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China’s calculated plan to break Australia

Beijing cares about what we think. It just doesn’t care about what we think of it. Which is why the wolf warrior assault on Australia’s special forces crisis is a wedge targeted at the very heart of our democracy.JBC Digital Technology, Security and Governance researcher Dr Zac Rogers says this week’s diplomatic aggression is a…

Beijing cares about what we think. It just doesn’t care about what we think of it. Which is why the wolf warrior assault on Australia’s special forces crisis is a wedge targeted at the very heart of our democracy.

JBC Digital Technology, Security and Governance researcher Dr Zac Rogers says this week’s diplomatic aggression is a “quite an extraordinary turn of events”.

But not entirely unexpected.

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It’s a major escalation of an ongoing “hybrid war” between Australia and China, fought out on the battlefields of diplomacy, economics and public opinion.

It’s about injecting a divisive message into Australia’s internal and international debates.

It has achieved a resounding success.

Australia just suffered an information war Pearl Harbor. A tweet has gone viral. All the world now knows about Australia’s alleged war crimes.

The world knows Prime Minister Scott Morrison has failed to extract an apology from Beijing.

And Australia’s extreme sensitivity to this matter of national pride has been laid bare.

But, most of all, Australia is now at war with itself over democratic matters of trust, transparency and credibility.

Beijing can now sit back, ignore any outrage – and watch its “disinformation virus” wreak its havoc.

“Notwithstanding, Beijing can overplay this, and it may have already,” Dr Rogers said. “Its willingness to publicly and officially shame another country with simulated media will give every country that deals with Beijing pause.”

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PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE

China is an economic powerhouse. It’s navy is now larger than that of the United States.

Chairman Xi and his wolf warrior diplomats have cause to be confident.

“Beijing has no interest in what we think,” Dr Rogers said. “The asymmetry is extreme in terms of transactional power, and perhaps they have lost interest in relational power. Hubris takes over from there.”

Which is why Beijing doesn’t care about being called out for hypocrisy. To its wolf warrior diplomats, that’s irrelevant. None of their home audience can read the counter arguments anyway: Twitter is banned in China.

RELATED: Stunning hypocrisy of China’s tweet

What it is about is the damage one tweet has done to an international political target.

“I see the tweet as an attempt to capitalise on circumstances with an active measure. Active measures involve disinformation that takes on a life of its own,” Dr Rogers said.

“Active measure” is a phrase assigned to a weaponised lie. Traditionally, it’s called propaganda.

“[Political scientist] Thomas Rid wrote that active measures in the current information environment are more active and less measured than ever before. They are dangerous and can blowback in unpredictable ways. I think this is a significant misstep by Beijing,” he said.

Truth is vulnerable. Opinions can be shaped. Trust can be undermined.

In the case of Beijing, it believes it is invulnerable to any backlash. Internal media and discourse is carefully stage-managed. And there is a “Great Firewall” blocking all external social media and heavily censoring its own.

Democracies, however, pride themselves on debate, even though governments dislike being cross-examined or called to account.

And that makes them vulnerable.

“In terms of generating reaction, the tweet has had an immediate effect. But the ongoing implications are unclear, and Beijing is not in control,” Dr Rogers said.

AN ARROW TO THE HEART

The doctored image is carefully crafted and thought out.

The soldier is in Australian uniform. He holds a knife to the throat of a veiled child whose innocence is emphasised by the kid goat in their hands.

Strewn beneath are the national flags of Australia and Afghanistan.

Dr Rogers sees three main targets and purposes for the tweet.

“The tweet targets the morale of Australian servicemen and women, both currently serving and the veteran community. Morale is already low after the IGADF report. The tensions within defence are under strain, and this disinfo exacerbates that,” he said.

“It also targets the divisions with Australian society over the status and function of the military – the normal frictions that always exist in rule-of-law societies around civilian/military relations. As David Kilcullen wrote in The Australian, there is a question of political accountability here too.

“Finally, it targets the trust that the ADF enjoys with its international partners, particularly in our region. An undermining of that status assists Beijing’s goal of fracturing regional solidarity.”

Australia is a nation that presents itself to the world as a trusted “middle power”. A nation that puts principle on a pedestal. A nation deserving of trust.

China has lost such trust through its belligerent behaviour towards Japan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and a host of trading partners.

But its diplomats don’t care. The Chinese Communist Party is striving for complete control at home. The forces of the People’s Liberation Army are rapidly overtaking those of the US. Its economic influence is already second to none.

So why bother backing down?

“Once we’ve given up communicating, the danger level rises on everything,” Dr Rogers said.

DEMOCRACY ITS OWN DEFENCE

The debate was already there. It’s how democracies remain healthy. But it’s something authoritarian governments around the world have become experts at exploiting.

Allegations of cold-blooded killings by Australia’s elite SAS soldiers came as a shock to a nation built upon a Gallipoli “Digger” tradition. Then Federal Police raided the ABC headquarters in 2019 in an attempt to unmask the whistleblowers. Defamation suits were filed. National security interests were evoked. Many years later, a heavily redacted report was reluctantly released.

The resulting allegations of cover-up and political intimidation offer explosive potential for Beijing’s undeclared psychological warfare.

All it took was one tweet to inflame this deep, divisive wound.

Accountability. Transparency. These proclaimed tenets of democracy are its own defence.

It takes the wind out of an authoritarian’s sails.

Australia is publicly addressing the allegations of murder by its most prestigious troops. That puts it on a moral high ground, above Beijing’s own response to the Tiananmen Square massacre, Uighur cultural cleansing and suppression of dissent in Hong Kong, for example.

Australian citizens are free to criticise their own government, military, opposition, legal and diplomatic processes (unless you’re a public servant). China’s citizens are actively repressed.

But accusations of whistleblower and media intimidation through Federal Police raids and political outrage leaves Australia exposed.

And that’s the weak spot Beijing’s wolf warriors will continue to target.

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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