Vol. 3, Issue 3
The Global Taiwan Brief Volume 3, Issue 3
By: Russell Hsiao
Revisiting “The Four Faces of Taiwan’s Democracy”
By: David An
Vatican-PRC Détente – Another of Taiwan’s Diplomatic Relationships at Risk?
By: Michael Reilly
“Unmanned, Intangible, Silent Warfare” – New Threats and Options for Taiwan
By: Elsa Kania
Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.
PBSC Member Wang Yang to become CPPCC Chairman and in Charge of United Front Work
The official list of members to the 13th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) was recently released by Chinese authorities. Among the political, social, and business elites that make up the advisory body, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee Member Wang Yang (汪洋) was on the list of CPPCC members. As the 4th ranked Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member, Wang is all but officially confirmed as the next chairman of the CPPCC to replace outgoing Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲) in March, during the two meetings of the legislative-body National People’s Congress (NPC) and the CPPCC. As CPPCC chairman, like his predecessor, Wang will be the PBSC member with the portfolio for United Front work and he will become the deputy director in the policy-setting CCP Central Committee’s Taiwan Affairs Leading Small Group (TALSG).
A key concept in Chinese foreign policy that integrates party and state organizations under CCP rule is the United Front (統一戰線). While United Front work is more commonly associated with the short-lived collaboration between the Nationalist Party (KMT, Kuomintang) and the CCP against Japan during the Sino-Japanese War, which then the CCP directed against Taiwan in the its efforts to subvert KMT’s rule over the island post-1949, the CCP’s United Front work has evolved over time and is no longer limited to Taiwan.
As highlighted by Anne Marie-Brady’s study Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping, China’s “attempts to guide, buy, or coerce political influence abroad” is also impacting countries like Australia, New Zealand, and other states in Europe. According to Marie-Brady: “China’s foreign influence activities are part of a global strategy with almost identical, longstanding approaches, adapted to fit current government policies. They are a core task of China’s United Front work; one of the CCP’s famed “magic weapons” (法宝) that helped bring it to power.”
CPPCC as a Tool for United Front Work
The 13th CPPCC is composed of 2,158 diverse members and it is headed by a chairperson and nearly two-dozen vice chairpersons. The chairperson of the CPPCC has always been a senior member of the CCP to underscore the leadership of the Party over all of Chinese society.
The CPPCC is the highest-level entity overseeing the United Front system. The CPPCC is a senior consultative body that exercises “democratic supervision” over non-CCP parties, mass organizations, and prominent personalities. It promotes political unity and social stability through controlled representation in China’s political, economic, social, and cultural lives.
As such, the composition of the CPPCC is represented by CCP-aligned political parties (e.g., Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League, Revolutionary Committee of the Kuomintang), people’s organizations, and sectors. The CPPCC’s function is that of an advisory role, that not only provides recommendations for government policy, but perhaps more importantly for its convening function, by which, policies set by the CCP are disseminated to all the social groups represented in the advisory body.
It is worth noting that the Conference was originally set up as a dialogue mechanism between the Nationalist Party and the CPP for discussion over the sharing of power after World War II. Its meetings are usually held in tandem with the legislative body, the National People’s Congress. Given its convening function, the CCP’s control of political parties, organizations, and sectors through the Conference and its special committees serve an important function in the CCP’s United Front work. Indeed, on January 16, Wang Yang chaired the National United Front Department Directors (全國統戰部長會議) meeting.
CPPCC sub-committees are an important means of coordination within the United Front system. The directors of at least three former key military organizations—General Political Department Liaison Department, General Staff Department Second Department, and Ministry of National Defense Foreign Affairs Office—coordinate foreign influence operations with civilian counterparts through the CPPCC External Friendship Sub-Committee.
The 13th CPPCC will reportedly be composed of former Politburo member Liu Qibao (劉奇葆) and current Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission He Lifeng (何立峰). Among the people slated for the position of vice chairpersons are: Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), Leung Chun-ying (梁振英), Edmund Ho (何厚鏵), and Wan Gang (萬鋼) among others.
Taiwan Affairs Leading Small Group
Given the CPPCC’s central role in United Front work and its origins born in the Chinese civil war, it should be no surprise that the CPPCC chairman has also been the number two in the top party-governmental body for developing Taiwan policy: the Central Committee TALSG. The leading small group is directed by the CCP general secretary. The CPPCC Chairman serves as the group’s deputy director, and ministers responsible for Taiwan-related work across party and government agencies are included in the group. Despite Beijing’s freeze of high-level talks on several occasions in 2017, CPPCC members have visited Taiwan to conduct exchanges related to cross-Strait relations. There at least two reported instances when the delegation met with Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Chang Hsiao-yueh (張小月).
The main point: As the next CPPCC chairman, Wang Yang is the PBSC member with the portfolio for United Front work and he will become the deputy director in the policy-setting CCP Central Committee’s Taiwan Affairs Leading Small Group.
Taiwan Deploys Additional Missile Defense to Counter Chinese Military’s Encirclement Campaign
Against the backdrop of a significant uptick in military exercises conducted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) encircling Taiwan in 2016-17, Taipei is reportedly pushing back and countering with additional deployments of missile defenses along the eastern coast of the island. According to the 2017 National Defense Report released by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) in late December, between August 2016 and December 2017, the MND tracked at least 26 aerial exercises conducted by the Chinese military around Taiwan. Of those exercises, 15 encircled Taiwan, meaning that military aircraft either entered or exited the Bashi channel or near the Ryuku Islands. Similarly, the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) maiden aircraft carrier Liaoning conducted four long-range exercises around Taiwan: two exercises were west of the median-line along the Taiwan Strait, and another two took place along the eastern coast of Taiwan. Exercises encircling Taiwan have become more frequent in recent years, and they have prompted concerns in Taipei about the defense of the island’s eastern flank, which in the past was considered a safe zone due the relative capabilities of the PLA.
Source: Ministry of National Defense of Taiwan (ROC)
The Chinese military exercises are consistent with a pattern of increased military activities by the PLA around and beyond Taiwan that have become more visible since before a decade ago but have also increased in scope and frequency since Tsai Ing-wen became president of Taiwan—suggesting a connection with the rise in cross-Strait political tensions. Indeed, according to former Pentagon official Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, “the PLA has a history of using airpower as an instrument of coercive persuasion against Taiwan. The PLAAF began flights over the Taiwan Strait in 1996, and extended operations to the centerline in 1999.” Furthermore, he added that, “diminishing Taiwan’s air space would play into its strategic objectives and claims over disputed territories in the region.” Taken in their totality, the substantial increase as well as frequency of exercises, may be seen as a form of enhanced coercive diplomacy to compel a change in the status quo.
According to a senior Taiwanese official, the intent behind these exercises is to send a political message that these areas constitute its [China’s] “internal waters” (內海). The Chinese military views the conduct of military exercises over disputed territories ostensibly as a demonstration of its sovereignty.
In an apparent response to growing concerns over these aggressive behaviors, Taiwan’s MND announced that it will extend the defense perimeter of its existing missile defense system by deploying additional missile defenses on Orchid Island (蘭嶼) and Green Island (綠島). The two islands are located off the eastern coast of Taiwan near the southern tip. Taiwan already possesses a robust network of missile defenses along its western coast facing the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yet, its eastern coast has been left relatively undefended and equipped with older models of missiles with shorter ranges due to the PLA’s previously limited capabilities. For instance, even the Hua-tung Defense Command (花東防衛指揮部), which covers the areas spanning Hualien and Taitung counties, reportedly only has one mobile Avenger Air Defense Unit.
To cover these blind spots in Taiwan’s defense perimeter, the MND announced that it will deploy MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missiles on Orchid Island and Green Island, which will also be supported by additional MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missiles and indigenously produced Sky Bow-III (天弓三) surface-to-air anti-ballistic missiles in Hualien, Taitung alongside existing deployments in Yilan. Orchid Island is around 50 miles from Taitung city, and future Chinese military aircraft flying similar patterns could fall within range of these missiles. This will ostensibly release the constant pressure and enormous costs on the Taiwan Air Force of having to constantly scramble sorties to respond to these incursions.
The main point: In an apparent response to growing concerns over Chinese military exercises around Taiwan, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has decided to extend its existing missile defense system with the deployment of additional missile defenses on Orchid Island and Green Island.
Revisiting “The Four Faces of Taiwan’s Democracy”
David An is a senior research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute and was previously a political military officer at the US Department of State.
Taiwan received a rating of 93 out of 100 in Freedom House’s Freedom of the World 2018 report. The new report published on January 16, highlighted how Taiwan’s rating improved by two points in 2017. The numbers were calculated based on degree of political rights and civil liberties among 195 countries in the world. On a spectrum between one and seven, with one being the “most free,” Taiwan received an impressive score of one for both political rights and civil liberties. As such, it is ranked similarly to other, more mature, democracies such as those in the Scandinavia, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Not surprisingly, China was at the other end of the Freedom House spectrum, with an aggregate score of just 14 out of 100.
A decade ago, Carlos Pascual and Richard Bush at Brookings Institution outlined what they called the four faces of Taiwan’s democracy focusing on Taiwan’s political achievements and challenges at the time. They examined whether Taiwan’s democracy was backsliding, how well Taiwan’s democratic institutions worked, its implications for regional peace and stability, and its ability to pull extreme positions toward the center. The Freedom House 2008 Taiwan report indicated that Taiwan was “free,” with a high rating of 1 for civil liberties, but with a score of two for political rights. At that time, in late 2007, Taiwan had only undergone one government transition when the incumbent party switched from the Kuomintang (KMT) to the Democratic People’s Party (DPP). However, now Taiwan has fully undergone three incumbent party transitions. This provides a good opportunity to reassess Pascual and Bush’s snapshot of Taiwan’s democracy from around 10 years ago.
Taiwan’s Four Faces of Democracy Then and Now
In Pascual and Bush’s Brookings 2007 study, Taiwan received high marks for its lack of democratic backsliding, and ability to pull extreme political positions toward the center. They note that Taiwan’s transition to democracy had not been fundamentally reversed in any major way, which they called a “significant achievement.” They specified, “[w]hatever problems Taiwan has, it is not like Thailand with its military coups.” This was true then and remains true today.
In addition, Pascual and Bush lauded Taiwan’s democratic system for being a moderating force to shape a “centrist consensus” to “defer discussion of ultimate solutions like unification or independence.” While Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen has drawn China’s ire by not explicitly affirming the so-called “1992 Consensus” that is the foundation of China’s “One China principle,” she has nevertheless constantly offered olive branches to the other side of the Strait only to be rebuffed. Both Tsai and the previous administration have sustained the fairly centrist position over the past decade that Pascual and Bush described in 2007, particularly in deferring ultimate solutions such as unification or independence.
However, the authors of the Brookings study questioned how effectively Taiwan’s democratic institutions worked, and possible negative implications of Taiwan’s democracy for regional peace and security. At the time, Pascual and Bush noted that Taiwan’s democratic institutions “don’t work well.” Specifically, they named Taiwan’s semi-presidential system, Legislative Yuan, political party system, electoral system, and mass media as working in a “perverse way to reward political gamesmanship over good policy.” This was arguably the case in the early years of Taiwan’s democracy, and a feature in the beginning of the Chen Shui-bian administration when Taiwan’s politics was caught in a gridlock between the DPP incumbency in the Presidential Palace, pitted against a Kuomintang majority in the Legislative Yuan. The political situation has improved since then.
Furthermore, Pascual and Bush examine the logic behind the contention that “Taiwan’s democracy is bad for regional peace and stability.” The underlying concern at the time was how open competition could allow a leader to emerge that may dramatically change Taiwan’s legal status, and thereby provoke a forceful Chinese response. In Taiwan, National Chengchi University identity poll data show how this coincided with a growing unique Taiwan identity, coupled with declining trend of identifying with China, along with a stable percentage of the population that says they are both. However, even then Pascual and Bush recognized that though Taiwan’s identity has grown stronger over the decades, and in part because of PRC actions, the authors were heartened that Taiwan’s political parties opted for running moderate candidates in elections while eschewing calls for extremism at the margins— so Taiwan’s pragmatism has strengthened along with its identity. Therefore there is less of a concern about harming regional security than previously thought. This point also ties with their other one mentioned earlier about how Taiwan is reaching a “centrist consensus.”
The following discussion of Freedom House criteria for Taiwan will show how leading political parties in Taiwan have sharpened their focus on good policy rather than political gamesmanship over the past decade, though it is no surprise to find both features in any political environment and even among the more mature world democracies.
Taiwan’s Improving Freedom House Scores
In the new 2018 Freedom House report, Taiwan scored 37 out of 40 points for political rights. This includes a full score of 12 out of 12 for its electoral process since the head of government and legislative representatives are elected in free and fair elections, and electoral laws and framework are fair. It received 15 out of 16 for political participation, with perfect scores in people’s rights to organize different political parties, ability to form a realistic opposition, and various segments of population (e.g. ethnic, religious, LGBT, etc. groups) have full rights and electoral opportunities. In this category, Taiwan’s one point deduction is due to the fact that its political choices are not free from domination by foreign powers or other powerful groups. Therefore, a unique aspect of Taiwan’s democracy in its regional context is that Taiwan might never be able to achieve a full Freedom House score solely due of factors external to Taiwan and outside of Taiwan’s control.
In the category of how the government functions, Taiwan received a 10 out of a possible total of 12. It has a perfect score for how the freely elected head of government and legislative representatives determine policies of government, but one point off for effective safeguards against corruption and one point off for government transparency. These are two areas that Taiwan can continue to improve upon.
In the areas of civil liberties and rule of law, Taiwan received near perfect scores across the board. It received perfect scores for its independent media, people’s freedom to practice religious faith, academic freedom from political indoctrination in the educational system, freedom to express personal views on politics without fear of retribution, freedom of assembly, freedom of nongovernmental organizations engaged in human rights work, independent judiciary, due process in civil and criminal matters, and freedom from illegitimate use of physical force. Areas where Taiwan were just one point away from a perfect score include freedom for trade unions and labor organizations, and equal treatment of various segments of the population.
Yet, juxtaposing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan’s level of political freedoms and democracy show the dramatic political incongruence between the two. In contrast to Taiwan, China received a Freedom House aggregate score of 14 out of 100— down one point from the previous year. On a scale of one to seven, with seven being “not free,” China received dismal scores between six and seven in political rights and civil liberties. Freedom House explains that China is on a downward trend due to its restrictive cyber security and foreign nongovernmental organization laws; increased internet surveillance; and heavy sentences handed down to human rights lawyers, micro bloggers, grassroots activists, and religious believers.
China’s grades are near zero across the board. For instance, its political rights’ score was one out of 40 (while Taiwan’s was 37 out of 40, as mentioned earlier). Its civil liberties are slightly more optimistic with a score of 14 out of 60, but still dismal compared to most other countries in the world. In fact, China is in the lowest bottom quartile of countries in the Freedom House list, accompanied by many African countries, some Middle Eastern dictatorships, and North Korea.
Interestingly, China’s best-performing indicators are in personal autonomy and individual rights—where it received six out of 14 points, nearly half of its total aggregate score. To China’s credit, in 2016 Premier Li Keqiang reiterated a government plan to reform China’s hukou system of personal registration rules that restrict China’s internal migrants from enjoying full legal status as residents in the cities where they work. The abolition of the one-child policy also contributed to a decrease of forced abortions and sterilization, which were more common in the past.
In light of the stark contrast across the Strait, the people of Taiwan should take pride in their aggregate Freedom House score of 93 out of 100, as it is on an upward trend compared to previous years. The maturation process of Taiwan’s democracy involved constantly improving and refining those same political processes that Freedom House examined and rated highly today. Taiwan’s score is over six times higher than China’s score of 14 out of 100. With this comparison in mind, Taiwan can be thankful for the freedoms and self-determination it possesses, even while many aspects of its democracy were in question just one decade ago. These date points should make the leaders in Beijing contemplate the reasons why the people of Taiwan are moving farther away in their association with China.
The main point: Taiwan has made significant gains from a decade ago when Pascual and Bush outlined what they called the four faces of Taiwan’s democracy. Today, Taiwan’s aggregate Freedom House score of 93 out of a 100 indicates that virtually all aspects of its democracy are strong. Yet, areas of improvement remain, and they include: safeguards against corruption, improved government transparency, influence of trade unions, and equal treatment for various segments of the population.
Vatican-PRC Détente – Another of Taiwan’s Diplomatic Relationships at Risk?
Michael Reilly is a former British diplomat; from 2009–2015 he was a senior representative of UK defense company BAE Systems.
On February 2, 2018 a Catholic priest, currently based in Rome but with several years’ experience of working in China, posted on his Facebook page: “There are strange and potentially wonderful things happening in China around the relationship with the Vatican. Be aware that we have gotten close before … but there is a different feel to it this time.” This post came just three days after a newspaper article reported that the Vatican was accused by its own former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, of ‘selling out’ the Catholic Church to China. Are these possible signs that yet another of Taiwan’s diminishing band of ‘diplomatic allies’ is about to switch recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? Taipei’s archbishop John Hung Shan-chuan (洪山川) dismissed such speculation, saying stories suggesting the Vatican and China are about to establish relations recur regularly but always turn out to be false.
Yet, such repeated speculation about a rapprochement between the Holy See and the PRC only reinforces the perception that the establishment of links between the Vatican and Beijing is not a matter of ‘whether’ but ‘when.’ To put it bluntly, the long-term direction of the Vatican policy is to create improved relations with China, as a way for the Church to communicate its message to a quarter of the world’s population. In these circumstances the main question for Taiwan is perhaps whether it is doing enough to prepare for the inevitable. On its part, the Holy See has long sought increasing relations with the PRC where Christianity, including Catholicism, is growing strongly despite considerable restrictions and controls imposed by the government, and the Vatican has made no secret about its intentions. The Holy See is eager to better support and meet the needs of the estimated 12 million Chinese believers, to nurture the growing interest in the Church, and to help reconcile the “underground” Church with the state-sanctioned ‘patriotic association.’
After the communist takeover in China in 1949, the Vatican had originally kept its mission in Beijing, but it was then expelled in 1951, and hence moved to Taipei. Moreover, after the UN switched its recognition from the ROC to the PRC in 1971, the Vatican downgraded its representative in Taipei from the rank of Ambassador to that of Chargé d’Affaires. Irregular contacts between China and the Vatican have been going on since the 1980s, but until now China has always insisted that the Vatican must first break all its ties with Taiwan as a prelude to any formal relations. Vatican diplomats have been justifiably wary of cutting all official ties with Taiwan before even the outline of a possible agreement with the PRC has been reached.
Pope Francis has added a degree of urgency into these hitherto irregular contacts, and negotiations that are more formal have been underway since 2014 between the Holy See and China. Last year saw a significant agreement between the two countries, in regards to the appointment of bishops, one of the main sticking points for Beijing. Crucially, from the Vatican’s perspective, Beijing appears to recognize the Pope’s ultimate right to veto the appointment of bishops, while allowing Beijing a say in their nomination, a situation not unique to China. Therefore, the latest news only seems to confirm what has already been agreed upon—although it may well mask agreements in other areas too.
Considering all of these events, has Taiwan done enough to sustain and maintain such a key relationship with the Holy See? The Vatican is Taiwan’s oldest diplomatic ally. The year 2017 marked the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the ROC and the Holy See, created in 1942 when Taiwan was still under Japanese rule and the ROC was the government of most of China, not just Taiwan. Less formal contacts go back even further, as a Vatican delegation attended the funeral of Sun Yat-sen in 1925. Moreover, the Vatican, with its more than one billion followers, is Taiwan’s most influential remaining ally by far.
Well aware of this, Taiwan has always given great emphasis to the formality and protocol required to maintain the relationship. Former President Chen Shui-bian attended the funeral of Pope St. John Paul II; former President Ma joined the inauguration of Pope Francis; and, Vice President Chen Chien-jen, the most prominent lay Catholic in Taiwan, participated in the September 2016 canonization ceremony at the Vatican for Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
But on a more day to day level, Taiwan’s engagement with the Catholic church, while good, can hardly be described as ‘strong.’ The term that could better describe this relation is ‘ambivalent.’ The physical presence of the Church is hard to miss. Fu-jen and Wenzao Ursuline universities are both Catholic run, the former by the Jesuits, and there are more than 1100 churches around the island, often in remote small towns or villages. Nevertheless, Catholics are very much in the minority in Taiwan, with a congregation of fewer than 300,000 followers, less than 1.5 percent of the population, whose majority of members are part of an older generation, in contrast with Chinese Christians, growing numbers of whom are young Chinese.
Although the Church’s roots in Taiwan can be traced back 500 years, to a time before the Chinese colonisation when the island was a Portuguese missionary territory, its position today reflects much more the communist takeover of China in 1949, when most of the Catholic hierarchy and large numbers of priests were expelled or fled with Chiang Kai-Shek from the mainland. Parishioners were often exiled too and for many years the Church was represented by and preached mainly to this group of “mainlanders.” The language of the church was overwhelmingly Mandarin and its outlook Sinocentric. Perhaps for this reason it has not been successful in reaching out to younger Taiwanese, who are less likely to align themselves with China. Moreover, with the current almost total absence of domestic vocations, the Church in Taiwan relies heavily on foreign missionary priests who are mostly from an older generation and who increasingly tend to the needs of migrant workers from South East Asia, who form a growing proportion of regular church-goers. While former President Ma Ying-Jeou is known to have been baptised a Catholic, he is not known to have visited any Catholic church during his time in office.
Ironically, the Aboriginal community is the one segment of the population in which the Church has had a real impact. Typically, the percentage of Catholics in the wider population in Taiwan’s dioceses is around 1 percent. In Taipei and Tainan it is 0.6 percent or less. But in the Hualien diocese, which embraces much of the mountain areas, it is over 10 percent. Yet, until earlier this century, there were no priests on the island who could speak any of the Aboriginal languages. Moreover, there are nearly eight times as many priests per head of congregation in Taipei as there are in the Hualien diocese. This suggests that Aborigines have been neglected by both the Church and the successive governments in Taipei.
Instead of rueing missed opportunities or engaging in recriminations, Taiwan needs to urgently plan its future relationship with the Vatican in the advent of the time the Holy See switches recognition to Beijing. For this is not a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ relationship with some micro-state. The Vatican itself will wish to maintain a relationship if only to ensure continuing pastoral support for, and access to, its congregation in Taiwan. Catholic educational and social facilities in the country serve all Taiwanese, not just Catholics, and it is surely in the government’s own interests to keep them flourishing. Taiwan will also continue to serve as a center for the formation and training of priests to work in China, where restrictions on this are likely to remain for some time. With careful preparation Taiwan can still ensure a productive and valuable relationship with the Vatican, even in the absence of diplomatic relations. Without doubt, the loss of such a long-standing diplomatic ally as the Vatican will be a psychological blow to Taiwan. But, by preparing for it now and looking to a less formal but more active future relationship, instead of engaging in recriminations and blame, Taiwan can limit any loss of influence and wider fall out.
The main point: The relationship between Taiwan and the Vatican is not a typical diplomatic one. While it would be tragic for Taiwan to lose its relation with the Vatican, the Holy See will not desert Taiwan’s Catholics. So, it is very important that Taiwan maintains a continuing productive, but informal relationship with the Vatican.
“Unmanned, Intangible, Silent Warfare” – New Threats and Options for Taiwan
Elsa Kania is an Adjunct Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, where her research focuses on Chinese defense innovation and emerging technologies, particularly artificial intelligence. Elsa is an analyst, a consultant, and a co-founder of the China Cyber and Intelligence Studies Institute.
As the character of conflict is transformed by the advent of robotics and artificial intelligence on the battlefield, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recognizes and seeks to capitalize upon this trend towards “unmanned, intangible, silent warfare” (無人, 無形, 無聲戰爭) that is increasingly “intelligentized” (智能化). Consequently, the PLA has prioritized advances in military robotics and ‘unmanned’ (i.e., uninhabited) systems. To date, the PLA has fielded a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), while also developing and, to a limited extent, fielding unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs). Concurrently, the Chinese defense industry is actively pursuing research and development for a range of cutting-edge unmanned systems, including those with stealth, supersonic, and swarming capabilities. The PLA is also prioritizing the development of military applications of artificial intelligence (AI), including to enable data and intelligence fusion and to support command decision-making. In the near future, unmanned and autonomous systems could serve as a force multiplier for the PLA’s combat power.
For Taiwan, the PLA’s pursuit of and ongoing advances in these capabilities are cause for concern. As Ian Easton of the Project 2049 Institute noted in his recent book, The Chinese Invasion Threat, such a scenario would likely include the use of unmanned systems to support initial strikes and an amphibious assault alike. The PLA appears to be preparing to leverage unmanned systems for a range of missions, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); integrated reconnaissance and strike; information operations, especially electronic warfare; and data relay, including communications relay and guidance for over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting. Notably, continued progress in swarm intelligence (集群智能) could enable asymmetric assaults against major US weapons platforms, such as aircraft carriers. For instance, China’s Military Museum includes in one exhibit a depiction of a UAV swarm combat system (無人機蜂群作戰系統) with swarms used for reconnaissance, jamming, and “swarm assault” (群打擊) targeting an aircraft carrier. Recognizing the potential of “saturation attacks” to overcome even sophisticated defenses, the PLA could leverage similar tactics against Taiwan, and reportedly there have been efforts to convert retired fighter jets for this purpose. Concurrently, the PLA Navy is likely to acquire and employ unmanned surface vessels (USVs) that could be used troop transport or logistic support, and the PLA Marine Corps might even utilize unmanned tanks or amphibious combat vehicles in support of a future landing campaign.
The PLA Army, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, and Strategic Support Force all operate several different models of UAVs. For instance, the PLA Army uses the ASN-207 for such tasks as battlefield reconnaissance, communications relay, and electronic warfare. Certain PLA ground forces, likely including special forces, operate a smaller, hand-held and launched variant, the CH-802, that could be used to enable situational awareness on the battlefield at the tactical level. The PLAN operates the medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) BZK-005 for surveillance in the East and South China Seas, including in proximity to Taiwan, while the medium-altitude, medium-endurance (MAME) UAV, the ASN-209, can be used for communications relay and electromagnetic countermeasures. The PLAAF has fielded the GJ-1 (Gongji-1, 攻擊－1), a MALE UAV roughly analogous to the US Predator, for use in integrated reconnaissance and precision strike, and may soon introduce the GJ-2, a successor that is closer to the Reaper in capabilities. The PLA Rocket Force has fielded at least a limited number of UAVs, including to Base 52 in Anhui Province, potentially to provide over-the-horizon guidance for missiles, such as the DF-21D. The PLA’s new Strategic Support Force (SSF) and/or the Joint Staff Department’s Network-Electronic Countermeasures Dadui (網電對抗大隊) could also field UAVs in support of their electronic warfare missions. Of note, the military parade that celebrated the PLA’s 90th anniversary last August also featured the ASN-301 anti-radiation loitering munition system, characterized as a “radar killer,” which was developed based on a reverse-engineering of Israel’s Harpy drone to target enemy radio and communications stations. The PLA is continuing to develop and preparing to field new types of UAVs, including the Xianglong (“Soar Dragon,” 翔龍) a high-altitude long endurance (HALE) UAV, for missions of long-range reconnaissance and/or electronic warfare.
Looking forward, it is clear that in any crisis or conflict scenario, Taiwan could be confronting a panoply of PLA unmanned systems across all domains of warfare. The ongoing progress of the PLA’s research, development, testing, and fielding of these “new-type forces” (新型力量) will merit continued analytical attention. Certain PLA thinkers even anticipate that intelligent machines become primary warfighters in future militaries, while humans remain planners, administrators, and commanders. However, if the PLA progresses towards greater reliance upon highly automated and autonomous systems, this change in the character of warfare could also create new challenges and perhaps unexpected vulnerabilities. Despite its notable progress in research and development, the PLA could confront continued difficulties in human talent and training, given the complex dynamics of human factors associated with such systems. For instance, the PLA Air Force’s introduction of the GJ-1 has required major efforts in talent cultivation. In an actual conflict scenario, unmanned systems could also have limited survivability on the battlefield, due to potential vulnerability to interference with their data links and control mechanisms. Although the PLA does train for the use of unmanned systems in complex electromagnetic environments, their actual level of resilience against electronic countermeasures in a conflict scenario remain to be seen. It will be critical for Taiwan to focus on enhancing its electronic warfare capabilities as the PLA advances in complex weapons systems that are dependent upon battle networks.
At present, the creation of counter-drone and counter-swarm capabilities remains an open challenge in which creativity and targeted investments might enable Taiwan to achieve an asymmetric advantage. To date, the use of directed-energy weapons, such as lasers or high-power microwave weapons, could have utility in targeting drones. There have also been tests of lower-tech alternatives, such as the use of a net. Taiwan should consider actively exploring options and investments. Even if the PLA starts to leverage AI for military purposes and introduces further systems with higher degrees of autonomy, these new capabilities could cause concurrent vulnerabilities. For instance, the use of computer vision (e.g., to enable automated processing of imagery and video, or for automatic target recognition) is often characterized as a more mature application, which the United States and China, among others, are pursuing. However, there have also been clear demonstrations of the extreme and even unexplainable exploitation of the underlying neural networks based adversarial examples, even as seemingly minor as changes to a single pixel. These and other potential algorithmic vulnerabilities might be exploited and weaponized. As the PLA progresses in its efforts to take advantage of AI systems, it could become ever more vulnerable to future “counter-AI” capabilities.
Today’s rapid advances in AI and robotics could catalyze a new military revolution. Lieutenant General Liu Guozhi (劉國治), director of the Science and Technology Commission at the Central Military Commission believes that AI will accelerate a process of military transformation. He warns, “facing disruptive technology, [we] must … seize the opportunity to ‘change paradigms’ (彎道超車); if you don’t disrupt, you’ll be disrupted!” Although China is already a major force in robotics and aspires to “lead the world” in AI, the PLA’s capability to engage in successful defense innovation will, however, depend upon human factors and its organizational capability. In these domains, chronic issues in the PLA’s strategic, command, and organizational cultures could exacerbate the difficulty of making the deeper changes that would be necessary to leverage these new technologies. While seeking to achieve a disruptive advantage, the PLA also faces continual risks of disruption. In this context, Taiwan could build upon its own progress in unmanned systems and its new national initiative and advances in AI to pursue the development of asymmetric capabilities that leverage these technologies, while exploring creative means of countering them.
The main point: In any crisis or conflict scenario, Taiwan could confront a panoply of PLA unmanned, even autonomous, systems across all domains of warfare. Although the PLA’s pursuit of these disruptive new capabilities could thus intensify the threats that Taiwan is facing, there are also opportunities for Taiwan to seek disruption in response, including through advancing its electronic warfare capabilities and exploring options for counter-drone, counter-swarm, and counter-AI capabilities.
¹軍事科學院軍事戰略研究部 [Academy of Military Science Military Strategy Research Department], 戰略學[The Science of Military Strategy], 軍事科學出版社 [Military Science Press], 2013, p. 97-98.
²See, for instance: Liang Yong [梁勇] and Zhou Shaolei [周紹磊], “UAV Over-the-Horizon Guidance Methods” [無人機超視距引導方法], Missile and Aerospace Delivery Technologies [導彈與航天運載技術], 2010. The authors are affiliated with the Naval Aeronautical Engineering Institute’s Control Engineering Department.
³Although the literal translation of this term implies “cutting past the car in front of you around a corner”, I choose to use a more figurative translation that I think better conveys the intended meaning in this context (i.e., disruption that enables the PLA to surpass the US military.)