Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Former Top Defense Official Highlights Taiwan’s Role in US Competitive Posture in the Indo-Pacific

The former top defense official in the Trump administration in charge of implementing the defense component of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIPS) recently visited Taiwan. Among a series of public and private engagements—which included a meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen—Randall Schriver was in Taiwan for his first overseas trip after stepping down as assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs in late December 2019. During his visit, Schriver delivered public remarks at Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense-affiliated Institute for National Defense and Security Studies (INDSS). In his talk, Schriver highlighted his views of Taiwan’s role in the United States’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIPS), noting specifically that the United States and Taiwan have a “shared vision” for the Indo-Pacific and calling the island-democracy the “linchpin” for security throughout the Indo-Pacific.

After returning to private life, Schriver is now serving as the chairman of the Project 2049 Institute—an Arlington-based think tank focused on Asia policy. In that capacity, Schriver delivered a keynote speech at INDSS, which was approximately 30 minutes in length, and covered a wide range of topics related to Taiwan’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. Perhaps most notably, the former assistant secretary of defense highlighted how the United States and Taiwan have a “shared vision” for the Indo-Pacific region and that this vision provided a strong basis for enhancing the bilateral partnership. Specifically, he addressed how Taiwan fits into the “competitive posture” prescribed by the United States’ National Defense Strategy (NDS) for long-term strategic competition with China.

Schriver began his remarks by laying out the current conditions of cross-Strait relations in 2019, which was set by General Secretary Xi Jinping’s January 2019 speech on Taiwan policy. Schriver explained that Xi basically called on Taipei to adopt “one country, two systems”—the formula that Beijing has in place in Hong Kong. Schriver observed that Xi wants to solve the “Taiwan problem” on his watch and has not ruled out using force to do so. He noted that this may be an expression of Xi’s confidence—perhaps resulting from Taiwan’s November 2018 local elections—in which the opposition-KMT won an overwhelming number of seats in the local elections.

While 2019 was not a good year for Taiwan-China relations, Schriver asserted that it was a good year for US-Taiwan relations. Specifically, he noted that it was a year of improvement for the US-Taiwan bilateral relationship—some very visible, such as the release of new weapon systems—as well as other less visible forms of cooperation in areas such as cyberspace in the lead up to and through the elections. Bilateral defense dialogues and military exchanges continue to mature and develop; and Schriver highlighted how the Taiwan Travel Act, which was unanimously passed by the US Congress in February 2018, has contributed to a richer partnership between the two countries.

Since President Tsai’s election in 2016, China has adopted a more aggressive posture against Taiwan. Schriver highlighted a number of recent provocative actions taken by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in February 2020, specifically the aerial activities and incursions by Chinese bombers and aircraft. While it was not clear whether those actions reflected confidence or insecurity on the part of the PLA, Schriver believes that it shows that the Chinese leadership has little imagination and he expects to see more of the same from China going forward.

In terms of how Taiwan fits into the “competitive posture” for US-China strategic competition, Schriver underscored the “Three Ps’” highlighted in the NDS: (1) preparedness, (2) partner and allies, and (3) promoting a networked region. In terms of preparedness, Schriver highlighted that it depends on the lethality of the joint force—China being the “pacing element.” In relations to Taiwan, Schriver highlighted that Taiwan is a “key element” since “preparedness” depends on the United States having a close intelligence relationship with Taiwan to better understand China.

With regards to partners and allies, Schriver emphasized that the United States is heavily reliant on partners and allies for basing, access, and to bring their own capabilities to increase security in the region. Taiwan is a “focal point” and the country’s ability to protect itself and its sovereignty make it the “linchpin”—a description often used in reference to South Korea—for security throughout the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, Schriver added that, as a partner, Taiwan is key since a strong deterrent and ability to defend itself are part of keeping the Indo-Pacific free and open, and part of keeping the PLA uncertain to affect security through the use of force.

Schriver said that Taiwan can be part of the solution for promoting a networked region. According to Schriver, there ought to be expanding cooperation not just in intelligence exchange, but also real-time intelligence cooperation to make sure that all the partners and allies are on the same common operating picture to effectively respond to the nature of the threats. Indeed, Schriver argued that it is time to go beyond bilateral US-Taiwan relations since to effectively respond to security challenges it is important to also share insights with partners and allies.

Going forward, the former assistant secretary of defense assessed that Chinese pressure on Taiwan will continue to grow and that the US-Taiwan bilateral partnership must be able to move forward as well and not just think in the same space. Schriver prioritized six areas for development in US-Taiwan relations. First, restart the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) between the United States and Taiwan—the last one was held in 2016—with the goal of negotiating a bilateral trade deal. Second, the United States should help Taiwan expand its international space. The current WHO/ICAO debacle over the novel coronavirus originating from Wuhan is a lethal reminder of how Taiwan is being squeezed by the PRC. Moreover, in cases where existing organizations cannot/will not accept Taiwan, the United States and Taiwan should create new organizations and groupings that can help augment Taiwan’s international space. He highlighted the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) as one such important example. Third, in terms of defense, the United States should continue to faithfully implement the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and support Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept (ODC). The United States and Taiwan should continue to seek out creative ways to enhance training opportunities, which Schriver said is important for deterrence. Schriver notably pointed out that such training not only benefits Taiwan but also the United States by making the forces fully interoperable. Fifth, Schriver recommended strengthening intelligence exchanges between the United States and Taiwan in real time to help facilitate a common operating picture in order to respond more effectively and in a timely manner. Finally, the former top defense official for the Indo-Pacific region stated that the United States should explore how the United States can be a bridge for Taiwan to other countries and militaries who share the same vision for free and open Indo-Pacific. According to Schriver, Japan should be on the top of the list and, as Schriver noted, the Japanese want to work more closely with Taiwan.

The main point: During his visit to Taiwan, former top defense official Randall Schriver delivered remarks at the INDSS, highlighting Taiwan’s role in the United States’ FOIPS and improvements in US-Taiwan bilateral relationship, and pointing out key areas for future development in US-Taiwan relations.

US-Taiwan Bolstering Efforts to Counter PRC Propaganda and Disinformation

Heightened awareness within democracies about authoritarian influence and political interference by countries like China, Russia, and Iran are spearheading international efforts to counter these malign activities in new and innovative ways. The means by which authoritarian regimes wield sharp power may be different and evolving, but, in relations to democracies, share at least two common characteristics: they exploit open systems and utilize technology to achieve their objectives. Taipei is on the frontlines of China’s authoritarian influence, and the United States and Taiwan have been working closely together over the past several years to develop new initiatives to combat propaganda and disinformation, especially from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

A newly launched joint initiative, which follows programs focused on promoting media literacy held under the auspices of the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), is indicative of this new line of effort. Held over the course of two days from February 20 to 21, the US-Taiwan Tech Challenge (美台科技挑戰賽) is an international competition that sought technological solutions from the private sector to counter propaganda and disinformation. That the global competition was organized jointly by the US State Department and Taiwan—and held in Taipei—is reflective of an increasingly global partnership and burgeoning ties between two democracies brought together by a shared vision facing similar threats from the rise of revisionist authoritarian powers. As AIT Director Brent Christensen, the top US diplomat in Taiwan, noted at the forum:

Taiwan is also on the frontline of the disinformation battlefield and faces challenges from a determined opponent. China has invested heavily to develop ever-more sophisticated ways to anonymously disseminate disinformation through a number of channels, including social media.  As their malign methods evolve, the motivation remains the same—to weaken Taiwan’s hard-won democracy and freedom.

With seven finalists from Taiwan, Australia, and Israel vying for grants from the US government to develop innovative technological solutions for combatting propaganda and disinformation, the top place winners were Trend Micro from Taiwan and Cyabra from Israel.

The winner from Taiwan, TrendMicro, is an enterprise data and cyber security firm. The technology that won the award is called “Dr. Message,” which is a free detection tool for identifying disinformation on Line, the leading messaging app in Taiwan. The technology is able to verify content as well as trace its path, and then offer users options to filter out disinformation. The winner from Israel, Cyabra, is a cybersecurity and social listening tool focused countering disinformation. It is a platform for social listening and detection of fake news across major social media platforms using AI-based technologies to detect bad actors and identify visual content manipulations via deep fakes.

The event was co-organized by GEC in conjunction with the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), Park Advisors, and Taiwan’s Institute for Information Industry (III). Created by Congress in 2017, the GEC is charged to “direct, lead, synchronize, integrate, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and foreign non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining or influencing the policies, security, or stability of the United States and its allies and partner nations. – Section 1287 of FY17 NDAA (as amended by the FY19 NDAA).”

According to the deputy director of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), Daniel Kimmage, who spoke at the competition: 

Awareness of a common threat brings us together.  Malicious actors all over the world are using propaganda to undermine our institutions, norms, democratic processes, free economies, and social cohesion.  Our adversaries subvert online environments even as they mount offline efforts—some overt and many covert—to attack democratic values and exploit societal divisions.  Taiwan is directly confronted by these threats, as is the United States.

While previous initiatives between the United States and Taiwan tackling propaganda and disinformation had been primarily and critically focused on government-to-government cooperation at the leadership level, this new line of effort leverages the asset of Taiwan’s robust civic-tech community and strengthen private-public partnerships. As Director Christensen stated:

…all sectors of society—not just government—must work together to find innovative solutions to the pressing problem of disinformation and the manipulation of the truth by malign actors. Civil society – including the tech community, NGOs, academics, and journalists—people like you that are assembled here today—are key players in leading the charge in bringing cutting-edge technology tools to the battlefield against disinformation.

Indeed, the civic tech community in Taiwan is at the leading edge worldwide for combating propaganda and disinformation—in part because of the massive scale of the challenge it faces. It is worth noting that Taiwan has been ranked by an European study as the place most affected by foreign online disinformation campaigns in the world in the 2019.

To be sure, much ink has been spilled on China’s interference in Taiwan’s elections following the November 2018 local elections. Concerns over Beijing’s plans to interfere in the general elections led to heightened vigilance by the two governments to prepare and respond to the challenge. As highlighted by Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, at a recent conference in Washington, DC on China’s political interference in Taiwan, there are several measures that have been particularly effective in countering authoritarian propaganda. These measures include transparency measures with fact-checking initiatives as the most effective, social media platforms banning foreign-sponsored propaganda, and a campaign donation roster.

The main point: The United States and Taiwan are working closely together to develop new initiatives to combat propaganda and disinformation, especially from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The US-Taiwan Tech Challenge is indicative of this new line of effort.