Assuming current trends and barring any major controversy, polling indicate that there is a high likelihood that incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will prevail against her opponents, Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) of the Kuomintang (KMT) and James Soong (宋楚瑜) of the People First Party (PFP) in the general elections on January 11 next year. Attendant to this outcome is the equally high likelihood that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing will respond by further ramping up its political warfare activities against the democratic island-nation.
It will therefore be essential that the administration in Taipei respond accordingly to the challenge, by doing more to counter Beijing’s machinations against Taiwan. More of the same—and according to some analysts, the Tsai government has not been doing enough to mitigate the threat in the past four years—will simply be insufficient. This article discusses some of the measures that should be adopted by the incoming government immediately after the elections in January and provides a few examples of areas where the CCP is expected to ramp up its political warfare efforts.
Beijing’s Aims and Strategies
As discussed in an earlier piece, the CCP’s political warfare efforts are three-pronged: domestically, the visible component of such efforts (propaganda, disinformation, co-opted Taiwanese officials repeating CCP tropes) are aimed at a Chinese audience to demonstrate that the CCP’s strategy toward Taiwan is yielding benefits. Externally, they seek to (a) win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese by changing the narrative in the Taiwan Strait and abroad—this strategy also involves covert support for candidates whom the CCP believes are more amenable to its own interests through a process of co-optation and financial assistance; and (b) to undermine the cohesion of Taiwan’s statehood, institutions, parties, politicians, civil society, and public support for democracy. The latter part of the CCP’s overall political warfare strategy ultimately hopes to weaken the democratic “firewall” and Taiwanese nationalism that have denied it the goal of “peaceful unification” on terms that, we can expect, would largely be dictated by Beijing.
Although it is difficult to quantify the effects of political warfare on electoral outcomes (or other areas, for that matter), we can nevertheless conclude that it is easier for an external force to engage in such efforts to influence elections at the sub-national rather than the national level. The CCP’s focus on local city councilors, legislators, and borough chiefs in recent years, particularly those who are independents or outliers within their own parties, suggests that much of its strategy is aimed at such areas of Taiwan. A substantial number of those politicians, along with members of their families, have received preferential treatment for their business operations in China. To those activities we can also add ongoing efforts by pro-Beijing political parties, such as Chang An-le’s (張安樂) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP, 中華統一促進黨), the Taichung-based Red Party Taiwan (中國台灣紅黨 ─ 红黨), and the Chinese Red Unification Party (中國紅色統一黨), to recruit local Buddhist temples, agriculture associations, and other local entities to their cause.
Despite making inroads among politicians who are willing to compromise themselves in return for favors from the CCP, it is hard to imagine that Beijing has succeeded in building sufficient momentum within Taiwan’s body politics to turn things in its favor. Assuming that the Chinese officials in charge of political warfare understand that this is the case, we can therefore expect that much of future “sharp power” efforts aimed at Taiwan following the January elections will fall within the second category of its external efforts—i.e., activities that seek to erode and undermine Taiwan’s ability to function as a state. As some experts have argued, continued efforts to sow discord and divisions through such operations could also be inherently part of efforts aimed at weakening the CCP’s opponent ahead of kinetic—i.e., military—operations against the island. In other words, we should avoid making the mistake of looking at CCP political warfare as lying outside a continuum at the extreme of which lies use of force, and instead regard such operations as a component of a perpetual state of struggle that does not differentiate between peacetime and war. This certainly becomes more feasible should the CCP leadership conclude that political warfare efforts, added to various incentives and coercion, have failed to shape the environment in its favor and that the time has therefore come to resolve the matter through more direct action.
Given the likelihood of escalation on the part of the CCP, it will be incumbent upon the new administration that takes office on May 20, 2020, to respond to the challenge in commensurate fashion. Failure on Taipei’s part to take additional corresponding measures—all within the parameters of democratic rules of the game, it goes without saying—will only ensure that the CCP succeeds in achieving its goals.
Before highlighting some of the areas where Taipei can and should respond, the ability of the DPP, on its own or within a coalition of likeminded parties, to retain a majority of seats at the Legislative Yuan, following the January elections would be an important factor in determining the viability of any new initiatives. The loss of a majority to the KMT or its own coalition, especially in light of some of the ostensibly pro-Beijing individuals who have been placed on the KMT’s “safe list” for legislators at large, would certainly complicate the central government’s ability to pass the necessary legislation to make countermeasures against CCP political warfare and foreign interference legitimate under the law. Many, albeit not all, of the added measures proposed below are contingent on the legislature’s ability to pass such laws.
- Increase budgets and personnel at the nation’s top counterintelligence agencies, such as the National Security Bureau (NSB) and the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB). Those two agencies have been tasked with countering the challenge of CCP interference and espionage under conditions that became infinitely more onerous during the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) years (2008-2016), when various sectors of Taiwan’s economy and society were opened up to Chinese investment and access. While this was happening, no commensurate efforts were made by the government to increase the state’s ability to monitor, identify, track, mitigate, and counter the accrued risks.
- Intelligence, law enforcement, and military officers must be exposed to greater internal security screening and accountability to prevent and deter recruitment/co-optation by the CCP. Recent revelations of involvement by recently retired top intelligence officers in Master Chain Media (大師鏈), a pro-Beijing media initiative launched late last year, are deeply troubling and could undermine public confidence in the state’s ability to keep its secrets safe and counter CCP interference in Taiwan’s affairs.
- Increase intelligence sharing with counterparts worldwide. Tracking CCP political warfare is now a global affair, and Taiwan can both contribute to and benefit from official exchanges with intelligence agencies around the world. In cases where governments are wary of engaging Taiwan, the US intelligence community, in conjunction with Taiwan, should take the lead and create an appropriate platform for such quiet exchanges.
- Taiwan should seize every opportunity to continue and increase its participation in multilateral fora on media literacy, cyber warfare, authoritarian influence, and national security writ large, whether at the official or unofficial—e.g., Track 1.5 or Track 2—level. This includes, but is not limited to, the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Munich Security Conference, the Raisina Dialogue, the Halifax International Security Forum, and several other multilateral initiatives. Taipei should also continue to support initiatives such as the Global Cooperation Training Framework (GCTF) with the United States and encourage other partners to join the initiative.
- The state, corporate sector, and other potential benefactors must increase financial and institutional support for Taiwan’s civil society and universities, where much of the essential research on CCP political warfare is being carried out. The severe underfunding from which this sector has suffered must end, and Taiwan cannot wait for external partners to provide what is well within the state’s capacity to provide.
- Dramatically increase public diplomacy and efforts to educate the Taiwanese public on the means and ends of CCP political warfare. This must involve the declassification of material collected by intelligence and law enforcement agencies while ensuring that sources and means of collection are protected. Working in conjunction with civil society, such efforts are necessary to dispel skepticism about CCP political warfare or the belief that the ruling government only discusses such matters following defeats at the polls. Taiwanese media should not passively await exposés in foreign media, such as the recent news coming from Australia involving Wang Liqiang (王立強), a suspected Chinese spy turned defector, before including discussions on such matters in their broadcasts. Greater efforts, moreover, must be made to encourage bipartisan support for such initiatives. Among other things, Taiwanese authorities should renew their efforts to reach out to overseas Taiwanese and Mandarin speakers. Recent budget cuts for the Overseas Community Affairs Council (OCAC, 中華民國僑務委員會) is the wrong way to approach the matter: more needs to be done to connect with overseas communities, not less, although more modern and appealing means to do so must be found. Failure to reach out is tantamount to abandoning those communities—and potential allies among them—to the CCP and its proxies overseas.
- Public diplomacy to influence the narrative must also be accompanied by greater investment in public television, state-run Central News Agency (CNA), as well as Radio Taiwan International (RTI), possibly in conjunction with expanded global efforts by likeminded partners such as Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA).
- Strengthen oversight and regulations of media, both traditional and “new,” and add appropriate enforcement for the sanctioning of outlets who generate or consciously spread disinformation. Although every effort should be made to encourage responsible journalism and editorial independence, such calls will fail to sway outlets whose principal aim isn’t journalism but rather political warfare under the cover of journalism. Sanctions should have sufficient bite to deter participants in disinformation, especially when those are known to be receiving heavy financial support from the CCP. In cases where clear CCP agency is involved, laws outside the purview of the media, such as foreign agent or foreign interference regulation, should become applicable.
- Update regulations governing state-sponsored think tanks and institutions to permit employment, academic exchanges, and scholarships for foreign nationals with the necessary expertise to help Taiwan formulate an effective counter-influence strategy. Such link-ups, which ought to be a two-way street, would also increase Taiwan’s visibility internationally as a partner in fledging coalition of democracies in their efforts to counter authoritarian influence.
It will never be possible for Taiwan to completely track and counter CCP political warfare. The scope and nature of this multi-vectorial threat is such that no state or society will ever be able to obtain a complete picture. Nevertheless, Taiwan can and must bolster its own efforts in line with perceived increments in the hostile behavior of its challenger. Given the severity of the threat and the high likelihood that Beijing will make major increases in its political warfare efforts targeting Taiwan, Taipei cannot afford to remain idle or to continue treating this challenge as nothing other than an existential threat. More of the same, in other words, would be a recipe for disaster.
The main point: Following the January 2020 elections, in which President Tsai is likely to be given a second mandate, the CCP will likely make major adjustments to its political warfare efforts, which are also expected to be bolstered. Taiwan must therefore respond in commensurate fashion with a whole-of-society and ideally bi-partisan strategy.