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The Silent Erosion of Sovereignty: A Sino–Australian Example

Wild Blue Yonder / Maxwell AFB, AL --


While the West has been predominantly grappling with disinformation campaigns stemming from the Kremlin, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has employed phase zero influence operations1 that have wittingly or unwittingly eroded the sovereignty of both Australia and New Zealand.2 Spearheaded by the United Front Work Department (UFWD), the CCP aims to effectively undermine the integrity of the organic political processes to manufacture a friendly political environment for Beijing.3 Beginning in 2000, CCP-directed influence and disinformation campaigns in Australia and New Zealand went largely underreported and unchecked for far too long. Australia needed some US “persuading” in the context of China’s increased maritime aggression in the South China Sea to first recognize and then counter Chinese hostile cyber-based information and influence operations. With the present government of Scott Morrison in charge, Australia has finally become one of the most outspoken critics of the CCP’s interference and meddling in internal affairs in the Asia-Pacific.4

This short submission highlights the potential and current dangers of the CCP information and influence operations as part of the People's Liberation Army’s wider noncontact warfare approach of the three warfares5 in the so-called “grey zone” and looks at potential comprehensive countermeasures.6

Countering the CCP’s subversion and disinformation requires a new understanding of great-power competition and, as a result, a new set of interagency, multistakeholder initiatives to keep the Australian information environment—organic and unmolested. Existing doctrine is ill-equipped to counter and defeat the CCP’s active disinformation campaigns taking place in Australia.

Great-power Competition and the CCP’s Approach to Hybrid Warfare

Great-power competition typically takes place below the threshold of declared war.7 While it manifests itself in all domains, such as economic, diplomatic, social, military, cyber, and informational, we focus on the information and economic environments, as the CCP appears to focus on shaping friendly audiences through disinformation and investments. At the same time, the CCP has used information campaigns effectively to discredit or silence critics of Beijing’s foreign policy.8

The Chinese Communist Party’s COVID-19 disinformation campaign poses a major challenge for Australia and other Western nations in countering Beijing’s influence in the media, social media, and academia.
Chinese propaganda
The Chinese Communist Party’s COVID-19 disinformation campaign poses a major challenge for Australia and other Western nations in countering Beijing’s influence in the media, social media, and academia.
Photo By: D. Thompson (Department of State)
VIRIN: 200506-F-YT915-001

(US Department of State image / D. Thompson)

Figure 1. Chinese propaganda. The CCP’s COVID-19 disinformation campaign poses a major challenge for Australia and other Western nations in countering Beijing’s influence in the media, social media, and academia.

Hybrid threats like cyber-enhanced information operations and the use of foreign direct investment to target states’ resilience and will to fight are all part of China’s hybrid, below-the-threshold, nonkinetic, warfighting approach.9 It appears to be a well-calibrated grand strategy to compete against and surpass the West10 as part of China’s “strategic preconditioning,”11 including the use of unrestricted warfare12 and three warfares.13

Western vulnerability is the result of varying degrees of awareness of the threat posed by Chinese information and influence operations, and the West’s lack of preparedness is highlighted by a dearth of interagency coordination to detect and combat politically motivated disinformation:14

  1. A lack of a proper unified legal framework to enable and authorize countermeasures by multiple security and defense actors as part of any comprehensive counterapproach;15

  2. A lack of understanding of the CCP’s doctrine on unrestricted warfare and concept of three warfares;16

  3. A lack of adopting emerging technology on mapping and detecting disinformation;

  4. A lack of digital literacy and data literacy;17 and

  5. A lack of authorities and permissions to integrate information and cyber operations with traditional military operations.18

Examples of such CCP information operations in Australia have been plentiful and are always used as a strategy to obtain a measurable advantage and to force compliance with Beijing’s strategic goal/needs. The CCP’s targeting of politicians, media, and our business community are well-recognized.19 Another example is education as Australia’s third-largest export.20 Beijing’s “long arm” can be felt on Australia’s campuses today and have led to an erosion of academic freedom on campus.21 Coupled with this erosion is the very real existence of an essential dependency of Australian academia on the CCP’s goodwill: no international students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) means financial hardship for some of Australia’s more prestigious universities,22 a prospective which has become even more realistic due to the economic effect of COVID-19.

COVID-19 as a Test Case of CCP Influence Operations

The present COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare this financial dependency, with some universities facing significant budget shortfalls.23 A dire state of affairs that is being exploited further by the CCP when it criticized the Australian government for having “overreacted” with its travel ban and acted outside the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO).24 We also note that these influence operations are nested within the PRC’s broader COVID-19 information campaign.25

Moving to the overall objective of the PRC’s information operations, namely influencing internal affairs in the “target” states, the Australian and New Zealand government should pay particular attention to UFWD activities and affiliates.26 The UFWD has been quite active in Australia.27 Moreover, the UFWD has exploited the pandemic to further religious persecution.28 These activities, conducted by the PRC’s propaganda apparatus, are squarely antithetical to democratic values. Canberra and Wellington should focus on updating and refining their legal frameworks and enforcement mechanisms to identify and ban inauthentic advertisements in Australian and New Zealand newspapers and magazines to sway the public away from Beijing’s critics.29 Much of these inauthentic advertisements originate from foreign social media and media outlets closely aligned with the CCP. China’s CCP has been exploiting the current COVID-19 pandemic30 to weaponize its ongoing maritime aggression in the South China Sea and against Taiwan and Hong Kong.31 Beijing has also exploited the real and anticipated lack of resolve of Western and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) governments, utilizing both “mask diplomacy” and “mask mercantilism,”32 using information operations as both force-enabler and -enhancer, and attempting to start a strategic buying spree into essential services and critical infrastructure of weakened Western market economies, especially in Europe33 and Australasia.34


Given the nature and scale of the CCP’s hybrid threats, we argue that governments need to enable a multistakeholder comprehensive approach involving state agencies, academia, the media and the private sector to curtail Beijing’s influence operations in Australia, New Zealand, and abroad. Such an approach should include the following courses of action:

  1. Establish an interagency coordination cell to ensure the entirety of Australian society remains inoculated against externally induced and motivated disinformation campaigns;

  2. Promote public–private partnership (PPP) to proliferate disinformation-mitigation technology to civil society;

  3. Promote emerging tech incubation funds to accelerate the organic development of disinformation mitigation capability; and

  4. Promote not only digital literacy (how to understand and detect disinformation online) but also data literacy (how the CCP and the Kremlin exploit private data in the information environment).

Resilience through increased awareness and a comprehensive multistakeholder counterapproach is needed to address Chinese influence operations, which have become exacerbated in the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Sascha Dov Bachmann

Dr. Bachmann is a Professor in Law at the University of Canberra and Fellow NATO SHAPE Asia Pacific (Hybrid Threats and Lawfare), author of more than 50 articles on the topics of new security challenges of the twenty-first century, such as hybrid warfare, information operations, the use of lawfare, cyber-enhanced hybrid warfare, and grey-zone operations. He is a regular contributor to NATO’s Legal Advisor Web (LAWFAS), with his publications often being used as NATO reference documents. He acted as NATO SME (Cyber and Rule of Law) for the 2011 Countering Hybrid Threats Experiment in Tallinn, Estonia and The Hague. Sascha has worked with and presented to NATO, USCENTCOM, USAFRICOM, the Austrian Ministry of Defence, the Swedish Defence University, the Royal Danish Defence College, the South African National Defence Force, and the Australian Defence Forces among others on the subjects of hybrid war/threats, lawfare, info ops, and targeting. He is a regular visiting lecturer at the Australian Defence Force’s Information Operations Staff Officer Course as guest of the Directorate of Joint Influence Activities of the Information Warfare Division of Australian Department of Defence’s Joint Capability Group.

Doowan Lee

Mr. Lee (BA, Korea University; MA, Simon Fraser; and AM, University of Chicago) is a senior director of research and strategy at Zignal Labs, leading AI-powered omnisource analytics platform that provides unparalleled influence intelligence to empower risk management, open society, and democracy through disinformation mitigation. Lee designs and executes integration strategies for influence intelligence and foreign policy objectives. He also leads external engagements with government research-and-development agencies to collaborate on emerging technologies on network analysis and visualization. Before joining Zignal Labs, Lee was a professor and principal investigator at the Naval Postgraduate School for 11 years, where he developed and executed federally funded projects with the Combatting Terrorism Technology Support Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency on collaborative C4I, network analysis of ideological diffusion, external exploitation of social movements, and social media analysis. He completed his graduate studies at the University of Chicago while interning at the Argonne National Laboratory and the Santa Fe Institute.


1 Scott D. McDonald, Brock Jones, and Jason M. Frazee, “Phase Zero: How China Exploits It, Why the United States Does Not,” Naval War College Review 65, no. 3 (2012): 122–35, https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/.

2 Rory Medcalf, “Silent Invasion: The Question of Race,” The Interpreter, 21 March 2018, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/.

3 Gerry Groot, “Inside China’s Vast Influence Network—How It Works, and the Extent of Its Reach in Australia,” The Conversation, 10 September 2019, https://theconversation.com/.

4 Greg Austin, “Explaining Australia’s Sharp Turn to Information Warfare,” The Interpreter, 4 July 2017, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/.

5 Timothy A. Walton, China’s Three Warfares, Delex Special Report-3 (Herndon, VA: Delex Systems, 18 January 2012), http://www.delex.com/.

6 Andrew Dowse and Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann, “Explainer: What Is ‘Hybrid Warfare’ and What Is Meant by the ‘Grey Zone’?,” The Conversation, 17 June 2019, https://theconversation.com/.

7 Uri Friedman, “The New Concept Everyone in Washington Is Talking About,” The Atlantic, 6 August 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/.

8 Wai Ling Yeung and Clive Hamilton, “How Beijing is Shaping Politics in Western Australia,” China Brief 19, no. 9 (2019): https://jamestown.org/.

9 Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann, Andrew Dowse, and Håkan Gunneriusson, “Competition Short of War—How Russia’s Hybrid and Grey-zone Warfare Are a Blueprint for China’s Global Power Ambitions,” Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies 1, no. 1 (2019): 41–56, https://www.defence.gov.au/.

10 John F. Sullivan, “#Reviewing The Hundred-Year Marathon: Running on Flimsy Historical Grounds,” RealClear Defense, 11 April 2019, https://www.realcleardefense.com/.

11 Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann and Munoz Mosquera, “China’s Strategic Preconditioning in the Twenty-first Century,” Wild Blue Yonder, 13 April 2020, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Wild-Blue-Yonder/.

12 Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, February 1999), https://www.c4i.org/.

13 Stefan Halper, “China: The Three Warfares” (study, Office of Net Assessment, Office of the Secretary of Defense, May 2013), https://cryptome.org/.

14 Naim Kapucu, “Interagency Communication Networks During Emergencies: Boundary Spanners in Multiagency Coordination,” American Review of Public Administration 36, no. 2 (June 1, 2006): 207–25, https://doi.org/10.1177/0275074005280605.

15 Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann, “Hybrid Threats, Cyber Warfare and NATO’s Comprehensive Approach for Countering 21st Century Threats – Mapping the New Frontier of Global Risk and Security Management,” Amicus Curiae 88 (2012): 14–17, https://papers.ssrn.com/.

16 Peter Mattis, “China’s ‘Three Warfares’ in Perspective,” Ministry of Truth series, War on the Rocks, 30 January 2018, https://warontherocks.com/.

17 Eliza Mackintosh, “Finland Is Winning the War on fake News,” CNN, May 2019, https://www.cnn.com/.

18 Herb Lin, “Developing Responses to Cyber-Enabled Information Warfare and Influence Operations,” Lawfare (blog), 6 September 2018, https://www.lawfareblog.com/.

19 Andrew Greene, “Australia Struggling to Contain Increasing Chinese Political Interference, US Warns,” ABC News (Australia), 15 November 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/.

20 Deloitte Access Economics, The Value of International Education to Australia (Canberra: Department of Education and Training, 2015), https://internationaleducation.gov.au/.

21 Jamie Smyth, “Australia: The Campus Fight over Beijing's Influence,” Financial Times, 12 November 2019, https://www.ft.com/.

22 Salvatore Babones, The China Student Boom and the Risks It Poses to Australian Universities, Analysis Paper 5 (Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies, August 2019), https://www.cis.org.au/.

23 Salvatore Babones, “Our China-dependent Universities Cannot Escape the Financial Shock of Coronavirus,” Sydney Morning Herald, 31 January 2020, https://www.smh.com.au/.

24 Paul Osborne, “Coronavirus Update: China Says Australia’s Travel Ban Is an Overreaction,” AAP/7NEWS (Australia), 13 February 2020, https://7news.com.au/.

25 Stephen Green, “Communist Quality Control: Beijing Sends 150,000 Wuhan Virus Testing Kits to Prague, 80% Fail,” PJ Media, 24 March 2020, https://pjmedia.com/.

27 Ryan Manuel, “The United Front Work Department and How It Plays a Part in the Gladys Liu Controversy,” ABC News (Australia), 14 September 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/.

28 Bai Lin, “China’s Suppression of Religion Not Eased amid the Pandemic,” Bitter Winter, 22 March 2020, https://bitterwinter.org/.

29 Steve Cannane and Echo Hui, “Federal Election 2019: Anti-Labor Scare Campaign Targets Chinese-Australians,” ABC News (Australia), 2 May 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/.

30 Hoang Trung, “US Criticized China at ASEAN Conference—Vietnamese Pressident Remains Silent,” Thoibao (blog), 27 April 2020, https://thoibao.de/.

31 “How China Weaponizes COVID-19 in the East Vietnam Sea,” Tuoi Tre New (Vietnam), 26 April 2020, https://tuoitrenews.vn/.

32 Mike Watson, “China’s Mask Mercantilism,” National Review, 23 March 2020, https://www.nationalreview.com/.

33 “NATO Warns Allies to Block China Buying Spree,” Deutsche Welle, 17 April 2020, https://amp.dw.com/.

34 Samantha Hutchinson and Anthony Galloway, “Foreign Investment Board Braces for Chinese Takeovers of Distressed Australian Assets,” Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March 2020, https://www.smh.com.au/.

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