Beijing Ramping Up Political Warfare Against US-Taiwan Ties

Beijing Ramping Up Political Warfare Against US-Taiwan Ties

Beijing Ramping Up Political Warfare Against US-Taiwan Ties

With the January 2020 elections in Taiwan just a few months away, influence efforts by China and its proxies in Taiwan to undermine President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) re-election prospects are expected to intensify. Besides hoping to make good on its threat to make Tsai a one-term president—as it vowed to do soon after her landslide election in 2016—Beijing will also seek to empower opponents of the ruling government who are judged to be more amenable to Beijing’s agenda regarding Taiwan, and to undermine the unprecedented closeness that has developed between Taiwan and the United States since 2016.

Undermine Taiwan, Aim at the US-Taiwan Relationship

Over the past year, the two principal political opponents of the Tsai administration have both signaled a willingness to more closely engage China on its terms, and have both unleashed internet armies to spread disinformation and intimidate critics of the said candidates. The volume of disinformation that has spread in the social media environment in Taiwan has reached unprecedented levels during this period. 

National security sources told this author that in recent months the two political groups—one represented by a “non-mainstream” candidate from the “blue” camp, the other is the head of the recently formed political party that has taken aim at the two main political parties in Taiwan—have been sharing the same internet army capabilities. [1] Dozens of websites, “content farms,” and Facebook pages involved in spreading disinformation and supporting the two anti-Tsai camps are also suspected of being funded by China or to be coordinating their efforts with elements from China’s United Front units. News reports have also revealed that several “red media” web sites involved in such activities, many of which have since been closed, were operated by a businessman based in Taichung who is known to have attended the Strait Forum (海峽論壇) in Xiamen, where participants were encouraged to support Beijing’s official line vis-à-vis Taiwan, such as adopting the “one country, two systems” formula for unification.

Taiwanese academics who have recently visited China have also told this author that their Chinese counterparts, and by default the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), have grown wary of what they see as troubling bilateral ties between the Tsai administration and its counterparts in Washington, DC. [2] Besides major arms sales, since 2016 the United States has ramped up its efforts to integrate Taiwan into its Indo-Pacific strategy, with various endeavors, such as the Global Cooperation Training Framework (GCTF), serving as a principal platform. Much of those activities have involved efforts to promote democracy, transparency, and good governance within the region, all values that are antithetical to the regime in Beijing and that serve as “firewalls” against China’s efforts to expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific.

The ramped up political warfare efforts against Taiwan and the United States, therefore, aim to: 

  1. undermine the democratic institutions of Taiwan, an important partner of the United States in the region;
  2. reduce the role that Taiwan has played in United States-led democracy promotion efforts in the Indo-Pacific with partners including the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Secretariat, and the United States Department of State (it is interesting to note that Beijing has often accused Taiwan and many of the aforementioned organizations of fostering unrest in Hong Kong);
  3. undermine the willingness of other countries in the region, principally Japan and Australia, to participate in such efforts;
  4. prop up candidates running in the 2020 election in Taiwan, who are likely to be less amenable to such collaboration with the United States; 
  5. accentuate underlying anti-American sentiment in Taiwan;
  6. decouple Taiwan from the United States (security guarantees, arms sales, et cetera) through efforts aimed at the United States, through the Fujian Province-based “311 Base,” think tanks such as the China-US Exchange Foundation (CUSEF, 太平洋國際交流基金會), and a constellation of other elements of Chinese political warfare. Such tactics also include elite capture, propaganda, and other efforts to shape the environment toward abandonment; 
  7. undermine the ability of US forces based in Okinawa, which likely would be activated in a Taiwan Strait military contingency, through infiltration of the Okinawa independence movement (some elements are Taiwan-based), support for the movement against US military presence and base relocation, and, according to Japanese government sources, infiltration of US military bases by Chinese nationals passing off as Japanese.

Pacific Islands Targeted

In recent weeks, efforts to knock off some of Taiwan’s official diplomatic allies in a part of the world that has gained significant importance for the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, also appear to have intensified, with evidence, since released in the media, suggesting that China’s United Front Work Department and affiliated organizations are sponsoring political elements in those countries to force the recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and an end to official ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan). 

It has been revealed that a delegation of Beijing-friendly MPs from the Solomon Islands tasked with assessing whether the Pacific island nation should establish ties with the PRC recently met with Li Xiaolin (李小琳), head of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC, 中國人民對外友好協會), in Beijing. Although the subordinate role of the CPAFCC within the CCP hierarchy is unclear, the organization, which presents itself as an NGO, is known to be working closely with chambers of commerce, trade associations, and other local entities in foreign countries, all of which are known to be involved in United Front work.

Li, the daughter of Li Xiannian (李先念), one of the Chinese Communist Party’s so-called “Eight Immortals,” was involved in the signing of a memorandum of understanding on October 26, 2016, at Nuku’alofa, Kingdom of Tonga, establishing the Pacific China Friendship Association (PCFA, 太平洋中國友好協會), which “promotes friendship and understanding between all members and the People’s Republic of China.”

According to Taiwan diplomatic sources, pro-Beijing elements in the Solomon Islands have also reportedly falsified alleged statements made by senior Taiwanese officials in their official report on the country’s relations with Taiwan and the PRC. [3] Elite capture, corrosive capital, media censorship, and other means of co-optation are also known to have been utilized by Beijing to shape developments in its favor. 

Accelerated efforts to snatch the Solomon Islands are believed to serve two principal roles: (1) to add pressure on Tsai Ing-wen and empower candidates who will blame the loss of a diplomatic ally to her “wrongheaded” China policy; and (2) undermine the coherence of the United States policy and military posture in the Pacific. It is also known that Beijing has sought to lure other countries located in the region. The resumption of Beijing’s strategy of poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies also suggests that Beijing has decided to ramp up its psychological warfare efforts against Taiwan rather than keep a low profile lest interference blow back and benefit President Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party in the elections.  

Bolstering Cooperation

Despite the closer ties that have developed between Taiwan and the United States since 2016, and the realization that both are targets of CCP political warfare, funding and coordination on the Taiwanese side to identify and mitigate/counter such activities have remained largely insufficient. Efforts by Taipei do not appear as urgent as the nature of the problem, and this has often led to frustrations on the part of visiting American delegations. Arguably, there may also have been inflated expectations of Taiwan’s capabilities, or of what its intelligence agencies are willing to share with their foreign partners. 

Consequently, the United States should convince the Taiwanese government to do more, especially when it comes to rendering a public report that makes its case with a public that remains largely oblivious, or is perhaps even skeptical, about the nature of the threat posed by political warfare against Taiwan and how such activities can undermine their democracy, affect electoral outcomes, and so on. 

Closer engagement between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB) would also be advantageous to both, as would greater interaction between think tanks and civil society on both sides. The American side should also provide greater assistance on financial tracking (FINTRAC) of suspected Beijing proxies operating in Taiwan—e.g., the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP, 中華統一促進黨), the Taiwan Red Party (中國台灣紅黨 ─ 红黨), among others—to help determine whether such entities are indeed being illegally funded by the CCP. 

In return, Taiwan’s NSB and MJIB should intensify their information sharing on organizations and individuals—including triads—that operate in the jurisdictions of the United States. The United States should also lean on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to cooperate more closely with Taiwan in addressing the challenges posed by bots, cyborgs, sock puppets, automation, algorithm manipulation, and other tools used by the CCP to spread disinformation and sow confusion within Taiwanese society.

Finally, against the backdrop of Beijing’s intensifying diplomatic offensive, which is part of Beijing’s broader political warfare strategy against Taiwan, the United States should accentuate its efforts to convince Taiwan’s official diplomatic allies to not switch recognition to the PRC. Success on this front will be largely contingent on the ability of Washington and allies such as Australia to counter Beijing’s charm offensive and address the issue of corruption in targeted countries. Greater emphasis on the risks of retaliatory moves by Washington and its allies, aimed not at the islands’ public but at the leadership instead, should also be made so as to lower the likelihood of de-recognition of Taiwan. 

The main point: Beside seeking to rid itself of a candidate who has proven unwilling to play into its unification strategy, Beijing’s ramped up political warfare activities against Taiwan are aiming to sever the unprecedentedly close relationship that has developed between Taipei and Washington, DC, since 2016.

[1] Author’s conversation with an unnamed source, early August 2019.

[2] Author’s conversation with an unnamed source, June 2019.

[3] Author’s conversation with an unnamed source, mid-September, 2019.