As Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) seeks to cement his reputation going into the 20th Party Congress (中國共產黨第二十次全國代表大會), he has taken a number of coercive steps against Taiwan. The Chinese government’s previous policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan has ceased following Xi’s crackdown in Hong Kong and the re-election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). Instead, over the last three years, there has been a sharp increase in gray zone warfare methods. While internal pressures within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from COVID-19 and the need to establish a semblance of stability prior to the 20th Party Congress will likely reduce the direct danger to Taiwan in the short-term, there are numerous indicators that the next five-year period following the Congress will be particularly dangerous. The PRC may exercise options ranging from an accelerated gray zone warfare campaign to a limited land grab. Where is the most likely epicenter for a cross-Strait systems confrontation? The stage is set for Kinmen (金門).
Pre-COVID Priorities as an Indicator of Future CCP Direction
In the PRC, as with most countries, domestic problems relating to lockdowns, testing, and vaccination development and acquisition absorbed the time and energy of the PRC political leadership throughout 2020. This has also been true for influence operations led by the United Front Work Department (UFWD, 中共中央統一戰線工作部), which tends to be a good indication of Party priorities. On January 2, 2019, Xi delivered a hardline speech on Taiwan unification. Accordingly, the UFWD focused its efforts on a vast but ineffectual campaign to influence the Taiwan presidential elections. In 2020, in response to the escalating pandemic, the focus of the UFWD shifted to a global effort to obfuscate the origins of COVID-19 and to portray the CCP response as a triumph of authoritarian governance. This was complemented in September 2020 by a Central Committee of the CCP (CCCPC, 中國共產黨中央委員會) domestic directive for the UFWD to ensure Party discipline in private enterprise (“關於加強新時代民營經濟統戰工作的意見”).
Thus far, 2021 has seen the UFWD transition back to pre-COVID themes and priorities. On December 20, 2020, updated UFWD regulations called for a renewed focus on “overseas Chinese work” (僑務工作) and “Taiwanese compatriots at home and abroad” (海內外台灣同胞). On January 25, 2021, Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang (汪洋) underlined these updated regulations in a meeting with the Western Returned Scholars Association (WRSA, 歐美同學會), the primary UFWD organization for interaction with ethnic Chinese scholars and scientists. He called on the WRSA to emphasize the “education and guidance” of overseas Chinese students in “understanding the strength and advantages of the CPC, Marxism, and socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
This reversion has been seen in other elements of the PRC pressure campaign. Starting roughly around June 2020, People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) incursions across the median line in the Taiwan Strait and around Taiwan sharply increased, restarting a trend that began in 2019. In the same timeframe, the PRC accelerated its use of sand dredgers around the island of Matsu, expanding a project that began in 2018. A number of security analysts have argued that the PRC’s use of such gray-zone tactics is primarily meant to “bolster its sovereignty claims over Taiwan by normalizing its presence,” or is intended to conduct “experimentation with new wartime strategies.” Others have stated that they are meant to test the level of US support for Taiwan. These reasons are true but incomplete; a more holistic way to view them is through the concept of systems confrontation/system destruction warfare.
Systems Confrontation, System Destruction
Systems confrontation (體係對抗) is a PLA operational concept from circa 2015, while system destruction warfare (體系破擊戰) is the resulting PLA theory of victory. The concept details are described in Jeffrey Engstrom’s seminal 2018 RAND report, which can simplistically be boiled down to the PLA’s attempt to replicate US operational triumphs in the 1991 Gulf War and the 1998 Kosovo War.
Essentially, the concept can be interpreted as an engineering approach to military operational planning. This approach seeks to create a system of systems more efficient and robust than that of the adversary. Such a system of systems can then wear down and ultimately paralyze the adversary, withoutneeding to annihilate the enemy force.
As James Holmes has noted, this engineering-style approach is “nothing new.” Indeed, the CCP has notably used gray zone warfare with elements of systems confrontation selectively in the past. Examples include the Hai Yang Shi You (海洋石油) 981 standoff against Vietnam in 2014, the use of maritime militia swarms against the Philippines in 2015, and increased PLAAF incursions against the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) over the last six years.
What is relatively new is that the CCP’s gray zone warfare against Taiwan elevates the systems confrontation approach from the operational warfighting level to the strategic level. Unlike the other examples of PRC gray zone warfare, the primary purpose is not messaging or one-off salami slicing, but rather to systemically grind down all aspects of Taiwan’s national security forces in a coordinated fashion. The PLAAF incursions across the median line, for instance, are meant to force continued Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) intercepts to the detriment of maintenance, training, and overall readiness for open warfare. This also has detrimental effects in the long-term, as it works as bait for the Taiwan populace to demand further investments to match the PLAAF intercepts versus developing more effective asymmetrical capabilities.
These effects do not just extend to the air and sea domains. It also applies to information (co-opting Taiwan media to produce fake news) and intelligence (use of UFWD operations to establish clandestine networks), forcing agencies like the Taiwan National Security Bureau (NSB, 國家安全局) to raise their operational tempo. Each case of systems confrontation, taken separately, is not particularly dangerous. In the aggregate, however, they are designed to overwhelm, forcing the opposing party into a reactive stance. System destruction is achieved when the Taiwan military and government are paralyzed and cannot respond—all without open warfare.
In the end, paralysis of the Taiwan government is only one part of the CCP goal. Given the overwhelming focus of the PLA on developing anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities and hypersonic missiles—capabilities that would be superfluous if the PLA was primarily concerned about fighting the Taiwan military—it is clear that the CCP views intervention from the United States as the single highest risk factor to forced unification.
Thus, the systems confrontation/gray zone warfare campaign against Taiwan has been carefully designed to also paralyze the United States. The CCP knows that increased overflights across the median line or sand dredging around Matsu will not result in American intervention; at the same time, the US non-response is used by the CCP as part of its messaging campaign that the US treats Taiwan as a pawn, and will ultimately abandon Taiwan.
The next CCP target will likely fit the same parameters. As pre-COVID priorities will re-assert themselves fully in 2022, it is instructive to note that Xi’s 2019 speech specifically highlighted Kinmen and Matsu for attention:
The two sides of the Strait should be fully connected to promote economic and trade cooperation, infrastructure connectivity, energy resource interconnectivity, and common industry standards. We can first connect water, electricity, natural gas, and bridges between Kinmen, Matsu to the coastal areas of Fujian.
Xi’s proposal for these so-called “New Four Links” (新四通) is a continuation of a 25-year personal interest. In fact, he first publicly discussed the importance of a cross-Strait tunnel as early as December 1998 when he was a middling deputy secretary of the CCP Fujian Provincial Committee. In the past, similar proposals—such as the 2001 “Mini Three Links” of limited postal, transportation, and trade connections—were simply a part of the CCP messaging strategy against Taiwan. However, in the context of the current all-encompassing PRC pressure campaign, there are several implications to this proposal today.
1. The Party will likely restart and expand the New Four Links proposal to paralyze intra-party reform of the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨).
Recent plans by newly-elected KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) to revamp the KMT into a PRC-skeptical, pro-US party have been met with significant resistance from the pro-PRC engagement KMT old guard. PRC outreach to Kinmen is meant to garner additional support from the old guard faction, which is particularly prevalent on Kinmen. Moreover, following the start of the pandemic, fear of disease transmission from the mainland caused a backlash against expanding PRC links among even the most ardent pro-PRC engagement groups on Kinmen. The CCP thus has a major incentive to rebuild these ties as a prelude to destroying the current fragile Taiwanese bipartisan consensus against the Party.
2. The Party seeks to use Kinmen as an experimental vehicle for testing localized political warfare tactics.
Previous attempts by the CCP to interfere in Taiwanese politics have been clumsy: from the use of obviously fake political parties to outright vote-buying. On Kinmen, CCP political warfare has been more sophisticated. Political warfare has not been limited to attempts to influence the KMT; the UFWD supports puppet parties such as the For Public Good Party (中華民族致公黨) and the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP, 中華統一促進黨), pitting them against each other to adopt and normalize openly unificationist positions. The UFWD has been relatively successful in translating economic and political influence into popular backing for CCP priorities such as the New Four Links. This is primarily due to greater cultural/political fluency in identifying and exploiting local concerns and alienation from the two mainstream Taiwan parties. As the UFWD improves its versatility in micro-targeting Taiwan localities, there will likely be an improvement in its political warfare methods used against Taiwan proper.
3. If the Party’s localized political warfare succeeds in Kinmen, then the Party will have a credible option to execute a Crimean-style fait accompli.
CCP interest in promoting developmental ties to Kinmen plays a short-term role in ensuring that other gray zone warfare techniques outside of political warfare are downplayed. However, in the context of a scenario where 1) the Kinmen population decisively and consistently disassociates with both major Taiwan parties, and 2) Kinmen authorities begin to openly defy Taipei on CCP proposals such as a Kinmen-Xiamen “Cross-Strait Peace Experimental Zone” (兩岸和平實驗區), then this could lead to calls for Kinmen to secede from the ROC and join the PRC. In turn, this would give the PRC a credible opening to execute a fait accompli operation against Kinmen, only six miles away from Xiamen. This would be the ultimate systems confrontation: such a move would severely test the determination of both the Taiwan and US governments to respond in a situation where they would be at a significant disadvantage in both a military-operational and political sense. Yet, a lack of response would also have severe repercussions: if the US-Taiwan partnership were to fall apart, or Taiwan domestic politics were to become accommodationist in the face of PRC aggression, this would constitute true system destruction by the PRC.
As we begin to emerge from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, indications are that the PRC and the United States will see a vigorous recovery in 2021-22. Both sides will thus begin turning from internal issues into waging what President Joseph Biden called “extreme competition.” The CCP will intensify its systems confrontation/gray zone campaign against Taiwan, both as a facet of this competition and as part of Xi’s personal ambition to enter the CCP historical pantheon as at least Mao’s equal. Taiwan would be well-advised to use the COVID-granted breathing space to ramp up its plans to invest more heavily in Kinmen and lessen Kinmen’s dependencies on the PRC before the CCP makes its next move.
The main point: The CCP has melded the PLA’s “systems confrontation” operational concept with gray zone warfare with the aim of exhausting Taiwan’s national defense and paralyzing the US response. Given the Party’s trend towards reversion to pre-COVID priorities, Kinmen will likely be the next target for this new style of gray zone warfare.