Are China and Iran meddling in US elections? It’s complicated.

“Russia’s main strategy is to sow discord and division, and diminish faith in democracy. It also favors President Donald Trump, partly because he helps advance the first two goals, and because of his oft-stated desire to improve relations between Washington and Moscow.

China and Iran are more averse to chaos in the US, and are much more focused on pushing their own national objectives. They want different things from the United States, Emerson T. Brooking, a resident fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council, told me.

For China, that might mean promoting its Covid-19 narrative, or getting the US to shut up about Hong Kong protests. For Iran, that could mean promoting criticism of Israel or US sanctions policy.

All three countries have different capabilities. China might not use online trolls in the way Russia or even Iran does because it has other, far more effective tools — economic, technological — that could achieve those aims.

And, of course, interference may go beyond disinformation or influence campaigns. There is the threat of hacking or cyber intrusions of politicians, or campaigns, or even election infrastructure. There is also a concern over how individuals with ties to foreign governments might use money in politics. And there’s probably something else, because as one analyst told me, what the US doesn’t want to be doing is fighting the last war.”

“A Department of Homeland Security whistleblower complaint also alleges that the administration tried to downplay the Russia threat because it upsets Trump, and that National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien pressured the department to elevate China and Iran activities to the level of Russia’s, even though that didn’t fit with the actual intelligence data available.”

“Russia is still pushing disinformation through social media and has reportedly attempted to hack campaigns associated with both Democrats and Republicans. The Kremlin is also filtering pro-Russia narratives through Ukrainian politicians to undermine Biden and the Democrats, talking points that are being regurgitated by Trump and GOP allies. The ODNI has said that Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden.”
Taken together, Moscow’s tactics create chaos and distrust in US institutions and democracy, exacerbating America’s partisan divides like a finger pressed to a bruise.

Based on what’s known publicly, China and Iran are echoing some of those strategies. They’re spreading disinformation. They reportedly targeted campaigns and political entities.

But China and Iran want different things when it comes to America.

Russia wants to disrupt and destabilize and confuse people on how to see the world. Iran and China would like the world to see things their way. At least right now, China, in particular, sees a lot more value in building itself up than in tearing America apart.

“For China and Iran, ultimately, their interests are not served by an American political system that is chaotic, unable to think long-term, make strategic decisions about their relationships with either of those two countries,” Priscilla Moriuchi, an expert on state-sponsored cyber operations and fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said.

This is not to say that China and Iran are cool with the United States as is. But China doesn’t want a chaotic world, Brookings’s West told me. It wants stability. So if it’s going to meddle in the 2020 election, it’s not out to cause Russian-style pandemonium.”

“The ODNI report says Russia wants to denigrate Biden, but says Iran and China have particular preferences when it comes to the 2020 election. US intelligence assess China “prefers that President Trump – whom Beijing sees as unpredictable – does not win reelection.” But the ODNI doesn’t say that China is necessarily tipping the scales for Biden. Instead, China’s operations are mostly focused on deflecting criticism of China.
As for Iran, the ODNI says it seeks to “undermine President Trump” and democratic institutions, saying it’s mostly focused on online and anti-US propaganda.

This has created a sense that Russia is on one side and China and Iran are on the other — one for Trump, two for Biden. But this is the wrong way to look at it, experts told me. It muddles the actual efforts and objectives of each of these actors.

“It’s certainly true that different US adversaries might have different preferences for the outcome of the election,” Brooking, of the Atlantic Council, told me. “But they don’t go about executing their goals the same way.””

” This is a US presidential election; Beijing has a preference, but so do Brussels and Mexico City and Tokyo. Allies and adversaries alike are going to have an idea of an outcome they’d like to see based on their own foreign policy, national security, and economic interests. As Cordero said, that’s not the same thing as “taking specific actions using their intelligence services, using their military, cyber capability to actively affect the outcome of our election.””

“”it is not clear that China is really interested in turning a lot of this apparatus to privilege one candidate or another in the presidential election.”

So far, China hasn’t really shown itself to be interested in that kind of disruption, James Andrew Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told me. Instead, he said, China is “more interested in getting the US off their back.”

“With China, it’s to benefit China,” Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center”

“Moriuchi, at the Belfer Center, cautioned against the notion that this somehow means China is the JV team to Russia’s varsity, because, again, they’re essentially playing two different games. Russia is trying to disrupt the 2020 election and see what kind of disorder it can create. Beijing is playing the long game.”

“Russia is an adversary, but Moscow can’t directly challenge the US’s economic dominance, or its position in global hegemony. Trying to bolster the Russian political system in the US wouldn’t be as useful in weakening US democracy as, for instance, amplifying doubts about mail-in voting.”

“Russia’s disruption tactics are a kind of asymmetric warfare against a larger power. It’s low tech and not all that costly, but America’s homegrown political dysfunction has made it seem wildly effective.

This isn’t the case for China. China is challenging the US for global hegemony. “China — the Chinese Communist Party — believes it is in a generational fight to surpass our country in economic and technological leadership,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in July. China does want to manipulate the American political system to help achieve those ends. It just has a lot more capabilities than Russia does.

“It’s certainly true that if China wanted, they could have extraordinary impact on this social media space,” Brooking said. “But the Chinese also don’t need to do that.” They’re the second-largest economy in the world, he added. “They have so many levers of influence and power, which don’t rely on creating sock puppet accounts and botnets.”

China is carefully, and strategically, expanding its influence in the US in ways that might not fit with our perception of “meddling.” And if China doesn’t like what the US or others are saying about its policies, it doesn’t necessarily need to rely on a fake Facebook page.”

““The Chinese don’t want you to say what we did in Hong Kong was bad, and they use market pressure and money and influence operations to push that China’s great: ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,’” CSIS’s Lewis said.

This also prompts certain industries or institutions to self-censor, tiptoeing around sensitive issues to avoid displeasing China. But China can also more directly use its economic prowess, enticing Wall Street or Hollywood with investment or funding think tanks and universities that may push more Beijing-friendly talking points.

There are also legitimate concerns about what China is doing with its technology. China uses apps like WeChat to spread pro-Chinese messaging, including to the Chinese diaspora around the world, and the government almost certainly uses it as a surveillance tool. The same goes for concerns about censorship and/or data tracking on Chinese-owned apps like TikTok.

And then there are the hacking operations meant to gather intelligence — that is, to spy. FBI Director Wray said in that same July speech that the US opens a counterintelligence case against China every 10 hours; of the FBI’s 5,000 counterintelligence cases, about half involve China.

China has waged a relentless campaign to steal technological and trade secrets from the United States. Hackers with ties to Chinese military or intelligence have carried out cyber operations to steal massive amounts of data — hacks like the 2017 Equifax breach that affected about half of all Americans, or the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) hack.

“So China is probing campaigns like the Russians (and Iranians), but what it will do with that information is a lot less clear. In 2016, Russia released stolen information through WikiLeaks, which was far more dramatic and influential than just quietly collecting information for its own use. China, we know, has these cyber capabilities, but so far it hasn’t tried to dump any information to alter the presidential race.”

“Iran definitely has cyber capabilities. But Zoli said, overall, they’re not sophisticated enough to have a truly enormous impact. “They don’t have the capabilities and they haven’t thought through a really multi-pronged strategy. They’re not going after, you know, these ancillary institutional sites to try to have a big impact on political decision-making.””

“Plenty of other countries — even those who’d fall into the US ally camp — are using social media to spread state propaganda, or messaging that favors their foreign policy goals. Saudi Arabia-linked accounts have spread pro-Trump messaging on Twitter. During the George Floyd protests, Turkey tried to link Syrian Kurds to antifa. Whether this stuff really works isn’t the point; it doesn’t require a lot of resources, it’s not all that complicated, and right now, getting taken down by Twitter or Facebook is a fairly low cost.”

Trump Administration Formally Bans TikTok, WeChat Apps from Online Stores in U.S.

“The U.S. Department of Commerce today announced that it will, as threatened, implement a ban on the TikTok and WeChat apps, thus censoring tools Americans use to communicate each other while blaming it all on China’s Communist rule.

As of Sunday, online mobile or app stores will not be able to distribute or update either WeChat or Tiktok. WeChat will further be banned from processing payments within the United States. This enacts President Donald Trump’s August executive orders, in which he claimed that the two apps threaten the United States due to their parent company’s ties to the Chinese government.”

Abe plan for land-attack counterpunch could mark major military shift for Japan

“Months before he announced his resignation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set in motion a policy change that could for the first time allow Japan’s military to plan for strikes on land targets in China and other parts of Asia.

Japan’s Self Defence Forces are geared toward stopping attackers in the air and the sea. The policy change would direct the military to create a doctrine for targeting enemy sites on land – a mission that would require the purchase of long-range weapons such as cruise missiles.

If adopted by the next government, the policy would mark one of the most significant shifts in Japan’s military stance since the end of World War Two. It reflects Abe’s longstanding push for a more robust military and Tokyo’s deepening concern about Chinese influence in the region.

The Japanese government is worried by China’s increased military activity around disputed East China Sea islets.”

China may double its nuclear arsenal in just 10 years. Don’t panic.

“A new Pentagon report predicts China will double its number of nuclear warheads over the next 10 years. That certainly sounds scary, but the assessment actually offers a broadly reassuring message: Despite these expected advances, the US will remain the far stronger nuclear force well into the future.”

““Over the next decade, China’s nuclear warhead stockpile — currently estimated to be in the low 200s — is projected to at least double in size as China expands and modernizes its nuclear forces,” the report says.”

““The US nuclear stockpile numbers about 3,800 [active] warheads. That’s almost 20 times as many as China has now and 10 times what China is projected to build over the next decade,””

““China probably has enough nuclear materials to at least double its warhead stockpile without new fissile material production,” the report reads. In other words, Beijing couldn’t more than double its arsenal unless it produced more plutonium to build bombs, an effort the world — including the US — would detect pretty easily. “That would be expensive, slow, and visible,” said James Acton, the co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s nuclear program.”

“None of this should lead to complacency in the Pentagon. As Acton told me, China still has enough warheads, and long-range missiles to place them on, “to destroy the US as a functioning society.” And other government reports make clear China’s military prowess could match America’s in just 30 years. It’s why experts think it’s a good idea for the US to seriously engage in China in arms control talks, among other things, as a way to blunt an arms race.
“The important thing to keep in mind is that China can afford a much larger nuclear force than it has now,” said Middlebury’s Lewis.”

South China Sea: after all its posturing, the US is struggling to build a coalition against China

“As tensions continue to mount in the waters surrounding the contested islands of the South China Sea, a US navy aircraft carrier conducted exercises in the region on August 17. This came after the Trump administration hardened the US’s longstanding neutral position on China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.
In May 1995, following China’s occupation of Mischief Reef in the South China Sea – which is also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan – the US announced that it would take “no position on the legal merits of the competing claims to sovereignty over the various islands, reefs, atolls and cays in the South China Sea”.

But the US has not remained neutral on how the multiple disputes in the region should be managed or resolved – something we’ve written about in a recent book.

In July 2020, US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, took things one step further when he stated that most of China’s claims to offshore resources in the South China Sea were unlawful. Four years after a ruling by the South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal, which found China’s claims had no basis in international law, the US has now endorsed that ruling.

Pompeo’s statement was followed a few days later by a speech from the US secretary of defense, Mark Esper, in which he accused China of “brazen disregard of international commitments”. He said China had bullied nations around the Pacific, and that its aggressive tactics in the South China Sea obstructed other countries’ rights to fishing and natural resources.”

“In contrast to Australia, south-east Asian states such as the Philippines are more reticent about working with the US to rein in China’s expansionism.

The inherent contradictions between the Trump administration’s America First strategy and the current calls for a coalition against China remain a sticking point. Trump has never attended an East Asia Summit, and his administration’s denigration of regional alliances has reduced American capacity to create a coalition of like-minded partners to support its position in the South China Sea.

Rhetorical posturing against China will not inspire regional allies to rally to America’s side while it trumpets its America First policy. A better US strategy would be to rebuild relations with democratic allies, such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and even Indonesia. But the Trump administration’s attempts to permanently harden US policy towards China, without prior consultation with the rest of the world, will make it harder to build much needed collective resilience against China’s activities in the South China Sea.”

Trump Is Trying To Take Away Americans’ Access to Popular Apps by Executive Order

“The Trump administration has been hyping its hate for TikTok (and, now, WeChat) as a national security matter. That premise is incredibly thin.

Yes, China’s government could compel U.S. user data from Bytedance, but it’s hard to imagine for what purpose it would do this or how this would somehow threaten the country’s safety. It’s not as if TikTok requires users to submit especially sensitive data. And if the kind of data users provide TikTok really is a huge threat in Beijing’s hands, then this threat extends to all digital tools made in China. For that matter: The U.S. government can pry user records from American tech companies—and while the Chinese Communist Party poses little threat to individual Americans outside China, the American authorities can use your data to punish you.”

5 real steps the US could take to help Uighurs in China

“For several years now, China has been systematically repressing its Uighur Muslim minority in the western province of Xinjiang — millions of Uighurs have been detained in “reeducation” camps, where they are subjected to grievous human rights abuses including torture, sexual abuse, forced sterilization, family separation, and brainwashing.

Those Uighurs in Xinjiang who manage to avoid the camps still live under oppressive government surveillance and draconian restrictions aimed at erasing their religious and cultural traditions.”

In Pushing Back against China, U.S. Finds Few Allies

“That Merkel is simply misguided on the threat China poses, as Fulda believes, is certainly possible. However, given the political climate, there is likely a graver impulse behind Merkel’s placating remarks: fear of retribution. After all, Merkel is far from the only prominent politician to skirt the issue of the CCP’s atrocious human-rights record — far from the only politician to pretend that the Chinese government is a fair party on which one can count to honor its agreements and to act with benevolence.

Last month, representatives of Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Poland, and the Czech Republic on the U.N. Human Rights Council, among others, refused to condemn China for its encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy — a serious blow to a unified Western countermovement against the CCP’s actions. In all, just 27 governments expressed criticism of China’s oppression law, with 53 in favor and the rest staying silent. Just as it is hard to believe that Angela Merkel is oblivious to the crimes China is committing, it is hard to believe that only 27 governments actually found fault with an effective ban on free expression and self-determination for Hong Kongers. (Granted, fewer governments around the world are democratic than one accustomed to Western laws might believe.) Rather, history has likely taught many nations that it is more expedient to keep their mouth shut than to take a firm stance on the global superpower with the world’s second-largest economy.”

“It is difficult to summon the moral courage to openly condemn a global superpower such as China, especially when large GDP growth and stable diplomatic relations are on the line. In any case, it would appear that the United States, in enacting sanctions against Chinese officials for abusing Uighur Muslims, terminating trade benefits for now-CCP-controlled Hong Kong, closing the Chinese consulate in Houston, and imposing export controls on corporations enabling China’s activity, stands virtually alone on China.

To be sure, there is an occasional discontinuity between the Trump administration’s official policy and the president’s rhetoric. As Trump himself has admitted, he had little desire to press China on its treatment of Uighur Muslims in the middle of trade negotiations with the nation in late 2018, even though top White House officials were already viewing the situation with concern. And as late as February 29, weeks after the CIA had already warned that China had vastly underreported its coronavirus infections and that its information was unreliable, Trump stated in a COVID-19 briefing: “China seems to be making tremendous progress. Their numbers are way down. . . . I think our relationship with China is very good. We just did a big trade deal. We’re starting on another trade deal with China — a very big one. And we’ve been working very closely. They’ve been talking to our people, we’ve been talking to their people, having to do with the virus.” But despite occasional confusion, the commitment to a solidly anti-Beijing foreign policy has been perhaps clearer in the Trump administration than in the government of any other country besides India and Taiwan. This is reflected not only in the U.S.’s recent policies but in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s denunciation of Xi, last week, as a “true believer in a bankrupt, totalitarian ideology” and in his insistence that the United States “induce China to change” lest Communist China “surely change us.””

“barring a massive change in European attitudes and in the fragile economic positions of nations such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the United States will not have many reliable allies in the fight against China’s most egregious abuses. The courageous pro-democracy residents of Hong Kong, as well as a few nations including Taiwan, India, and Israel, are notable but rare exceptions.”

The High Risk of Learning the Wrong China Lessons

“Numerous studies completed since the original China Shock research reveal fewer American jobs lost; significant consumer benefits in terms of lower prices and increased variety; substantial employment gains in services and export-oriented industries; and net economic benefits for the U.S. manufacturing sector and the country as a whole. Even if one were to treat the China Shock as economic gospel and pin most job-losses on PNTR, moreover, perspective on this damage is sorely needed: the 2 million American jobs destroyed over a 12-year period are less than the average weekly unemployment filings in April through June of this year, and even in normal times, the 1 million manufacturing jobs attributable to the China Shock would constitute less than 20 percent of all such losses (and less than 5 percent of all job losses) over the same period. Does that demand radical policy changes?”

“Recent analyses also show that U.S. low-skill manufacturing employment and “late stage” industries with routine, standardized processes likely would have suffered the same fate in the last two decades, regardless of the China Shock, due to non-trade issues like automation and competition from other developing countries. In fact, the data show that manufacturing jobs as a share of the U.S. workforce experienced only a modest change in their downward trend before and after China entered the WTO, and that Chinese imports replaced other imports (particularly those from Asia), not domestic production, between 1990 and 2017.”

“China’s WTO accession took more than 15 years and required dozens of intergovernmental meetings, negotiating texts, and Chinese economic reforms (not just the aforementioned tariff reductions)—reforms shown to have been so significant as to have fueled China’s post-WTO export competitiveness. The United States, meanwhile, was the final holdout among large industrialized nations to approve China’s WTO accession via bilateral negotiations, demanding ever more concessions from the Chinese government—including the right to impose special duties on Chinese imports—over a contentious 13-year negotiation. Key Clinton administration speeches and policy documents also demonstrate that U.S.–Chinese engagement was primarily a pragmatic decision to achieve commercial and foreign policy objectives, not “democratization.””

“The current obsession with China’s WTO entry also ignores myriad U.S. policy failures that actually did enable China or harm American companies and workers. Most notably, successive U.S. administrations pursued far too few WTO disputes in response to real Chinese trade infractions, despite the fact that global trade rules discipline key irritants like industrial subsidies and intellectual property, and that aggressive litigation has proven effective in curbing Chinese abuses. Other U.S. policy failures include the United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a treaty that was designed in part to counterbalance China’s economic and geopolitical ambitions; its failure to reform tax, trade, and immigration policies that inhibit American companies’ global competitiveness; its failure to modernize adjustment assistance and worker retraining programs intended to mitigate trade, technological, or cultural disruptions; or its continued imposition of tax, education, occupational licensing, criminal justice, zoning, and other policies that leave American workers unprepared to compete in a global economy or discourage adjustment and recovery when disruptions occur.”

“China’s rise and the bilateral relationship arguably present this generation’s most pressing geopolitical issue, and the Communist Party’s human rights abuses, territorial expansionism, global health transgressions, and economic reversals deserve American scorn and response. Just as real and important are the seismic labor market and cultural disruptions that have upended many American families and communities. The proposed solutions to these problems, however, should stand on their own merit, not by pretending that they are an essential correction of the “mistakes” of PNTR and economic engagement with China more broadly. Doing so relieves such plans of the scrutiny they deserve, and could lead to truly bad governance: increasing U.S. protectionism and nativism, fomenting armed conflict, ignoring past policy mistakes, and thwarting a political consensus for real policy solutions to very real challenges—including and especially China.”

How China’s Clamp Down on Hong Kong Could Affect the Global Internet

“Many U.S. companies only partially operate on the mainland, and some of them are basically shut out. Having offices in Hong Kong lets them have a footprint in China without being openly subject to CCP rule”

“China is exerting more direct control of Hong Kong through the Committee for Safeguarding National Security and another new body called the “Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” which is totally under the control of the mainland and not subject to Hong Kong jurisdiction at all. As the lines between the CCP and Hong Kong governance become blurrier, it becomes harder to claim you do not collaborate with or enable foreign governments that operate ethnic concentration camps.
And the NSL asks for much collaboration. Article 43 of the NSL empowers Hong Kong police with authorities to investigate suspected subversion. Specifically, law enforcement can “[require] a person who published information or the relevant service provider [i.e. technology company] to delete the information or provide assistance” including decryption. If the service provider refuses, the police can petition for a warrant to force the intended digital deeds.

In other words, to operate in Hong Kong, a technology company, foreign or domestic, must accept being deputized as a CCP informant. Failure to comply means possible fines of up to $100,000 HKD (around $13,000 USD) and six months in prison.

There are also provisions for surveillance.”