Taking on China’s Information War on Hong Kong

Also: India’s no first-use, F-16s to Taiwan, the Pacific Islands Forum

The Big One.

American social media companies crack down.

For the first time, American social media companies have alleged that China sought to implement a social media manipulation campaign in an attempt to sway global opinion over this summer’s protests in Hong Kong. Both Twitter and Facebook released statements on the matter on the same day. A couple excerpts from both companies’ public statements are worth reviewing.

Twitter:

Overall, these accounts were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground. Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation. [emphasis added]

Facebook:

The individuals behind this campaign engaged in a number of deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts — some of which had been already disabled by our automated systems — to manage Pages posing as news organizations, post in Groups, disseminate their content, and also drive people to off-platform news sites. They frequently posted about local political news and issues including topics like the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government. [emphasis added]

Both companies have remarkably put out an assessment that the operations on their platforms—both of which remain banned behind China’s Great Firewall—were conducted at the direction of the Chinese government. (Admittedly, the Twitter statement is clearer about this charge.)

A few observations on this development:

  • I suspect Twitter and Facebook, by being proactive over Hong Kong, are attempting to get ahead of the sort of criticism that ensued over their relative inaction during the 2016 U.S. elections. This case—while having nothing to do with U.S. politics per se—serves as a strong signal to policymakers scrutinizing the companies that they’re taking more steps to counter state-backed information operations on their platforms.

  • The step is likely to have real costs. This is more the case with Facebook, which is rumored to have longstanding interests in entering the Chinese market in some form. 

  • China delving into overseas information operations over social media has long been suspected, but this presents the clearest evidence. What is debatable is what the Communist Party is hoping to achieve. Part of the impulse seems to be to turn global opinion against the cause of the protesters—perhaps with the aim of eventually decreasing the costs of any intervention by the People’s Armed Policy should that become necessary.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official statement merits some consideration. Spokesperson Geng Shuang said the following in answer to a question on the charges of state-backed disinformation over the two platforms:

I believe you shall know the attitude of the 1.4 billion Chinese on the situation in Hong Kong. You must also know the attitude of overseas Chinese, including Chinese students, through media reports. I believe they have the rights to express their opinions and viewpoints.

Geng’s remark on the rights of mainland Chinese (he didn’t concede that these were information operations) is particularly ironic given that they lack these rights within China.

This is unlikely to be the last we hear of this. I suspect also that Taiwan, where concerns about China’s United Front operations taking on online dimensions are spiking ahead of coming elections, will be very interested. Future operations, for instance, might not repeat the mistakes that allowed these to be sifted out. Based on the evidence Twitter and Facebook released, many of the images being shared by the fake accounts appeared to be clunky and trumped up, giving away their inauthentic nature. That might not be the case next time.

Bottom Line: Twitter and Facebook have taken the gloves off in their push back against Chinese state-backed information operations on their platforms.

Bonus: Don’t miss the latest episode of the Asia Geopolitics with The Diplomat’s Editor-in-Chief Shannon Tiezzi on the protests in Hong Kong.

Introducing Diplomat Risk Intelligence.

I’m excited to introduce a new offering from The Diplomat. Diplomat Risk Intelligence is the new consulting and analysis division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine. To learn more, click here.

South Asia.

Recent remarks by Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh on nuclear policy have focused attention once again on New Delhi’s continued commitment to the “no first use” nuclear policy enshrined in its 2003 nuclear doctrine. Speaking at Pokhran, where India had detonated weaponized nuclear devices in 1998, Singh said, “Till today, our nuclear policy is ‘no first use.’” He added: “What happens in future depends on the circumstances.”

The comments have refocused interest on the inviolability—or rather lack thereof—of India’s nuclear posture. I shared some thoughts over at The Diplomat:

This latest watering-down of the credibility of Indian NFU will serve to validate long-standing suspicions in Islamabad and Beijing regarding Indian intentions. Neither of these nuclear adversaries have ever believed India’s ‘no first use’ policy—just as analysts in New Delhi regularly cast doubt on China’s ‘no first use’ pledge, which has been in place since 1964.

Singh’s decision to make the comment that he did on ‘no first use’ appears highly calculated. After his verbal remarks at Pokhran became news, he followed up with a tweet, reiterating the government’s position.

The tweet repeated the language: “Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atal Ji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of ‘No First Use’. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.”

Singh followed up with his remark that “India attaining the status of a responsible nuclear nation became a matter of national pride for every citizen of this country,” hinting at perhaps the reasoning on his broader comment on ‘no first use.’

Read more here.

Security scholars Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang write in the Hindustan Times that Singh’s comment, while not an upending of the existing nuclear doctrine in itself, effectively throws “into question India’s commitment to adhere to what is now a crumbling pillar of India’s nuclear doctrine.” Clary and Narang have documented how successive Indian governments—Congress and BJP-led alike—have made significant investments in new precision weaponry and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities that would serve to underwrite any shift in nuclear doctrine or policy away from “no first use.”

Indian doctrine might not change today—or even tomorrow—but if it did, don’t say you were surprised. New Delhi has been putting in the investments to realize a change over the years. The consequences, however, would be dangerous.

Bottom Line: The Indian defense minister’s calibrated comment on the country’s nuclear posture may foreshadow important changes in South Asia.

Asia Defense.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of State announced the approval of a possible sale to Taiwan of 66 F-16C/D Block 70 fighters. The sale, if it took place, would come in at $8 billion and easily weigh in as the most significant U.S. arms sale to Taiwan in over two decades. The full release—including the list of material being sold—is available here.

The sale is controversial among American security analysts, many of whom (myself included) see fighters as less of a strategic bounty for Taipei, and more as a serious payout for the defense establishment here. Taiwan, of course, has expressed interest in procuring these weapons, but their primary use lies in peacetime, when they can be used to protect Taiwanese airspace from incursions. In wartime, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force—the Republic of China Air Force’s main opponent—would enjoy swift air superiority.

Particularly for the sum at stake—$8 billion—there could be a range of purchases that would qualitatively ameliorate Taipei’s position across the Strait. The focus should be on developing Taiwanese anti-access capabilities: capabilities that could convey to the PLA that the cost for taking the island of Taiwan will stay high and get even higher.

My colleague Franz-Stefan Gady reports on why Taiwan requested the F-16s:

According to the Taipei Times, Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, at the opening of the Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition on August 15 reiterated her intention to buy U.S. fighter jets. “We need to constantly enhance our air defense capability,” she was quoted as saying in an interview. “I hope we can have more F-16 jets.” The Taiwanese president also expressed mild frustration over U.S. foot-dragging over the sale. “I also hope that the US government can make a decision after they complete their internal process,” she said.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense officially requested the F-16 fighter aircraft from the U.S. in March to “demonstrate our determination and ability to defend ourselves,” according to the country’s Deputy Defense Minister Shen Yi-ming. The last sale of U.S. fighter jets to Taiwan took place in 1992, under the George H.W. Bush administration. The defense ministry is also reportedly interested in procuring the F-35B, the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of Lockheed Martin’s supersonic fifth-generation fighter jet.

Either way, this year—which marks the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act—is turning into a big one for U.S. arms sale to Taipei. The State Department just weeks ago had approved two separate arms packages at $2.2 billion and $223.56 million each. Specifically, State approved the sale of 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks and support equipment. The additional package included the sale of 250 Block I -92F MANPAD Stinger missiles and four I-92F MANPAD Stinger Fly-to-Buy missiles.

The lingering question—and unease—behind the most recent approved sale of fighters is whether the administration is setting Taiwan up as a political football to be used in broader negotiations with China over trade. American fighter sales to Taiwan have a storied history as far as Chinese sensitivities go and the Trump administration may yet seek to leverage that. Doing so would be disastrous for the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, however, and there are a number of high-level Trump advisers who have a genuine long-term record of support for Taipei.

Bottom Line: U.S. arms sales to Taiwan continue their high tempo this year.

Don’t Miss It: Japan officially selected the Lockheed Martin F-35B for its short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) capable fighter. The F-35B is likely to deploy on Tokyo’s Izumo-class multipurpose destroyers, which are effectively light carriers.

Oceania.

The South Pacific just hit an important institutional milestone. The Pacific Islands Forum met for its 50th iteration this year. The meeting came as the region’s geopolitical profile has grown, given rising interest in the United States and elsewhere in a region that composes the southeastern bounds of the broader Indo-Pacific region. 

Balaji Chandramohan looks at the stakes of the 50th PIF in a feature for The Diplomat

...the Pacific Islands Forum’s 50th anniversary provided a full display of the complexity of geopolitics in the Pacific Islands and the South Pacific. Apart from the Melanesian and Polynesian countries competing for the regional influence, the PIF saw the continued relevance of the West Papua issue. Australia and New Zealand took different approaches to some of the major issues facing the island nations.

And, of course, India and China also reaffirmed and so extended their influence in the South Pacific in an effort to have a significant impact on the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Read more.

Also, related to the PIF, don’t miss a recent interview with the prime minster of Fiji in the Guardian. Frank Bainimarama has some sharp words for his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison.

Don’t Miss It: Japan doesn’t intend to get left behind as the rest of Asia’s powers intensify their outreach to the South Pacific. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono just wrapped up a four-country trip across the region, stopping in Fiji, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. Read more from The Diplomat’s Grant Wyeth.

Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan is in the throes of a political crisis that has pitted the current president and his predecessor—once allies—against each other. A glimpse of how crazy things have gotten: “On August 13, the Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General’s Office said Atambayev (the former president) will face charges of using violence against representatives of the authorities, organizing mass unrest, illegal weapons possession, kidnapping and as RFE/RL phrased it ‘masterminding a murder attempt.’”

I spoke to The Diplomat’s Managing Editor Catherine Putz, one of the foremost American voices on the region, about the stakes in the crisis on a recent podcast episode. Listen here to get up to speed.

This newsletter is written by Ankit Panda, senior editor for The Diplomat, and director of research at Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at ankit@thediplomat.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.