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China's Cognitive Warfare, with Rachael Burton

February 11, 2019

Members of a Chinese military honor guard at the Ministry of Defense, Beijing, 2007. CREDIT: Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen (USAF)/Public Domain

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I am speaking with Rachael Burton of the Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

Rachael, great to speak with you today.

RACHAEL BURTON: Hi, Devin. Thank you for having me. I'm looking forward to the conversation.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk a little bit about Project 2049 Institute. Your website says it's "a non-profit research organization focused on promoting American values and security interests in the Indo-Pacific region." Tell us a little bit about what the organization does and how it was founded. I understand that one of the co-founders was Randy Schriver, who is now at the Pentagon. That's quite interesting.

What's the mission and background?

RACHAEL BURTON: The Project 2049 Institute was founded about 10 years ago. Last year was our 10-year anniversary, 2018. It was founded by Mark Stokes and Randy Schriver. It's really a small think tank. It's a small organization where we only focus on U.S.-Asia security issues. The mission of Project 2049 is a peaceful, prosperous, and stable Indo-Pacific region by the century's midpoint.

A lot of people ask us: "Why 2049? What's the significance of that date?" There are a couple of different answers to that question. The first one is that 2049 is the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC). For our institute, being able to look at future-oriented challenges to U.S. interests and to U.S. allies and partners in the region, China is obviously a focal point of that, and so a lot of the institute's research and work has been centered on studying China, studying the Chinese Communist Party, and studying the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in order to support U.S. allies and partners in the region.

DEVIN STEWART: Why not 2050?

RACHAEL BURTON: Unfortunately, Project 2050's domain name was taken. In terms of having a website that said Project 2050, that was unfortunately not available.

But I think in 2049 there are more questions surrounding it: What is China going to look like in 2049? What is the United States going to look like in 2049? What will be the status of our alliance system in 2049? So I think there are a lot of questions that surround that date, and it's prudent to try to assess the questions now in order to project out where we would like the world to be at that date.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we get to talking about China and China's foreign policy, what are some of the big findings that your institute has reached so far about what the world, what the United States, and what Asia might look like in 2049?

RACHAEL BURTON: I don't think we have any answers for that yet. I'm happy to say that we're still trying to answer those questions.

But I think one big aspect of it is looking at Taiwan and looking at U.S.-Taiwan relations. This year, 2019, we're going to talk about bases. It's kind of a typical year. There are a lot of anniversaries going on this year. It's the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act. It's also the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China. It's the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen. So there are a lot of dates going on right now.

But I think in terms of the institute and what we've discovered over the last 10 years or the last five years it's really the intricacies of the Chinese Communist Party's statecraft and how the Party has been largely successful in embedding itself in all of its state functions as well as its military functions.

We had a couple of really groundbreaking reports that came out. One notable report was written in 2013 by Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao about the PLA's Political Liaison Department and really talking about how the PLA doesn't serve the state, it serves the Party. And that's an important reminder. When we're talking about China's military and who the military answers to, the military answers to the Party. It doesn't answer to the people, it doesn't answer to a constitution, it answers to the Party.

Being able to understand how political work is done through the military, I think, has kickstarted a lot of these conversations about influence operations and about the role of the Party again in all of these state functions.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we get into the details about that, you mentioned the Taiwan Relations Act 40th anniversary coming up in April.

How do you see Taiwan's importance or significance in thinking about the direction of geopolitics in Asia? How do you see Taiwan's role and place?

RACHAEL BURTON: They really have a huge role. Taiwan as a country is one of the largest success stories in the Asia-Pacific, Indo-Pacific region. They went from basically an authoritarian system and forged into a full-on democracy. They've had successful and peaceful transfers of power between parties. They have a thriving civil society. They have a thriving economy. They've been able to transform their economy over the last 30 years. They're definitely a government and a people that I think punch well above their weight, and unfortunately due to the politics and due to the Chinese Communist Party they're really not able to participate in the international community as they deserve to and as they should.

To answer your question about the geopolitics, I like to give geopolitics a defined value. For me, geopolitics should be set on a certain foundation, and that foundation for the United States, I think, should be allies and partners and principles and values. If that is your foundation for your interests and for United States policy, then allies and partners and principles and values should manifest themselves in our policy.

If that is the driving focus of it, then a strengthened U.S.-Taiwan relationship is important. How we move toward a more normal, stable, and constructive relationship with Taiwan, with the Republic of China, and with the government of Taiwan I think is going to be a greater question for U.S. policy in the region moving forward.

DEVIN STEWART: Well, we're happy to hear that you think values and principles are a key to understanding and promoting an effective foreign policy. As you know, Carnegie Council is Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

When you talk about principles and values and their importance in foreign policy, which principles do you have in mind?

RACHAEL BURTON: That's a great question. To me I think it goes back to fundamental rights and the rights of individuals and human rights. I think a lot of what is defined as a liberal democracy should hold true, that civil society should be allowed to flourish, that citizens have a right to vote, that they have a place and a voice in our process, to be involved in politics, and to be involved in government. At the end of the day, I think what makes the world more peaceful is being able to have similar values and have those values be manifested in the rights of individuals and in human rights.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's turn to China's approach toward foreign policy right now. How would you describe China's foreign policy strategy under Xi Jinping? Also, what sort of message do you think China is trying to convey to the world?

RACHAEL BURTON: China doesn't publish a National Security Strategy or a National Defense Strategy like the United States does and like many other countries do. The military does not publish white papers of what their view on the world is and the challenges that they have. So in some ways we're a little bit left in the dark in terms of what China's foreign policy strategy actually is, but I think what you can say is there are key phrases that define China's foreign policy currently under Xi Jinping. The general secretary often uses these tropes, so phrases like "global community as common destiny" or "a new type of international relations" or "the great reach of the Chinese nation" are key phrases that General Secretary Xi Jinping has rallied when it comes to trying to attach a narrative or a slogan to China's foreign policy strategy.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you interpret those phrases?

RACHAEL BURTON: The way I see it is the message that Xi Jinping, that the Chinese Communist Party, that China is trying to convey is that—this comes out of all of their documents that come out of the Party Congress—under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, China is now going to set the tempo, they're going to set the rules, and they're going to set the narrative on the world stage, and in essence make the world safe for the Chinese Communist Party.

DEVIN STEWART: Some reports have focused on Xi Jinping's promotion of the so-called "China Dream." What do you make of that expression, and how does it fit with putting the Party first?

RACHAEL BURTON: To me, the China Dream is for the authorities in Beijing. They want social stability, and they want social stability that manifests in total control over ideology, over the economy, and the military in order to ensure the longevity of the Party and of their rule. So, how can they quash any type of liberal democracy to flourish in China?

The way that they do that, the China Dream is really to delegitimize Western constitutional democracy, delegitimize universal values, what they refer to as "Western" human rights, delegitimize civil society or citizens' movements, and you see all that occurring right now in China.

DEVIN STEWART: Would you say it's a complement to maintaining control in China?

RACHAEL BURTON: I think it's not just about maintaining control, but it's about setting the parameters so that the Party can ensure social stability and ensure that the economy can continue to grow and that they have a good handle and a good hold on total national power. So that includes the economy, that includes the military, and that includes their people.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's turn to some of the tools that China uses in its foreign policy toolkit, so to speak. What are some of the tools that you think are important and ones that you look at? For example, what do you think of soft power or information campaigns, soft loans, or the Belt and Road Initiative? Which of those are you looking at, and how effective are they?

RACHAEL BURTON: There are traditional toolkits to project influence that the United States uses, that China uses, and you mentioned some of them. But I'm going to phrase them in a bit of a different way and I think try to lend a different perspective on what China is doing abroad.

One of them is propaganda. Propaganda as a toolkit can manifest in media training, taking Xinhua and going to countries in Africa and telling them, "Oh, we're going to conduct media training," so it's media training that's state-driven. That would be like one of the pillars that they're trying to promote. They're trying to promote social stability through state-sponsored and state-driven media versus cultivating a free media or cultivating investigative journalism tactics in Africa. One aspect of it is propaganda, so through media training and through Chinese language training as well. The role of the Ministry of Education and Propaganda I would say come hand in hand.

A second toolkit as you mentioned is development assistance and soft loans. There's no argument against development assistance. That is needed globally, there is a demand for it, and I think it's great that there is a lot of attention to development assistance, especially in Asia, and especially in Southeast Asia. But one way of looking at China's ability to project influence abroad through development assistance is looking at their anti-competitive tactics, the lack of transparency that occurs in the negotiations. What I mean by anti-competitive is that China will come in through other enterprises, and they underbid due to having backing from the Chinese state, so they underbid on projects that might not be for the benefit of the community.

There's also a concern of community impact. If China is conducting development assistance in a country, say, like Burma, where there's a lack of local governance, where there is still ongoing fighting in the region, how can you build a road in Northern Shan State when then are internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and people are fleeing their homes, and then China is able to go in there and negotiate with the government in Burma but really in a state of the country that's practically still in civil war. Is that type of development assistance actually beneficial to the local community there? I think those are some of the questions that you can raise.

Another aspect of projecting influence abroad is the military. There are peacetime operations the military can conduct that project influence, part of that like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, which are all these great tools that can be used, but I think a tool that research needs to be dived into more is the role of the political commissars of the military. When China's military goes and visits another country, what is the role of the political liaison department in that?

DEVIN STEWART: Let's turn to China's effect on democracies. One of the key questions of our Information Warfare project here at Carnegie Council has been to look at the impact of disinformation, propaganda, and other tools of persuasion on the health and state of democracies. There are a few democracies that come to mind that I think you've looked at—Taiwan, Korea, and the United States. What is your assessment of China's impact on these democracies?

RACHAEL BURTON: I think going back to the idea of the toolkit, there are alternative forms and alternative tools that Beijing uses to project influence that the United States doesn't use, looking at United Front activities. United Front activities are not just looking at the actual department itself, not just the United Front Work Department, but United Front activities is a manifestation—I've been using that word a lot today—the co-option of non-Party elements, and primarily can serve a domestic form, but the global activities of the United Front is really to co-opt non-Party elements to support the Chinese Communist Party's strategic objectives. That can be seen through overseas Chinese affairs work, utilizing overseas Chinese communities or ethnic Chinese communities abroad, irregardless of one's nationality, that are ethnically Chinese. They can be targeted as overseas Chinese.

You also can look at the International Liaison Department, which actually in English is now just called the International Department—they dropped the Liaison part in their translation—looking at party-to-party diplomacy versus state-to-state diplomacy.

Those are alternative uses of influence abroad, the ability to use talent recruitment against these overseas Chinese communities and bringing scientists and engineers back to China through the Thousand Talents Program that all serve the Party's interests.

I think looking at civil-military fusion is another toolkit that Beijing is using. Who are the companies that are partnering with U.S. technology firms, and what is their role in the civil-military fusion production within China?

DEVIN STEWART: Is there a way that you recommend that democracies respond to China's rise, or do they even need to worry about it?

RACHAEL BURTON: You asked the question, how is China influencing democracies such as Taiwan, Korea, and the United States. I think there are three areas that you can look at. The first is narrative dominance, which I would call a form of cognitive warfare.

Beijing has been able to set the terms of debate, and once you can set the terms of debate you can really drive—if you're asking the questions, then you're able to drive intellectuals or policymakers to a certain answer. Oftentimes, especially in the United States, the answer on Taiwan has been on the continued legitimacy of the PRC and what they would call the One China principle, and in some ways being able to conflate the debate about U.S.-One-China policy and the definition of U.S.-One China policy and what that means for U.S.-Taiwan relations, which is very different from U.S.-China relations.

A second thing that China has been able to do in terms of influencing democracies is driving wedges in social groups or being able to drive a wedge between the United States and our allies.

A third is having a domain in civil society. How can they use overseas Chinese communities to organize and/or inform local elections or national elections? I'm not saying that China has done anything to interfere, but one could look at overseas Chinese communities that work with Beijing's Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and their ability to kind of again set the debate and be able to set the narrative of what can be discussed and what should U.S.-China relations look like, and move that more toward Beijing's strategic interest.

I think in terms of being able to answer the question of whether or not Beijing has been successful in doing this is looking at Taiwan and human rights as a litmus test. In Korea, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, is our government still advocating for Taiwan? Are we still advocating for human rights? Not even just our government, but are people still advocating for that? Are our companies advocating for that? When Beijing is able to basically politicize U.S. interests and U.S. goals to silence private companies, then I think you can say that in some cases China has been successful in doing that, especially when it comes to Taiwan and human rights in Tibet and with the Uyghurs.

DEVIN STEWART: Rachael, let's wrap up here. This has been a fantastic conversation. I really like your expression, "cognitive warfare."

Given what we've talked about today, how do you see China's rise impacting the global system at large and the fate of democracies? What do you see maybe looking at 2049 as a possible future scenario?

RACHAEL BURTON: I'm afraid I don't have a good answer to that last question. There are certainly greater and smarter people who might be able to answer that. But I'll take a stab at it and do my best.

Can democracy survive China's rise in the global system? I think absolutely. I don't think that Beijing has the goal, ambition, and/or the ability to demolish democracy.

The Chinese Communist Party plainly says that what they want is a space for their form of authoritarianism to be able to live and survive, and so the way that they talk about it is trying to break through what they call a "new party system." They're wanting to advocate for a new party system. That means getting rid of democratic politics that we hold dear, getting rid of elections, or delegitimizing elections as the only form of democratic politics and the only legitimate form of democracy.

I think that will be the challenge, not a rising China, but a China that is led by a Marxist-Leninist Chinese Communist Party that believes that constitutional democracy and that human rights and that citizen movements are a threat to the Chinese Communist Party. That's not me saying it, that's what they say. They sent around what's now called "Document 9" in 2013 that laid out nine different forms of threat to the Chinese Communist Party, and it's all ideological.

The fact is that right now there's a lot of back-and-forth about "are we in this ideological war with China." I would say that the Chinese Communist Party very plainly told everyone that, yes, they feel like there is an ideological war that threatens the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

Recommendations I think on how to combat this rise in an alternative system is really just to hold true to our United States values, to hold true to our allies and our partners, and to continue to bolster and extend legitimacy to, I would say, what drives our policies rather than allowing Beijing to kind of suck the air out of the room. If we are going to talk to Beijing about trade, we should be just as aggressively talking to our allies and to our partners about trade. We should be having breakthrough moments with Japan and with Taiwan on free trade agreements instead of allowing the only trade discussion to be about China.

I think so long as the United States, the European Union, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, India, and others want to continue to reinforce and uphold our own partnerships, then I think the world is going to most likely look all right in 2049.

DEVIN STEWART: Rachael Burton is Deputy Director at the Project 2049 Institute. Rachael, this has been a wonderful conversation, and we really thank you.

RACHAEL BURTON: Thank you so much, Devin.

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