken Asian and Pacific governments’ support for their security relationships with the United States?

U.S. intelligence officials tell me they have detected no Soviet-style “active-measures” campaign. However, Chinese tradecraft depends more on financial co-option of business and political leaders in Asia, the United States and elsewhere than on the Soviet model of international front organizations.

For years other foreign governments, including Cuba and possibly North Korea, both state sponsors of terrorism, covertly have been backing anti-U.S. movements to pressure Washington to pull out of its military facilities around the world.

The White House announcement early in President George W. Bush’s term that the U.S. Navy would surrender its vital practice range in Vieques, Puerto Rico, stoked simmering movements in Okinawa, Japan, and in South Korea for the United States to pull out of its bases there. Organizers of the Vieques protests even traveled to Okinawa to encourage and inspire more powerful demonstrations (“Fidel Fuels Fires of Vieques Quarrel,” July 23, 2001).

North Korea enjoys a small but noisy cadre in the United States that has taken control of large sections of the American “antiwar” movement. The pro-Pyongyang Workers World Party runs two of the leading “peace” groups – the International Action Center and International A.N.S.W.E.R. – that coordinate major protests from San Francisco to Washington several times a year (“Marching for Saddam,”March 4, 2003).

If the antibasing movement succeeds in Korea, argues Al Santoli, editor of the American Foreign Policy Council’s China Reform Monitor, “there is a danger that Beijing would flex its military and economic power to exploit the region’s desire for peace and stability. A U.S. withdrawal from bases in Okinawa and Japan could follow. That may cause fearful or opportunistic Southeast Asian leaders to shift allegiances to Beijing, with Muslim or tribal autonomous regions as possible exceptions. The surrender of Taiwan would be a fait accompli. With Beijing currently making major political and economic inroads into the South Pacific islands, and with potent anti-American leftist sentiments in New Zealand, Australia would be America’s last loyal ally in the region. As a result, the U.S. role as an Asia-Pacific power would be substantially diminished.”

Any hesitation or vagueness of policy, Santoli and others argue, risk undermining Asian and Pacific countries’ confidence in U.S. resolve and could result in their becoming intimidated by Beijing’s psychological-warfare campaigns.

Australia and Japan, for their part, appear ready to fight regardless of the United States. The governments of both countries have been making headlines by publicly mulling the possibility that they might build their own nuclear missile forces – hugely expensive and controversial endeavors that speak as much about their resolve to confront a new nuclear bully as about their lack of confidence in Washington’s long-term reliability as their protector.

A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in the 26 May 2003 issue of Insight magazine.