On the Chinese Regime’s Number One Goal; the India-China Standoff; and the Fall of Hong Kong—Cleo Paskal
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), we sit down with Cleo Paskal, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, to discuss what nations like the United States and Canada can learn from India’s approach to China.
In Hong Kong, almost every prominent pro-democracy activist and lawmaker has been arrested, prompting growing concerns in Taiwan that Taiwan will soon be next. Paskal argues that if the United States allows Taiwan to fall, much of southeast Asia will soon succumb to the Chinese regime’s influence.
Jan Jekielek: I’m here with Cleo Paskal at CPAC 2021. You were one of the panelists talking about the region around China. We’re talking about India, we’re talking about Japan, we’re talking about the South China Sea. Of course, we’re talking about Taiwan. We’re also going to talk today—and this is most interesting—about how this is all incredibly relevant to America and Canada, which is the home nation for both of us. So let’s start there.
Cleo Paskal: The countries that are around China, they know China the best. They’ve been dealing with it for the longest. So if you talk to Vietnam, for example, yes, they beat the Americans. Yes, they beat the French. But what they care about is they beat China twice. They know these countries. These countries have been dealing with Chinese political warfare, economic warfare, and actual warfare for the longest time. India was attacked in ’62. They know China. So learning from them about what the problem is, what the challenge is, and how potentially to fight back has been very helpful.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s really interesting, because I think India is the only country that’s actually fought China way up in the mountains and not so long ago even.
Ms. Paskal: June 2020. The Chinese soldiers did a very interesting thing, which told us a lot about them, which is, there’s a contested border area. They pushed through the border area, and long story short, they created an ambush situation. They killed the commanding officer of the Indian grouping. They thought that if you cut off the head of the chicken, that’s it, it’s finished. That wasn’t what happened. The Indian soldiers fought back very, very hard with clubs and sticks, and killed a lot of PLA soldiers. They’re not admitting how many, but at the same time, 20 Indian soldiers died.
Everybody in India after that knows the name of the soldiers, knows what China is and is completely unified behind dealing with China in very comprehensive ways—banning apps, blocking FDI, all sorts of comprehensive ways that are actually effective at blocking Chinese political, economic, and actual warfare.
Mr. Jekielek: First of all, just for the benefit of our audience, there were no guns up there. Both sides basically had whatever weapons they could use. The whole thing is a very interesting situation and hidden, and I’d love to dig into that a bit more. But the other piece—I think it’s even more important—is that America and other countries like Canada, we have a lot to learn from India here.
Ms. Paskal: I think so. Because what they understood was that China has this approach of comprehensive national power. This is the goal of the Chinese Communist Party, and it’s in all the think tanks. If you read their literature, the goal is to have China as the number one country in terms of comprehensive national power.
It’s an empirical calculation. What goes into that calculation is things like access to natural resources—yours or somebody else’s, if you can control them—intellectual property, foreign direct investment, human capital. All these things that we disaggregate into different categories, they combine into one category. And the goal is to be number one globally. You can do that two ways. One is you get better. The other is you knock everybody else down.
If you have an epidemic going through your country, and you think it’s going to affect you, under the logic of comprehensive national power, it makes sense to let people get on flights and turn it into a pandemic, so everybody else gets hit as well. Once you understand the psychology of comprehensive national power, the competitive aspect of it and how comprehensive it is, you realize that you can’t just fight back with guns and ships, although they’re very important. You also need to block Tik Tok, block WeChat, block money going into their stock market, block their market access to you. It’s very comprehensive.
Mr. Jekielek: I saw a tweet earlier this morning. Gavin Newsom posts a TikTok of X, Y, Z. They’re criticizing him for being in a restaurant. I was looking at this and thinking what is Gavin Newsome doing using TikTok?
Ms. Paskal: The thing about TikTok is—one of the reasons why they blocked it, why India’s blocked it, was that it sucks up enormous amounts of metadata, and they’re using the metadata to refine and weaponize AI systems. So if you block TikTok and WeChat, what you’re blocking is their ability to refine their AI which is a high priority for China in many different sectors. You’re restricting their ability to get compromising information on you, so blackmail or influence operations become more difficult.
If you’re using WeChat, all the companies that are outside of China that do business in China have to use WeChat, which means they know all of your business secrets so they can outcompete you. They know what you’re bidding and how much you’re paying for stuff.
Additionally, you’re increasing the value of their companies. When India blocked TikTok, it knocked about $6 billion off the valuation of ByteDance. That’s like a nice strong economic hit. So these things that seem like small things like banning Tik Tok actually are extremely effective for fighting back against this [CCP doctrine of] comprehensive national power.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s so interesting that you describe it this way because first of all, maybe people still don’t realize that the Chinese Communist Party or its apparatus has full access to the data in these apps. Why are they still here?
Ms. Paskal: This is another component of the comprehensive national power [doctrine]. Under that, one of the mechanisms they use to advance power are the “three warfares.” This is all overt Chinese Communist Party doctrine. You’ve got psychological warfare, media warfare, but also law warfare.
What happened in the case of WeChat was the U.S. and the previous administration said they were going to block it or ban it. Then this grassroots organization came out of nowhere [telling] WeChat users to launch a legal case to say their First Amendment rights are being restricted if you block WeChat. So they’re using our legal systems, the West’s legal systems, in a lawfare case to push the comprehensive national power push of access to our information through things like WeChat.
Our open systems, which are what makes the West great, are a tool that’s very effective for political warfare for the PRC, unless we call it out, unless we acknowledge it and say, this isn’t a grassroots organization, let’s track the funding of this organization.
Mr. Jekielek: I know we don’t have a lot of time right now. There’s so many things I want to talk to you about. Not only the U.S., but a number of countries now have been sending naval fleets through the South China Sea, presumably to establish the fact that it’s not Chinese. This is becoming a hot button, a hot area. We have Taiwan, we have all these military encroachments by China. Is there danger of a war right now? What’s happening?
Ms. Paskal: These are freedom of navigation operations, which basically say that these are international waters. It’s to the benefit not only just of the Western countries, but also of the other countries in the region, Taiwan and the Philippines, all the other countries that also say, these are not Chinese waters, … then we all have the right to transit through there.
It’s a region where there’s an enormous amount of trade that goes through, and China is trying to gain control over it. First of all, so it can use it as a jumping off base for military power projection beyond what’s called the first island chain, which would be beyond Taiwan, but also so that it can control commercial traffic through the region. It’s important to continue those freedom of navigation operations. But ultimately, the question is, what happens if China shoots or takes one of those small islands, like they did with Scarborough Shoal? What happens if they go for the Senkakus in Japan? What happens when they start to move?
Mr. Jekielek: They’ve actually built some islands.
Ms. Paskal: They have. Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s incredible. They say, these are here, so it’s our area.
Ms. Paskal: They took reefs and turned them into military bases and then claimed them, and one of them was contested with the Philippines, and the Philippines brought them to the Court of Arbitration of the International Law of the Sea. China lost and isn’t moving off.
This is another thing to understand: there’s a lot of talk about working with China on various international treaties. We did research in China and asked their think tank people and policy people whether they thought the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea will still be in effect in 2024. None of them said yes. There is no commitment to these agreements that we’re bending over backwards to get them to sign. So they’re getting the concessions from us, but they’re not going to be following through on their commitments.
Mr. Jekielek: This sounds like the strategy for the last 40 years or something. I don’t know how many it’s been. How many times have eager U.S.-Canadian administrations negotiators gotten some great arrangement—China’s going to reduce this, China’s going to do that—and it absolutely means nothing on the other side? But we take it really seriously. At what point do we realize that this isn’t going to happen, these things aren’t going to work?
Ms. Paskal: When they start killing American soldiers and Canadian soldiers and they take over Taiwan, we’re going to realize it, but the question is, are we going to be in a position to do anything about it? So it’s coming—a situation where China shows its hand overtly. And that’s why the allies in the region are so interesting.
India knows this. They’re not going to be making any concessions to China. They know that they don’t follow through—Japan’s a little bit more complicated but they definitely know what China is. Vietnam certainly knows what China is. Australia is learning what China is. The closer you are, the clearer it is. So we’ll see it, but hopefully, it won’t be too late to do something about it by then.
Mr. Jekielek: The U.S. is obligated to defend Taiwan.
Ms. Paskal: It was obligated by treaty to defend Philippines’ territory, and Scarborough Shoal went to China. There’s maneuvering room, and in the case of Article 5 [of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty] in Japan, I think the U.S. is only required to consider.
The Japanese also need to work on their own interoperability and forced development, and make the profession of being in the military more attractive to its own people, as does Taiwan. It would be good if they treated their own military people with the respect they deserve because they’re on the front line of a world conflict. They’re the ones who are going to pay for it. They deserve the respect for being in that position.
But when Scarborough Shoal happened in 2012, all sorts of excuses were found not to step up to the plate. So there’s a lot of concern that the treaty won’t trigger in the way that we hope it will or think it will. If we’re worried about it, then that means that China also isn’t convinced, and if they’re not convinced, they’re more willing to push.
Mr. Jekielek: We are seeing—and I don’t know if this is entirely correct—but [there are] a lot of Chinese military activities around Taiwan. What message is this sending? Who is this message going to? Some people are saying it’s a very dire message.
Ms. Paskal: Absolutely. One of the components of the three warfares is the psychological component, where it’s wearing down Taiwan, and it’s trying to create a psychology of inevitability. This stage is an important stage for what might come next. … They might take some of the small Taiwanese islands physically, but there’s a lot that can be done with cyber warfare and electronic warfare that would soften up the state before you have an actual physical takeover.
If Taiwan falls—and this was something that was said here, and it’s absolutely accurate—the defense of Taiwan is the defense of the U.S., because if Taiwan falls, then China has broken out of the first island chain, and it has shown all of the countries in the region that the U.S. won’t defend even its closest allies.
So if you’re a leader in the Philippines, or Malaysia, or Indonesia, and suddenly you’re off on your own against a very aggressive China and you don’t think the U.S. is going to be there—if Taiwan goes red, the rest of it goes pink very quickly. There’s a very good report out on this by Colonel Grant Newsham from the Center for Security Policy that is called, “The Fall of Taiwan: Asia Goes Red or at Least ‘Pinkens’,” and he goes through country, by country, by country, how it all falls.
This is the actual domino effect that we were worried about during the previous Cold War. So Taiwan is critical. Taiwan needs to be defended. We’ve lost Hong Kong.
Mr. Jekielek: Today, talking about Hong Kong, how can we not talk about Hong Kong? We have 47—as far as I understand it—people who are basically exercising democracy who are now in prison or indicted or basically removed from the political stage. That’s almost everybody.
Ms. Paskal: It’s really heartbreaking because Hong Kong was one of the thriving, exciting, dynamic cities. It was a symbol of the potential of the Chinese people, and the innovation, and the creativity, and the energy, and it’s going to be turned into just another medium-sized Chinese city. All of that light is going to go out.
One positive you could say is it showed Taiwan what would happen if they’re next. The people of Taiwan looking at what happened to Hong Kong know that their vibrancy, their creativity, all that is going to go if you let China come in the way that it wants to.
Mr. Jekielek: Then there’s this fear actually, because the people of Hong Kong, of course not only have tasted freedom but have lived freedom, that it might not be just another Chinese city. It might be much worse for them because you’ve got to stamp that out. How else are you going to have the control?
Ms. Paskal: There’s another interesting component to it which shows how interconnected we are, which is [that] we’re Canadians. There are 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong. There are potentially 3 million or more people in Hong Kong who’re going to have the right to citizenship in the UK. So we might start to see a diaspora that creates governments-in-exile and brings the fight outside, including with their money, because a lot of them are middle class or whatever. So it affects countries like the UK in thinking about whether they’re going to try to look for money from Beijing or they’re going to try to get the money from the Hong Kong expats.
That tips their strategic calculus. If they’re counting on money from Beijing, then they’re going to be a lot softer on things like Huawei. If they’re counting on the money from Hong Kong going into the city and doing an investment that way, then they’re much more likely to be able to stand up to China. So the cascading interlinked economic component of what’s happening in Hong Kong might create more strategic opportunities for those who are concerned about China.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. Cleo Paskal, Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which by the way, doesn’t take any foreign money. I want to highlight that for our viewers. It’s such a pleasure to have you, and we’re going to have to have you back soon.
Ms. Paskal: It’d be a pleasure. Thank you. Thank you very much.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.