Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China, or ROC) occupies a prominent position on the geopolitical stage given its contested status as a sovereign nation. In turn, this unsettled status could portend military action by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Much attention has been focused on strategic threats in the context of kinetic action by the PRC in the Taiwan Strait. Yet, when considering these potential actions, strategists tend to focus on hard military power when evaluating potential threats, and to discount asymmetric approaches. This article will examine potential asymmetric means the PRC might use to achieve its goals, and illustrate such means with the ideas contained in Unrestricted Warfare (超限戰)—a 1999 analysis written by two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) colonels, which advocated a strategy of waging war stealthily against an adversary.
This strategy was refined in 2003 with the official declaration by the Chinese Communist Party (中國共產黨, CCP) of their “Three Warfares” (三種戰法) doctrine, a form of hybrid warfare that entails legal, psychological, and media means. This article will: (1) emphasize the legal aspect of the Three Warfares in the outer space domain; (2) identify vulnerabilities for the ROC; and (3) present possible scenarios using “lawfare” in the outer space and cyber domains. The PLA capabilities discussed in this article fall under the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF, 中國人民解放軍戰略支援部隊)—which is responsible for Three Warfares operations, as well as cyber, space, electronic, information, and communications missions and capabilities.
Outer Space, Cyber Space and Lawfare
Lawfare can be defined as employing the rule of law and its instruments and institutions as force to augment or replace physical force to serve a national interest or achieve a political/geopolitical end. Lawfare is consistent with irregular warfare as espoused by the PLA and the Three Warfares doctrine. The PRC utilizes lawfare in conjunction with other types of warfare, including the two other legs of the Three Warfares. So, how is lawfare relevant for the ROC in terms of outer space and the cyber domain?
The ROC signed the Outer Space Treaty when it was first open for signature in 1967, and ratified it three years later. Subsequently, the UN General Assembly voted on October 25, 1971 to recognize the PRC as the sole legitimate representative for China to the UN, and to remove the ROC’s representative. This act abrogated the ROC’s legal status under the Outer Space Treaty, including Article VIII, which grants signatories jurisdiction over satellites that they have launched under their authority. In the absence of such legal backing, the ROC has been forced to develop its space infrastructure through alternative channels. The ROC’s de facto autonomy continues to be disputed by the PRC and only has the support of 13 states who are members of the UN.
Taiwan does not currently have a domestic space launch capability, and instead relies on other states such as the United States to launch its satellites. Since 1999, Taipei has launched 17 satellites; however, because of the previously mentioned UN resolution, they are registered officially by the UN as belonging to the PRC, which designates Taiwan as a “province of the PRC.” The ROC is not a member of the Registration Convention to the Outer Space Treaty (one that expanded registration rights), as the ROC lost its status in the UN before that agreement was open for signature. Moreover, the ROC has not sought official registration with the UN. This situation creates an opportunity for the PRC to use lawfare against the ROC as a precursor to employing hard power.
Lawfare, the PRC, and the ROC
The ROC’s legal status—and particularly the legal status of its satellites—opens avenues for the PRC to employ lawfare. For example, the PRC’s legal claim to the ROC’s satellites could give the PRC leverage to deny the ROC the use of outer space assets. In this respect, the PLA could target the ROC’s satellites with soft-kill and hard-kill counter-space capabilities without violating any international agreement. The underlying validation for any such actions would be the ROC’s lack of formal sovereignty: the PRC could point to the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs listing these space assets as registered to a “province of the PRC,” which would give the PRC legal standing to disable the ROC’s space assets—either to intimidate the ROC, or as a precursor to invasion.
The PRC could also employ lawfare to exploit the ROC’s dependence on government and non-governmental satellites registered to the United States and other states. Given the extent to which the ROC’s national security depends on these space assets for communications, navigation, and intelligence, the PRC could use lawfare to legally justify targeting these space assets using offensive space control (OSC) measures to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy these satellites prior to an invasion. In the event a conflict escalates to open hostilities, the PRC could also use kinetic physical, non-kinetic physical, electronic, and cyber attacks against the ROC’s satellite infrastructure.
Four escalatory scenarios will be presented here to illustrate and explain the implications of lawfare as applied to outer space:
Scenario 1: Current Situation
In this scenario, the PLA conducts intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), increasing its understanding of the Taiwanese order of battle. The PRC also crosses into the ROC Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) to detect weaknesses and strengths. The PLA would then update invasion plans based on new intelligence, and conduct minor offensive counter space operations to test the ROC’s ability to detect and mitigate the PLA’s actions. In the cyber arena, the PLA would conduct ISR while seeking opportunities for intrusions and disruptions.
Taiwan could be expected to defend its space assets by using defensive counter space (DCS) operations, defined as “active and passive measures taken to protect friendly space capabilities from attack, interference, or hazards.” According to US doctrine (Joint Publication 3-14, Space Operations), these DCS measures “safeguard assets from hazards such as direct or indirect attack, space debris, radio frequency interference, and naturally occurring phenomena such as radiation. DCS measures can apply to defense of any segment of a space system—space, link, or ground.”
Scenario 2: Increased Tension
In this scenario, the PLA conducts tests and probes to disrupt Taiwan’s cyber and satellite operations. Recent power outages throughout Taiwan could potentially have been a PLA cyber attack designed to demonstrate the CCP’s displeasure at the recent visits to Taiwan of former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Michael Mullen and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Interestingly, the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense (MND, 中華民國國防部) did not publish the number of PLA aircraft violations during the visits. This action denied the ability of the PLA to communicate their displeasure with these visits, and was an effective MND counter-propaganda operation.
Scenario 3: Pre-Conflict / Pre-Invasion
In this scenario, the PLA has developed a battle plan and will conduct actions to enable both kinetic and non-kinetic attacks. For example, the PLA might attack ROC government web sites, and disrupt the financial and banking sector (financial warfare), to induce anxiety amid the general population. All of these actions would be amplified in legacy and social media.
Before kinetic attacks begin, the PLA could prepare the battlefield by preventing Taiwan’s use of satellites through electronic jamming, cyber-attacks, and laser operations. The PLA might also destroy satellites that allow Taiwan to communicate within Taiwan or with the outside world, including satellites registered to other states. At this point, the PLA could also disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy fiber-optic cables that enable much of Taiwan’s electronic communication with the outside world (see diagram below).
After analyzing these four main junctions (15 submarine cables landing in seven cable landing stations in Taiwan), the PLA could determine how to degrade Taiwan’s access to the rest of the world, potentially including severing underwater cables that travel to the PRC. According to a recent discussion of communication security by Taiwan’s parliament, 95 percent of Taiwan’s data passes through underwater communication cables. The PLA might also explore other methods to degrade or destroy these links. Assessing Russian mistakes in the current Russia-Ukraine war and Kiev’s successful information operations, the PLA and the CCP would not allow images and commentary sympathetic to the Taiwanese to be shown to the rest of the world, such as suffering elderly people, women, and children. Instead, the PLA and CCP would work to manipulate messages to reinforce the CCP’s narrative. Additionally, the PLA would disrupt internal communication within Taiwan, as well as the ROC’s other islands.
The purpose of these PLA planning and preliminary actions would be to paralyze the ROC’s internal and external communications, prevent military and commercial activity that would adversely affect PLA operations against Taiwan, and enhance the communications breakdown’s adverse effects on the ROC’s armed forces and government. In sum, the PLA would seek to completely disconnect the ROC from the rest of the world.
Scenario 4: Hostilities, Invasion, and Occupation
In this final scenario, the sole goal of the PLA’s tactical attack would be to occupy and annex Taiwan. The PLA will likely degrade rather than destroy infrastructure in order to limit post-conflict rebuilding expenses.
The PLA would likely continue operations similar to those in Scenario 3, which would help prepare the battlefield for invasion. Yet, their efforts would focus primarily on ensuring that communications networks remain degraded to the level needed until the ROC government surrenders. If one of the means to reach their objectives is to destroy communication nodes, the PLA has a variety of anti-radiation missiles or precision-guided munitions to use against radar, microwave installations, satellite dishes and ground stations, and other communication sites and nodes.
Employing lawfare and pointing to the official registration of the satellites, the PLA could take control of ROC satellites instead of destroying them. With the ROC’s satellites intact and under their control, the PLA could disable key nodes temporarily or replace them with products from PLA-linked companies such as Huawei and ZTE. Huawei, ZTE, and others will be tasked with rebuilding the communications infrastructure and building new communications in accordance with social controls that exist in the PRC.
Moreover, the PLA probably does not want to destroy the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC, 台灣積體電路製造股份有限公司) facilities that produce the most advanced micro-processing chips in the world. The PLA might instead seek to capture these facilities and key personnel as one of its first acts. Since there is no separation between the PLA and the commercial sector, the CCP would likely plan to assign specific individuals to be on-site at TSMC complexes.
These actions would all be part of an invasion plan and targeting process that the PLA has developed and will update from observations of the Russian military, including its recent invasion of Ukraine and experiences in Syria.
Hybrid warfare is a valuable tool in the PLA’s arsenal, and lawfare tactics will prove invaluable for the CCP’s efforts to subjugate the ROC under the PRC. The ROC will have to incorporate resilience into its space and cyber capabilities in light of the PLA capabilities arrayed against it. Taiwan must also proactively identify and address the lawfare and other hybrid warfare methods the CCP and the PLA will employ. In this regard, the events in Ukraine could be a harbinger for the CCP’s moves against Taiwan, and the PLA will assess accomplishments and challenges observed in the Russian Federation’s invasion of that sovereign country. Similarly, Taiwanese leaders should examine the asymmetric means used by the CCP and the PLA, and prepare countermeasures accordingly.
The main point: In the event of elevated tensions or war, the PLA will be expected to attack Taiwan space and cyber capabilities. Taipei must take proactive steps to design resilience into their communications (space, cyber, etc.) networks, and identify and address the lawfare and other hybrid warfare methods that the CCP and the PLA will likely employ.