On August 13, the Chinese military announced that it had conducted military exercises “near” Taiwan “to safeguard national sovereignty” in response to a visit to Taiwan by US Health Secretary Alex Azar, the most senior ranking US official to visit Taiwan since 1979. Referring to efforts by “certain large countries” that are “incessantly making negative moves regarding the Taiwan issue and sending wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces,” Zhang Chunhui (張春暉), spokesman of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Eastern Theater Command (東部戰區), said the exercises occurred in the Taiwan Strait, as well as in areas north and south of Taiwan.
As is always the case when analyzing Chinese military drills “near” Taiwan, analysts and observers should be careful to distinguish between operations that are primarily exercises in psychological warfare and those which signal genuine preparedness for use of force against the island nation. Unfortunately, international media will often uncritically report Chinese statements—as well as reports in pro-Beijing outlets like the Global Times and South China Morning Post—as facts, which inadvertently amplifies the propagandistic elements of the Chinese maneuvers.
Just as often, these outlets will quote “unnamed military analysts” or retired PLA officers-turned-military-commentators, such as Phoenix TV’s Song Zhongping (宋忠平). These analysts have a track record of distorting the facts surrounding military exercises, while exacerbating, through their commentary, psychological pressure on the Taiwanese people. Hawkish commentators like Song or Lü Cuncheng, a research fellow at the Institute of Taiwan Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS, 中國社會科學院), will frequently echo messaging by the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國務院台灣事務辦公室) or “fill the blanks” if official remarks are not sufficiently threatening.
What is often ignored in such reporting is the credibility of the claims by Beijing and its propagandists that military exercises were undertaken in direct response to a specific “provocation” by either Taipei or “certain large countries.” Given the logistics involved in preparations for major military maneuvers, it is highly unlikely that large-scale exercises involving various services within the PLA could be mobilized quickly enough to respond purposefully to a visit by a US official that had been announced only weeks prior (in Azar’s case, the announcement was made on August 4, only five days prior to the visit). In such instances, two alternative—and likelier—scenarios present themselves: (1) if the drills were indeed in response to a specific recent development, then they almost certainly were small-scale and at the command post-level; (2) conversely, if the military exercises occurred on a larger scale, then they were inevitably planned months ahead of time and therefore could not have been prompted by a sudden external stimulus.
A similar series of events occurred in April 2018, when the usual set of actors—the TAO, Global Times, hawkish Chinese commentators, and foreign media—turned a relatively small and scheduled series of exercises in waters off Quanzhou, Fujian Province, into “the first live-fire exercise in the Strait” since the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis, undertaken “to check ‘Taiwan independence.’” (The Global Times’ subhead to its article read, “Provocations by Taiwan’s leaders, others result in mainland’s stern warning.”) Back then, the exercises were ostensibly timed to coincide with a visit to Swaziland by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
On cue, the aforementioned Song Zhongping, quoted in a dispatch by Agence France-Presse, warned that “The drill comes as the Taiwan authority has been obstinately promoting ‘Taiwan independence,’ especially considering that Taiwan leader [President] Tsai Ing-wen and the island’s [Taiwan] administrative head [then-premier] Lai Ching-te [賴清德] keep spreading the idea.” “The mainland [China],” he continued, “needs this targeted drill to punish the two; […] the focus of the upcoming drill will be long-distance attacks and amphibious landing operations, which worries Taiwan the most.” Left unsaid in the reports was the fact that the small-scale drills did not, as Song claimed, involve “long-distance attacks and amphibious landing operations.” Additionally, despite the allegedly unprecedented nature of the exercises, such military maneuvers actually occur on an annual basis. In most cases, such local exercises involve artillery firing as well as computerized simulations. During that same incident, Song also succeeded in putting China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, at two different locations simultaneously—in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait.
One good way to assess the veracity of claims by state-run Chinese media and propagandists is to peruse official PLA publications, which regularly release imagery of recent military maneuvers. Sure enough, Song’s claims of exercises simulating “long-distance attacks and amphibious landing operations” in April 2018 were not supported by imagery on the official PLA website. At this writing, no imagery stemming from the August 2020 exercises has surfaced. Certainly, no evidence has emerged that supports the notion that the operations were “unprecedented” “massive military drills in the Taiwan Straits” that—as unnamed military analysts stated in the Global Times said—“must be of a large scale and could have involved warplanes, warships, amphibious troops, artillery, and missiles.” [italics added.] Nothing demonstrating, as the Global Times claimed, “that the PLA is capable of launching a general offensive from all directions in the Taiwan Straits, and seize the island in hours.”
We must nevertheless acknowledge that this type of messaging has the imprimatur of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which must give approval before anything is printed in the Global Times, and with whom propagandists like Song must most assuredly coordinate their commentary. Furthermore, the signaling has undoubtedly become harsher, with commentary in the same report indicating that “The PLA has more options to impose military pressure, including fighter jets flying around the island, passing the ‘middle line’ of the Straits and even flying over Taiwan Island, testing ballistic missiles over the Taiwan Island, and carrying out military exercises in the eastern waters of Taiwan.”
More responsible journalism on the part of international outlets would arguably reduce the incentive for Beijing to resort to such threatening propaganda and help limit its potential coercive effect on the population of Taiwan. Reducing foreign coverage of such propaganda by practicing more skeptical reporting would also curtail Beijing’s ability to guide the narrative on Taiwan by depicting US efforts to defend the embattled democracy as both unnecessarily inflammatory and ultimately fruitless given the scale of the threat against the island-nation. We should add, as well, that Beijing’s propaganda also maintains that it remains committed to “peaceful unification,” and that any use of force would therefore only be “defensive” and resulting from provocation.
In another editorial published on August 16 in response to a recent report by former Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Michael Morell and retired US Admiral James Winnefeld for the US Naval Institute (USNI), the Global Times stated that “If there is any serious tension or even a military clash in the Taiwan Straits, it could only be triggered by the separatist authority on the island and the US. The mainland will not unilaterally create tensions over the Taiwan question, which would be a distraction from its own development.” Thus, the propaganda aimed at the United States and other allies vis-à-vis Taiwan contends that the PLA is ready and willing to use force against Taiwan, but nevertheless remains committed to finding a “peaceful” option—unlike what people like Morell and Winnefeld might claim. Only “unacceptable” US meddling and support to “secessionists” would compel the PLA to act on its threat. The US, therefore, had better stay out. Propagandistic reports on large-scale PLA maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait serve as a reminder of this.
A first step toward countering these narratives would entail recognizing that the more the CCP and its usual propagandists, like Song, seek to portray a military exercise as “unprecedented” and directly linked to a specific “provocation” by “Taiwan secessionists” and their foreign allies, the less credibility international media outlets should give to initial reports and official statements coming out of the TAO and PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Highly publicized military drills are propaganda and should be treated as such. More often than not, the truly threatening actions on the part of the PLA, such as intrusions into Taiwan’s ADIZ or across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, are much less publicized by Beijing. However, it is precisely such activity that should be receiving greater attention within international media.
Since the election of Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, the military component of Beijing’s strategy toward Taiwan has become more prevalent as its “soft power” initiatives have largely failed. This latest militarization of Beijing’s posture comprises two main vectors—increased PLA activity and preparedness in the vicinity of Taiwan, combined with a sustained campaign of psychological warfare against the Taiwanese government and public. Although the threat of possible use of force against Taiwan should not be taken lightly—and appropriate measures should be taken accordingly by both Taipei and its allies—we must be careful to distinguish between the real and the illusory, if only to ensure that responses to the Chinese threat are commensurate and focused on the right set of variables.
Propaganda is both meant to confuse and to create a sense of embattlement and inevitability. The more we understand the rationales, channels, and targets of this propaganda, the better equipped we will be to see through the fog and defend ourselves if and when a real blow is imminent and aimed at us.
The main point: Highly publicized claims of large-scale military exercises by the PLA in response to specific “provocations” by Taipei and its allies should be recognized for what they are: exercises in propaganda aiming to confuse, deter, and isolate the Taiwanese public.