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Congress Takes on China’s Propaganda Machine

(source: Wikimedia Commons/David Pursehouse)

By: Claire Chu |

The Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016 (S.2692) was introduced in the Senate on March 16, and has since been read twice and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations. Sponsored by Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and Senator Christopher Murphy (D-CT), the new bipartisan legislation is intended to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation operations.

The bill recognizes that foreign governments, including the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, have engaged heavily in sophisticated, comprehensive and long-term efforts to manipulate and control information, to achieve national objectives at the expense of U.S. allies, interests, and values. While the U.S. has a long history of legislation countering Russian propaganda, which traces back to the “war of ideas” that underpinned the Soviet clash with the West, this is the first time Congress has introduced policy measures to directly address the threat of China’s aggressive comprehensive information operations doctrine.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) combines psychological warfare, media warfare and the manipulation of legal arguments (lawfare) with more technical aspects of information operations to not only disrupt enemy information control capabilities (while maintaining its own), but also to influence both domestic and international audiences’ decision-making processes in ways that build support for China’s military operations. This scope of information operations is used to undermine technologically superior adversaries, such as the United States, by transcending the normal spectrum of conflict. In the Chinese strategic tradition, this achieves ideals of nonviolence and subduing the enemy without fighting at all.

Given U.S. reliance on a high-performance, networked information infrastructure and dependence on precision-strike and conventional warfare capabilities, there has been increasing concern in Washington about the national-security impact of China’s unconventional use of manipulative political and ideological activities that target the United States. Overseas Chinese state-media broadcasting and paid newspaper inserts regularly contribute to perception management of the Chinese Communist Party’s one-party rule and military operations. Recent maritime incidents and military exercises serve to divide U.S. alliances and undermine any justification for U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific.

In a set of remarks delivered at the Atlantic Council, Senator Portman explained: “China spends billions annually on its foreign propaganda efforts…Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea is another recent example of how effective disinformation operations can be used to seize the initiative and catch the United States and its allies off-guard and unprepared.”

The Pentagon has been aware of China’s expanding information warfare capabilities for over a decade, yet currently no single U.S. government organization takes on the role of developing a whole-of-government strategy to combat the threat of information warfare. Interagency groups have had a checkered performance record; the Active Measures Working Group that was established to counter Soviet disinformation is one of few examples of past success. In general, the United States today is afflicted with a systemic lack of interagency coordination and support mechanisms with respect to countering unconventional threats. Our federal institutions are like the blind men in the old tale, and the defense strategy process is the elephant.

By contrast, China has created a formal mechanism to coordinate General Political Department (GPD) liaison work with not only civilian bureaucracies but also the PLA Air Force, Navy, Second Artillery, and military regional commands. Within the PLA’s national power arsenal of party and state organizations, there is an interlocking set of non-governmental platforms that attempt to direct influence through civilian and business means.

In response, the Countering Information Warfare Act proposes the establishment of the Center for Information Analysis and Response for planning, integrating, and synchronizing comprehensive national strategy to expose and counter foreign information operations directed against the United States. The Center will be under the primary leadership of the Secretary of State, in active coordination with other departments including the Department of Defense and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. A complementary Steering Committee will also be created for advisory purposes, with committee members representing various relevant agencies including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

To support U.S. analysis of China’s information warfare tactics, techniques, and procedures, Congress will be authorized to appropriate $20,000,000 to the Secretary of State for fiscal years 2017 and 2018. These funds will back the Center and provide grants to civil society groups, academic institutions, research and development centers, and other organizations for investigation and research compatible with U.S. security interests and objectives.

Despite the pivot to Asia policy (or perhaps because of it), Washington has not yet conceived a comprehensive strategic framework to address the PLA’s fusion of ancient and modern operational thinking and planning. As such, the study of Chinese military strategy remains a fundamentally inaccurate science. After three decades of “constructive engagement,” the United States can only be effective in the Asia-Pacific if it invests in legislation like the Countering Information Warfare Act to develop the intellectual foundation and support necessary to understand and confront the Chinese Communist Party’s unconventional military strategy and doctrine.


This article was first published in the National Interest on April 27. Claire Chu is an intern at the Project 2049 Institute. She is a graduating senior at American University specializing in U.S. defense posture and regional security dynamics in the Asia-Pacific. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireJChu and #InfluenceOps for analysis on Chinese political warfare.