Beijing has ramped up a multifaceted campaign to influence, intimidate, and disrupt Taiwan since President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration in May 2016 and refused to endorse the so-called “1992 Consensus.” The influence campaign includes overt messaging and covert methods with a hard-line against the government and a soft approach towards the public. Goals include keeping the Tsai Administration from moving towards independence as well as improving Beijing’s image with the Taiwanese people. This article provides an overview of the methods employed by Beijing to influence and disrupt Taiwan.
Targeting Hearts, Minds, and Wallets
China is employing actions to turn public opinion against the government and build a favorable public attitude toward Beijing. China has suspended the high-level official communications mechanism between the two countries, acted to isolate Taipei internationally, and initiated other means to influence elite and public opinion against the current government. Beijing revised its strategy of dialogue with the pan-blue Nationalist Party (KMT), reiterated at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October 2017, to a “color blind” campaign appealing to the Taiwanese public and diverse local groups. Chinese mass organizations such as the All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots (ACFTC) support this effort to target Taiwan public opinion.
The Taiwan Affairs Office announced a renewed effort to influence Taiwan public opinion and increase business ties across the Strait before the 2018 midterm and the 2020 presidential elections. As part of the new strategy targeting diverse local groups, the United Front Work Department (UFWD) is focusing on local governments, young people and students, Chinese spouses of Taiwan citizens, Aborigines, pro-China political parties and groups, religious groups, Chinese descendants with strong ties to China, labor groups, academics, farmer and fishermen associations, and military veterans. In February, China announced 31 incentives to boost exchanges across the Strait targeting businesses and youth to influence Taiwan public opinion favorably towards Beijing.
Beijing is increasing Taiwan’s international isolation by luring away allies and blocking participation in international organizations. This year the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso severed ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing, reducing Taiwan’s diplomatic relations to 18 countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific region. China reportedly promised the Dominican Republic more than US$3 billion in loans for infrastructure projects in the “checkbook diplomacy” practiced by the two countries. Recent press reports indicate pressure on other allies to switch recognition to China.
China’s actions to limit Taiwan’s international space include blocking Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. For example, Beijing recently succeeded in denying Taipei’s participation in the World Health Assembly (WHA). Taiwan had participated in the WHA in 2009 and 2016 as an observer, but China succeeded in denying its participation in 2017 and 2018.
The Chinese Ministry of National Defense stated at the end of June that various PLA actions were targeted at “Taiwan independence” elements. The intimidation is likely aimed at both elite and public opinion to warn them of China’s military power and dampen support for a declared independence. PLA training is used as a mean of deterrence and intimidation against Taiwan. China has increased both naval and air activities close to Taiwan. The PLA is conducting aggressive “island encirclement” drills as well as flying close to Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. At the end of June, the PLA conducted another encirclement exercise around Taiwan. The PLA announced that these training flights will become the norm, while a PLA Air Force spokesperson stated that increasing encirclement exercises would reinforce China’s determination to safeguard its territorial integrity. China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning with escort vessels have also entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone during passages through the Strait in January and March.
Some former PLA officers have also reinforced the intimidation by presenting Taiwan’s defense as futile. For example, the former Nanjing Military Region deputy commander Wang Hongguang (王洪光) described an invasion scenario to quickly seize Taiwan. In addition, a former officer in the Second Artillery, now Rocket Force, echoed official PLA sources when he stated that joint exercises would increase in the Taiwan Strait.
China unilaterally announced in January that the M-503 flight route would follow close to the center line in the Strait. Taipei has safety and security concerns that the flight route could be abused by the PLA Air Force. In May, a PLA Air Force aircraft was identified flying close to the M-503 aviation route and then deviating to fly close to the center line in the Strait. The likely purpose was intelligence collection.
Chinese cyber operations have been used to harass the Taiwanese government as well as conduct reconnaissance to support cyberattacks in a crisis. Taiwan’s Department of Cyber Security reported numerous cyberattacks growing in sophistication and severity against the government and the private sector over the past year. A recent report states that Chinese cyberattacks on Taiwan government systems has declined, but the success rate of intrusions has increased. Digital forensic evidence links most of the attacks to Chinese sources. In the past year cyberattacks focused primarily on five government organizations: the Presidential Office, the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior, and the Financial Security Commission. China’s cyber reconnaissance is in preparation for distributed denial of service attacks against Taiwan civilian and military systems in support of military operations. The most recent case of Chinese hacking targeted the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DDP) official website.
While Chinese intelligence agencies do not appear to provide extensive support to influence campaigns compared to Moscow’s influence campaigns against the West, intelligence recruitment could support influence campaigns and disruption of Taiwan during a crisis. Taiwan has uncovered numerous cases of Beijing’s recruitment including Taiwanese military and former military officers who provided intelligence to China. The Taiwan press has reported China’s recruitment of informants and sleeper agents that could be used to influence elite or public opinion as well as disrupt Taiwan’s defense. The UFWD’s activities can assist in recruitment of intelligence agents or agents of influence. Declassified Central Intelligence Agency documents report Chinese Communist recruitment of Taiwan military officers who were ready to support a planned invasion of Taiwan in the 1950’s.
The Taiwanese press has reported allegations that China is funding and supporting internal groups in Taiwan, including organized crime groups, that could act as a fifth column for Beijing. The head of one such crime group, the Bamboo Union, now heads the China Unification Promotion Party in Taiwan. Allegations have also been made that China has supported the pro-unification New Party to create a paramilitary youth organization, support other pro-unification groups, as well as establishing organizations and political warfare units in Taiwan. The New Party’s Fire News website is under investigation for allegations of receiving funds from China. The New Party spokesman and three other members were recently indicted for espionage and receiving Chinese funding.
Taiwan has taken measures to strengthen cyber defense and information security coordination within the government. An information communication and electronic warfare office was established under the General Staff Headquarters in September 2017 to combat China’s cyber intrusions. An umbrella bill on information security has been drafted to further protect government operations. A Cybersecurity School is planned to cultivate cybersecurity talent to support cybersecurity in the private sector.
Taiwan government agencies have established sections on their websites to counter disinformation promoted by Chinese social media intended to divide and confuse public opinion. Counterintelligence has uncovered numerous attempts by Beijing to subvert Taiwan, although the full extent of Chinese penetration of Taiwan is unknown. At the end of June, a Chinese television reporter was barred from working in Taiwan for spreading disinformation and attempting to gain access to a military base. The government is considering revising lax espionage laws and increasing penalties to those that are charged for committing espionage. There have also been discussions limiting travel by former military and intelligence personnel to China where they could be recruited.
Taiwan is taking action to counter Beijing’s attempt to isolate the country internationally. The Tsai Administration has initiated a New Southbound Policy to enhance exchanges and cooperation between Taiwan and countries primarily in Southeast and South Asia, but also Africa. The government is also seeking membership in international organizations.
The government of Taiwan needs to develop a response to China’s “31 measures,” and targeting of young people and other internal groups as these areas show promise for Beijing’s influence campaign.
Impact of the Influence Campaign
Analysis of influence campaigns and propaganda, in general, show that these efforts cannot change people’s opinions but can reinforce attitudes within targeted audiences and influence actions. China’s assessment of its influence campaign is not known. Beijing’s goals are to deter the Tsai’s government from moving toward independence, turn public opinion against the government in advance of elections, and influence public opinion favorably towards China. Covert goals include dividing Taiwan internally and disrupting its defense, with available information on Beijing’s subversion and infiltration of Taiwan a cause for concern.
Taiwanese public opinion polling in Taiwan indicates mixed results for Beijing’s efforts, as they show the following trends since President Tsai’s inauguration: decreased support for independence and a majority in favor of the status quo; a March 2018 poll indicates that the “31 incentives” and United Front efforts might be effective with young Taiwanese, with a favorable attitude towards China by respondents age 19 to 29 rising from 35.5 to 40.8 percent; while another poll found 83.5 percent of respondents did not view China’s intimidating actions toward Taiwan as helping cross-Strait relations. While correlation is not causation, the polling suggests that well-crafted messaging could promote Beijing’s agenda of improving Taiwanese positive attitude towards China and decreasing support for independence. However, military intimidation appears to be counterproductive.
The main point: Beijing is ramping up a multifaceted influence campaign employing overt and covert measures. The goal is to keep President Tsai from moving towards a formal declaration of independence, turn public opinion against her government before key elections, and improve Taiwan public opinion towards China. The results of the influence campaign appear mixed but indicate some areas where improved messaging against target audiences could provide some success for China. Beijing’s covert actions to create a fifth column and possible network of sleeper agents could represent a serious threat to Taiwan’s independence.