John Guerrero is currently serving in the Indo-Pacific region. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing China as a Case Study in Cognitive Threats
Date Originally Written: February 1, 2022.
Date Originally Published: February 28, 2022.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is currently serving in the Indo-Pacific region. The author believes that China is more mature than the U.S. in projecting force in the cognitive space. This increased maturity is largely due to the China’s insistence on operating outside of the rules-based system.
Summary: China has largely been effective in pursuing their national interests through cognitive threats. In this cognitive space, China influences public opinion through propaganda, disinformation campaigns, censorship, and controlling critical nodes of information flow. China’s understanding of U.S. politics, and its economic strength, will enable it to continue threatening U.S. national security.
Text: China is pursuing its national interests through its effective employment of cognitive threats- efforts undertaken to manipulate an adversary’s perceptions to achieve a national security objective. Cognitive threats generally include psychological warfare which target the enemy’s decision-making calculus causing him to doubt himself and make big blunders. Psychological warfare also includes strategic deception, diplomatic pressure, rumor, false narratives, and harassment. Chinese actions illustrate their use of all of the above.
The cognitive threat area illustrates the disparity between U.S. defensive efforts and China’s offensive actions below the threshold of war. The United States remains wedded to the state-versus-state construct that has kept strategists occupied since 1945. The stave-versus-state construct is antiquated and the commitment to it hamstrings the U.S. from pursuing more effective options.
China’s efforts in the cognitive space exceed any other state. China understands the importance of influencing its competitors’ thinking. There are four lines of effort in China’s pursuit of favorable global public opinion. China aims to influence public opinion through propaganda, disinformation campaigns, censorship, and controlling critical nodes of information flow.
Globalization complicates problems in the cognitive space. Globalization creates opportunities, but it also creates multiple areas a nefarious actor can exploit. Corporations, as an example, are multi-national and have influence across borders. There are clear incentives for corporations to transact with the Chinese market. Chinese exposure for a corporation oftentimes translates into an uptick in revenue. However, there are consequences. Corporations are “expected to bend, and even violate, their interests and values when the Party demands.”
China’s reach into the United States is vast. One area of significant importance is the American pension plan. American pensioners are “underwriting their own demise” by contributing to their retirement accounts that may be tied to China. Planning a financially stable future is noble, but it is not without unforeseen consequences. There are 248 corporations of Chinese origin listed on American stock exchanges. The Chinese government enjoys significant influence over these corporations through their program called “Military-Civil Fusion.” Many index funds available to Americans include Chinese corporations. China’s economic strengths facilitate censorship over dissenters and any information aimed at painting the government in an unfavorable light. In another example of China’s expansive reach, they have recently placed an advertisement on digital billboards in Times Square attempting to sway onlookers into their favor.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) understands that while global opinion is important, they cannot ignore domestic public opinion. Despite reports on their treatment of ethnic minorities, the Party continues to push the idea that they enjoy “political stability, ethnic unity and social stability.” China’s domestic news agencies critical to Party and Party leadership are few and far between. There are incentives to march to the Party’s tune- corporate survival.
China’s efforts, and the U.S. response, in cognitive threats will progress along the four lines of effort discussed. China’s economic strength enables their strategic efforts to sway global public opinion in their favor. Few state, and non-state, actors can do this at this scale, but it does not preclude them from partaking. These smaller states, and non-states, will serve as proxies for China.
China understands U.S. domestic politics. This understanding is critical to their national interests. The current state of U.S. domestic politics is divisive and presents opportunities for China. For example, China has exploited the U.S. media’s coverage of brutal treatment by law enforcement officers on Americans. China widens the division between Americans over these tragic events and accuses the United States of hypocrisy.
China is attempting to control, curate, and censor information for Americans and the world. Hollywood is the latest node of influence. “China has leveraged its market to exert growing influence over exported U.S. films, censoring content that could cast China in a negative light and demanding the addition of scenes that glorify the country.” Movies are not the full extent of Hollywood’s reach and influence. Celebrities active on social media could be advancing China’s interests and influence unknowingly. China’s adversaries, peer governments, aren’t the target of these cognitive threats. Rather, they target the ordinary citizen. In a democratic government, the ordinary citizen is the center of gravity- a fact the Chinese know very well.
The cognitive threat arena is dynamic and evolves at a staggering pace. Technological advancements, while beneficial, presents opportunities for exploitation. The PRC continues to advance their footprint in this space. This is dangerous as it has far-reaching effects on the United States and its ability to pursue its national interests. Strategists should keep a watchful eye at how this pervasive and omnipresent threat progresses. These threats will continue to influence future conflicts.
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