Disinformation is only one of a range of tools deployed by Russia and China in practicing a unique form of authoritarian political warfare: comprehensive coercion, according to a new analysis from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Unlike most Western nations, both authoritarian regimes share three distinctive characteristics, says the report, Countering Comprehensive Coercion: Competitive Strategies Against Authoritarian Political Warfare:
- long histories of engaging in political warfare;
- deep insecurities that drive them to embrace a particularly aggressive brand of political warfare, and
- highly centralized governments that allow them to integrate and coordinate diverse elements of political warfare.
Although Russia and China are “predisposed to use political warfare often and aggressively due to their historical experiences and strategic cultures —and adept at leveraging and integrating political warfare tools thanks to their centralized governments”— this option is attractive for other reasons too, the authors note:
- First, political warfare is less escalatory than military threats and less costly than military conflict.
- Second, it is also a less ambitious alternative to military conflict, insofar as the main goal is not hard victories, but simply sowing doubt, creating confusion, and imposing costs.
- And third, technological change has provided new avenues to engage in manipulation with a lower probability of attribution, in addition to creating new ways to flood target populations with disinformation.
China often conducts its political warfare operations through the CCP’s United Front Work Department, employing a range of what Mao and Xi have called ‘magic weapons’, notes analyst Ross Babbage, a co-author of the report. The communist regime is actively exploiting the openness and freedoms that are part of democracy’s DNA, he writes for the Strategist.