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As the PRC’s Propaganda Machine Matures, the Indo-Pacific Needs a Hub to Counter Hybrid Threats

Dr. Jake Wallis/Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Under an assertive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is building a global propaganda system designed to reshape the international order.

This is a more complex challenge than that posed by other authoritarian states in the information domain, even more so than Russia’s disruptive integration of disinformation with foreign interference and subversion. This is because under Xi, the PRC’s ambition is much greater and the party-state’s projection of state power has more weight than other revisionist powers. The PRC can apply coercive statecraft to both project political power and impose cost. It has signaled this leverage to strategic competitors in increasingly obvious ways. The party-state, for example, has targeted Western corporations with consumer boycotts mobilized by state propaganda to deter public comment on issues such as human rights abuses in Xinjiang or Hong Kong.

Australia faced a barrage of trade tariffs, described by the PRC’s former ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, as an expression of the Chinese people’s wrath, following then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s suggestion of an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. At a particularly low point in the Australia-China relationship, then-Chinese foreign affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian posted to Twitter, now known as X, a fake image of an Australian Soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child. The fabricated image, which was used to reference an investigation into alleged war crimes by Australian forces in Afghanistan, was originally distributed on Chinese social media. 

Within an hour of the tweet, Morrison called a news conference to respond. He also spoke out on WeChat, a Chinese-owned social media platform, saying that as a democracy, Australia was prepared to hold up a mirror to its flaws. Within minutes of the post, his WeChat account was suspended. This interaction demonstrates how the PRC exploits the information domain, disseminating propaganda on Western social media where free speech is protected while censoring messages intended for the Chinese people.

The trajectory of the CCP’s information operations indicates that once-clumsy efforts are becoming sophisticated, a reflection of the party-state’s persistent investment. Moreover, widespread pro-democracy demonstrations and protests in Hong Kong induced a greater appetite for risk from the party-state. 

The CCP’s focus shifted from interest in topics such as the Hong Kong protests, the 2020 Taiwan presidential election and the origins of COVID-19 to foreign interference in United States domestic politics. The same sets of information operations assets that had focused on the Hong Kong protests pivoted to exploit domestic protests in the U.S. 

Over a few years, the CCP’s techniques quickly matured from early attempts at interfering in Taiwan elections, which included linguistic mistakes in attempting to write posts in traditional Chinese to influence Taiwan voters. By the time the CCP started targeting the U.S., CCP information operations could overwhelm algorithmic and human defenses on most social media platforms. For example, the CCP asset Spamouflage Dragon could quickly spread misinformation across leading platforms in the U.S., including Facebook, X and YouTube. The CCP also advanced its capabilities by experimenting with artificial intelligence to auto-translate video content, generate profile pictures for fake social media accounts and develop deepfake videos.

The challenge in analyzing the CCP’s information operations as they exploit social media is to situate them within the context of the CCP’s strategic goals. The party attempts to operationalize the doctrine that emerges from Xi and the Politburo, its decision-making body. Under Xi, the party’s aspirations are ambitious. Propaganda is a political warfare tool, and it can be aligned with other coercive statecraft to take strategic advantage.

Democracies assumed globalization and economic relationships would draw the PRC into the rules-based order. They underestimated the Chinese party-state’s willingness to weaponize interdependence by exploiting economic relationships, diaspora communities and asymmetric access to the information environments of open democracies. To Australia’s north and northeast, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have signed agreements under the PRC’s One Belt, One Road infrastructure scheme. Solomon Islands also has a security agreement with the Chinese government. Australia finds its freedom to maneuver constrained.

While public opinion polls in the West show increasing concern that the PRC is a security threat, the CCP’s propaganda pays dividends elsewhere. In certain resource-rich regions, the CCP’s propaganda gains traction. In Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, the CCP can contest core value propositions such as human rights and economic development, offering a different model of governance.

From left, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden and United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak discuss their nations’ trilateral partnership at U.S. Naval Base Point Loma San Diego, California, in March 2023. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

To contest the CCP’s propaganda, disinformation and political warfare, the Indo-Pacific, which is increasingly the focus of great power competition, should develop resilience to hybrid threats. The region contains a spectrum of political systems and states at various stages of economic development. There also has been some democratic backsliding, and the security architecture does not offer the same collectivity as European nations have demonstrated in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Europe does have some models that might be adapted. The European Union and NATO fund the Helsinki, Finland-based European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. Despite the Indo-Pacific’s complex security architecture, there is a growing appetite for collaboration among partners, both traditional and nontraditional, to maintain strategic balance in the region. Issues such as economic coercion, foreign interference, maritime coercion and cyber intrusion exert political pressure on states across the region and threaten the growing prosperity that has emerged from free and open trade.

The Indo-Pacific, and Southeast Asia in particular, is young, with more than half the world’s millennial population, and well-educated. These are powerful drivers of economic growth. The Indo-Pacific contributes 60% of global gross domestic product and by 2030 will be home to 2.4 billion new members of the global middle class. Regional partners recognize the significance of this contribution to global prosperity. Canada, the EU, the United Kingdom and the U.S. each has an Indo-Pacific strategy. New partnerships, such as that among Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., and the Quad partnership of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., are designed to deter an Indo-Pacific conflict that would threaten the rules-based international order. A hybrid threats center focused on the Indo-Pacific would help develop societal resilience in response to national security threats beneath the kinetic threshold, including disinformation, foreign interference, subversion, economic coercion and cyber intrusion.

The PRC does not need to directly assert its territorial aspirations in the region with force. While there is great — and justifiable — concern that Xi might order the People’s Liberation Army to attack self-governed Taiwan, the party-state may continue its attempt to wear down the resolve of Taiwan’s people through campaigns of political interference and subversion, economic coercion and military pressure beneath the kinetic threshold. These forms of coercive statecraft threaten Taiwan and the region’s strategic balance. They offer a threatening demonstration that Beijing will use its might aggressively to assert its interests over others. Whether this sharp statecraft targets the U.S. or its allies, it constrains the capacity of the region’s democratic partners to maneuver politically, diplomatically, economically and militarily, blunting the tools of democratic statecraft.

The collective approach to security in Europe has allowed the EU and NATO, along with a set of core partner states, to fund the hybrid threats center, which undertakes research and capacity-building programs to enhance its members’ response capabilities. The Indo-Pacific would benefit from a similar construct. The region remains complex in terms of its relationships, partnerships, competing interests and security architecture. Yet deterrence is fundamental to convincing an assertive PRC that the international order can be maintained. That deterrence can only be achieved through collectivity, and it is better that the region collectively responds to coercion now than for the Indo-Pacific to descend into the carnage that has engulfed Ukraine.  

This article is based on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s report “Countering the Hydra: A proposal for an Indo-Pacific hybrid threat centre,” which originally was published in June 2022 on the ASPI website. To read the full report, visit:

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