Assistant Secretary Of State David Stilwell Explains Current US Strategy For Countering China’s Covert, Coercive, And Corrupting Influence Operations

Friday, November 20, 2020
Hoover Institution, Stanford University
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Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) - For far too long, China has exploited the freedom and openness that define the United States and other democracies. Now is the time for the free world to engage Beijing on the basis of reciprocity, argued David Stilwell, US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, in remarks during a virtual conversation on October 30 copresented by Hoover’s project on China’s Global Sharp Power and the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations.

Hoover Institution director Condoleezza Rice opened the program.  Questions were posed to Stilwell by Hoover fellows Larry Diamond and Glenn Tiffert, chair and executive director, respectively, of the Global Sharp Power project; Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society Center on US-China Relations; and Oriana Skylar Mastro, center fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman-Spogli Institute.

During her remarks, Rice provided a brief history of the events that led to the current state of contentiousness in Sino-American relations. Beginning in the early 1970s, US officials believed that if China were integrated into the world community, its exposure to democratic societies, markets, and principles of free trade would chart its path toward political liberalization.

Rice explained that the opposite has taken place. Beijing has exploited access to markets, ideas, and technology that flourish in free societies to enrich itself, strengthen its authoritarian style of government, and emerge as a coercive actor on the international stage, as evidenced in the People’s Liberation Army’s aggressions in the South China Sea and threats against Taiwan.

In addition, Beijing has deployed strategies aimed at gaining the competitive high ground against the United States, including operations that seek to erode the integrity of democratic institutions and the outright theft of intellectual property from US companies, laboratories, and universities.

Rice concluded that the challenge that free societies face is maintaining their values of transparency and openness while remaining vigilant of China’s subversive activities. She explained that the United States’ most superior capability in this rivalry is truth telling, through such instruments as Voice of America that were pivotal to freedom’s triumph over communism during the Cold War.

Assistant Secretary Stillwell began his remarks by referencing the 2017 US National Security Strategy, authored by Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow (and then national security advisor) H. R. McMaster, which describes how two visions of world order, freedom and repression, are currently on a collision course.

China seeks to advance a repressive system of governance in a “United Front” strategy, that is, by enlisting various entities associated with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a campaign of pressure and persuasion of individuals and institutions in other countries. Covert and overt influence operations are conducted by diplomats stationed at PRC consulates, journalists working for state media, Chinese businesspersons, and Beijing-backed nongovernmental organizations, including chambers of commerce, cultural exchange programs, and educational associations.

Stilwell explained that while China frequently seeks to frame its diplomatic missions as “win-win” propositions, in reality they are predatory and hegemonic.

“Co-opting friends and neutralizing enemies are two sides of the United Front coin,” Stilwell said.

Stillwell provided salient examples of such United Front activities in the English-speaking world. In 2017, an Australian senator, who had defended China’s actions in the South China Sea, resigned after revelations that he had too close ties to a wealthy Chinese businessman. 

In the Australian state of Queensland, student protesters supporting political freedom in Hong Kong were bullied by classmates who toed a pro-Beijing line. In New Zealand, Chinese dissidents have been harassed and sent death threats by agents representing the interests of the CCP.

In other parts of the world, China has attempted to corrupt elites with lavish infrastructure projects, many of which have harsh public financing terms. Corporations like Marriott, Mercedes-Benz, and the NBA have been cajoled to mimic CCP propaganda out of fear that a Beijing-supported boycott of their products would impact bottom lines and curtail access to a vast market of Chinese consumers.

In countering China’s United Front aggression, Stillwell said, US leaders need to think beyond governmental responses and encourage various segments of society to combine forces against Beijing’s influence operations. He added that such action should be guided by the principle of reciprocity.

While China has been able to advance its interests in the United States, restrictions have been placed on US businesspersons, journalists, academics, and government officials based in China. Stilwell said that when he was a military attaché in Beijing, he was even denied the ability to talk directly to his immediate counterpart.

Moving forward, he stated, US institutions, public and private, should not make concessions to China unless American people and interests are treated fairly and equally.

Stilwell urged that, moreover, the US should strengthen deterrence by working with allies to secure an international rules-based order that respects national sovereignty and uses access to their collective economies and societies as leverage.

“These are necessary guides if we are to prevent the CCP from continuing to assault our societies from within.” Stilwell concluded.