June 19, 2024

China is now engaged in open hybrid warfare against the West

China is now engaged in open hybrid warfare against the West

China is now engaged in open hybrid warfare against the West

04 May 2024
By Matthew Henderson

Conflict rages in Gaza and Ukraine, and tensions heighten over Taiwan. In Beijing, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has just held difficult talks with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. Despite Xi Jinping’s statement at a joint press conference that the US and China should “seek common ground … rather than engage in vicious competition”, efforts at detente seem to have been fruitless.

Yet in the midst of a worsening geostrategic crisis, President Biden last week signed a bill into law threatening a ban on TikTok, a social media app enjoyed by millions of young people worldwide. What does this curious nexus of events tell us?

In essence, the inane appeal of TikTok is at the heart of the matter. Social media activity has gripped a new global generation, and there are few limits to the access such platforms have to data owned by their users.
Since TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, is Chinese, it is obliged by law to serve the Chinese state. There have been allegations in turn that information collected by TikTok is exploited by the Chinese state, which is why Western governments including the UK and US have forbidden its use on government devices. There is also considerable suspicion that the algorithms used on the platform are used to present users with politically useful narratives.

If ByteDance refuses to sell the platform, and instead allows it to be banned or closed down, many will take this as an indication that Beijing would value control of sensitive algorithms more than the prosperity of the company that uses them. All indications are that China would block any sale.

The issue, however, is larger than one app. The Chinese Communist Party has weaponized every aspect of its interactions with the outside world with the aim of undermining, defeating and supplanting the West as the arbiter of global norms. After years of blind denial or compromised silence, in the past couple of weeks there has been a remarkable surge of Western media attention on how far and fast this process is progressing.

A few instances stand out. In Beijing this week, Mr Blinken said that the US and China needed to be clear what their differences are, “to avoid miscalculations”. This evidently included Chinese support for Vladimir Putin, which Mr Blinken described as “helping to fuel the biggest threat” to Europe’s security in a generation. For his part, Wang Yi went over well-worn complaints about the South China Sea and Taiwan, and urged the US “not to interfere in China’s internal affairs” or “step on China’s red lines on China’s sovereignty, security and development”. No sign, in sum, of reduced tensions, let alone better relations.

Confronting the realities behind growing US-China alienation, the British government is starting to indicate in public that it too has a problem with China. Intelligence identifying Chinese cyber-attacks on MPs, sat on for two years, is now public. Last week, the director of the security services briefed universities on the threat posed by “hostile states” intent on plundering British research.

Meanwhile, Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, said that he had just “announced an independent review to look into cyber security” in Britain’s critical national infrastructure (CNI). Last year, FBI director Christopher Wray told Five Eyes allies that a Chinese hacker group had penetrated US CNI, giving Beijing the ability to “wreak havoc” in preparation for “a devastating blow”. We may suppose that matters are similar here.

China under Xi Jinping is making use of all the vulnerabilities it can find or create in liberal Western societies. Its tactics include coercive diplomacy, proxy war through hostile states, political espionage and influence operations, disinformation and propaganda, data theft, cyber attacks and more in pursuing its goals.

This is classic hybrid warfare, for which Xi has ordered “combat readiness”. How long before we are ready to defend ourselves and our allies from this grim reality?

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The Telegraph