Digital Diplomacy

Countering Authoritarian State Influence and Coercion


The global community entered the 21st century with increasing democratisation across the world and a rules-based order that was producing unparalleled economic progress and poverty reduction, not least as a result of the end of the Cold War after the collapse of communist regime in Russia.

At the start of the third decade of the 21st century, however, the global community faces significant challenges to democracies and that rules-based order, and a resurgence in subversive, coercive and indeed territorial expansion activities from authoritarian and totalitarian states.

Examples include:

  • The annexation of Crimea by Russia and its use of proxy forces to create surrogate regimes to take control of parts of Georgia, recognised by Russia as South Ossetia and Abkhazia (Pifer 2020; Otarshvili 2017; Avdaliani 2020);
  • The claims by China to most of the maritime area of the South China Sea, its creation and militarisation of artificial islands in the area, and its rejection of international arbitration on competing claims from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia (Santoro 2019; Council for Foreign Relations 2020);
  • The use of terrorist organisations and proxy militias by Iran to establish its dominance in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen (Jones 2019; International Institute for Strategic Studies 2019);
  • The major Russian social media and misinformation campaign to influence the outcome of the 2016 US election (Mueller 2019);
  • The report by the head of Australia’s intelligence organisation that the country faced unprecedented levels of espionage and influence activities (Packham 2020).

The Key Issues

  • Interference in democratic political processes – The most blatant example of interference in a democratic political process has been Russia’s organised campaign to sow electoral discord and influence the outcome of the 2016 American Presidential Election. Using its military intelligence service, the GRU, Russia hacked the email servers of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee. These emails were disseminated online using fake personas and through organisations such as WikiLeaks.(Mueller III 2019, 4) This was complimented by the operation of fictitious social media accounts that attracted American audiences and “addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists.”(Mueller III 2019, 14). Another example are the attempts by China to establish political influence in Australia’s political and community processes (Hartcher 2019).
  • Economic coercion – Japan’s experience in dealing with China’s decision to restrict the exportation of critical materials after a diplomatic incident near the Senkaku Islands is a prime example of how powerful authoritarian states use their economic leverage in an attempt to change diplomatic behaviour.(Lai 2018, 177) The employment of coercion had a two-fold effect. Firstly, it achieved China’s desired aim to have a Chinese national released from Japanese custody, and secondly, it signalled to other states that China would be willing to use its economic power to resolve international disputes. More strategically, China has sought to make certain states economically dependent on Chinese loans and projects through Xi Jingping’s “One Belt One Road” program.(Blumenthal 2018, 1)
  • Political warfare – According to Professor Ross Babbage, political warfare waged by both Russia and China is designed to “subvert the cohesion of the Western allies and their partners, erode their economic, political, and social resilience; and undermine the West’s strategic positions in key regions.”(Babbage 2019b, 3) These campaigns have clear strategic goals and powerful narratives that directly challenge liberal-democratic ideology.(Babbage 2019b, 28) According to Babbage, “the regime in Beijing is committed to building China’s international power to rival and then surpass that of the United States.”(Babbage 2019a)
  • Hybrid Warfare – The term Hybrid Warfare encapsulates the idea of using violence and instruments of the state at a level that is below the normal threshold for war. As Toshi Yoshihara illustrates, China’s coercive posturing in the Senkakus in 2012 is a prime example of how this hybrid warfare can be used to coerce a sovereign state.(Yoshihara 2019, 33) China’s coordinated approach to using national power through the positioning of both military and paramilitary forces and its heightened engagement with the issue through state media outlets were just some of the techniques that were adopted in order to “change the status quo, to alter the regional balance of power, and to set the stage for achieving larger strategic ambitions…”(Yoshihara 2019, 34). Another example is the incorporation of maritime militia in China’s state subsidised fishing fleets (Stratfor 2016, Giang 2018).

What’s at Stake

  • Democratic ideals, rules and norms – As the assertiveness of authoritarian states continues to grow, democratic ideals, rules and norms will come under increasing pressure. Projects such as China’s One Belt One Road initiative, while offering immense trade and economic opportunities, fundamentally seek to create a new model for economic development that challenges the notion that liberalisation and democratisation will lead to economic growth and prosperity. Initiatives such as these and other more overt challenges to liberal democracy promote authoritarianism as a viable and legitimate form of governance.
  • The preservation of the Rules Based Global Order – While China has significantly benefitted from the peace and stability that a US-led RBGO has provided, it is clear that under Xi Jingping’s leadership, China now sees this order as a constraint on its growing power and strategic ambitions. Similarly, continued Russian efforts to undermine American-led institutions such as NATO indicates a refusal to accept an international order that amplifies American leadership and promotes strategic stability. The degradation of the existing RBGO thus poses a significant challenge to Australian strategic interests.
  • Free and open societies – A core principal of democracy is ensuring the free and open nature of society. A free press, freedom of speech and engagement in political activity is something that is enshrined and worthy of protection in democratic societies. For authoritarian states, these principles are viewed as a threat to the ruling party and/or dictator’s legitimacy because they facilitate the critique and questioning of government policy and societal norms. However, as China’s economic and strategic power has grown, so too has its ability to coerce both state and non-state actors into questioning its policy and challenging its state-centric narrative. Democratic societies can expect that this challenge will only increase in the years to come.

What Next?

  • Engage in the battle of information and ideas – Democracies and their community leaders must actively engage in the battle of information and ideas about democracy and the global order, in their own countries and internationally. At a time when there may be a weakening of appreciation of the merits of democratic governance and collaborative international relations and trade, a whole-of-society effort is needed to resist and overcome the narrative that authoritarian regimes seek to promote.
  • Resource intelligence services – Democratic governments must resource their intelligence services to identify and defeat covert influence and subversion activities. Such resources include human, technological and financial resources and legal powers to match the multi-faceted challenges espionage, subversion, terrorism and grey-zone activities present.
  • Put long-term economic security and independence ahead of short-term commercial benefits – Democracies must accept that they will face short-term economic consequences for challenging authoritarian regimes. They should avoid trade dependencies in markets or goods or services involving states under authoritarian regimes.
  • Strengthen and expand political and economic collaboration with other democracies – Building upon engagement with other democracies, political and economic collaboration should be fostered between these societies that is built on a common respect for international institutions, the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes.
  • Clearly prevail in cyber and hybrid warfare – Democratic states must put in place policy frameworks and capabilities to ensure they are able to prevail in cyber and hybrid warfare and in so doing be able to deter escalation to armed conflict.

In Depth Reading

For further research, see the following publications:

  • Competing in the Grey Zone and Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Grey Zone
  • Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election
  • The Age of Economic Coercion
  • The Art of Deceit: How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Subvert the West
  • Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail

Digital Resource

Countering the Influence and Coercion of Authoritarian States. 2020. Institute for Regional Security, Digital Engagement & Diplomacy Series. Canberra


Avdaliani, Emil. 2020. “Russia Might Change its Tactics in Abkhazia, but not its Strategy”,

Babbage, Ross. 2019a. “Comprehensive Coercion: China’s ‘Political Warfare’ Campaign against Australia.” The Strategist (blog). June 5, 2019.

———. 2019b. “Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail.” Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Blumenthal, Dan. 2018. “Economic Coercion as a Tool in China’s Grand Strategy.” American Enterprise Institute.

Council for Foreign Relations. 2020. “China’s Maritime Disputes: A CFR InfoGuide Presentation”,!/chinas-maritime-disputes?cid=otr-marketing_use-china_sea_InfoGuide

Giang, Nguyen Khac. 2018. “Vietnam’s Response to China’s Militarised Fishing Fleet”,

Hartcher, Peter. 2019. “‘Insidious’: Former ASIO boss warns on Chinese interference in Australia”,

International Institute for Strategic Studies. 2019. “Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East”,, Seth G. 2019. “War by Proxy: Iran’s Growing Footprint in the Middle East”,

Lai, Christina. 2018. “Acting One Way and Talking Another: China’s Coercive Economic Diplomacy in East Asia and Beyond.” The Pacific Review 31 (2): 169–87.

Mueller III, Robert S. 2019. “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election” 1 (March): 448.

Otarashvili, Maria. 2017. “Russia’s Quiet Annexation of South Ossetia Continues”,

Packham, C. 2020. “Australia spy chief warns of ‘unprecedented’ foreign espionage threat”,

Pifer, Steven. 2020. “Crimea: Six years after illegal annexation”,

Santoro, David. 2019. “Beijing’s South China Sea Aggression is a Warning to Taiwan”, 2016. “Why China is Arming its Fishing Fleet”,

Yoshihara, Toshi. 2019. “China’s Coercive Posturing in the Senkakus.” In Stealing A March – Chinese Hybrid Warfare In The Indo-Pacific: Issues And Options For Allied Defense Planners. Washington, DC: Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

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