The New Battlefield of Influence Operations: The PRC’s Israel-Palestine Strategy Poses New Challenges to the Taiwan Strait

The New Battlefield of Influence Operations: The PRC’s Israel-Palestine Strategy Poses New Challenges to the Taiwan Strait

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The New Battlefield of Influence Operations: The PRC’s Israel-Palestine Strategy Poses New Challenges to the Taiwan Strait

The recent Hamas attack on Israel has shocked the world, capturing attention in both Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The plight of the Palestinians vis-à-vis the Israeli state has a number of parallels with the complex relationship between Taiwan and the PRC. While the PRC has slightly recalibrated its traditionally pro-Palestinian stance, citing humanitarian grounds, Taiwanese public sentiment is strongly and emotionally aligned with Israel. Media across the political spectrum in Taiwan have interpreted the attack on Israel—and the subsequent Israeli military campaign in Gaza—as potentially reflective of how a Taiwan Strait conflict might unfold, despite Taiwan’s more vulnerable position relative to the PRC. This narrative presents the PRC with an opportunity to craft a fresh cognitive framework, simultaneously fueling its anti-United States influence campaigns in Taiwan and bolstering its strategic position in the Middle East.

The PRC’s Influence Operations: From Pro-Palestine to a More Neutral Approach

The outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in October has thrown international politics into turmoil, and granted the PRC a chance to craft a revised anti-United States narrative. Following the attack by Hamas from Gaza on October 7, the PRC government has consistently maintained a relatively balanced and tempered diplomatic stance. In the United Nations Security Council, the PRC condemned “all attacks against civilians” and advocated for genuine efforts from member states toward a “two-state solution.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅), during his call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on October 14, reiterated this position. In later engagements with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, Wang emphasized the importance of compliance with international humanitarian laws, pushed for an immediate ceasefire, sought dialogue, and called for the safeguarding of living conditions in Gaza by promptly establishing humanitarian aid channels.

This diplomatic stance contrasts markedly with the PRC’s previous approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Following the Israel-Hamas clashes in April and May, the conflict swiftly emerged as a key topic of Chinese influence operations, particularly those targeting Chinese audiences. On Douyin (抖音), a prominent Chinese social media platform, numerous influencer channels featured “live” depictions of Israel-Palestine encounters. Some even portrayed fictional scenarios in which various Arab nations joined the conflict, leading to Israel’s gradual retreat. Such disinformation was often intertwined with critiques of countries—notably the United States—for backing Israel, combined with pejorative terms targeting Jewish culture. Such posts highlight how Israel has become a focus of PRC influence operations aiming to shape domestic perceptions of Western nations.

Following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, all of this content was promptly removed, signaling China’s efforts to present a more reconciliatory and gentle diplomatic stance. In his statements, Foreign Minister Wang, while remaining critical of Israel’s perceived disproportionate actions toward Gaza, did not directly challenge Israel’s policy direction. Instead, he underscored the urgency of humanitarian intervention and called for an immediate ceasefire. Mao Ning (毛寧), the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (中華人民共和國外交部), even stressed the PRC’s role as a mutual friend to both nations. She consistently emphasized China’s position as being on the side of fairness and justice concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict, fervently expressing her wish for the two nations’ peaceful coexistence. These actions and statements marked a notable shift in China’s internal and external communication strategies, transitioning from an “anti-Israel, pro-Palestine” stance to a more neutral “support for peaceful coexistence” approach.

This significant shift in Beijing’s stance has yet to be embraced by the Chinese population, which has long been conditioned to support Palestine and oppose Israel. Within the PRC, there have been reports of assaults on Israelis, and platforms like Weibo (新浪微博) and Douyin still feature criticisms of Israel and the West. However, in countries without pronounced anti-Israel sentiments, this change in policy could potentially serve as a vector for PRC informational campaigns against Taiwan. By leveraging Taiwan’s own media dynamics, the PRC can more effectively disseminate disinformation on the island to impact public opinion and make it more pro-China. It thereby creates suitable circumstances for reinforcing its renewed position and role in the Middle East.

Taiwan’s Self-Identification with Israel Offers Avenues for PRC Propaganda

Taiwan stands out in East Asia as one of the few countries that sees its own national situation mirrored alongside that of Israel. Israel’s challenging circumstances in the Middle East, stemming from Arab nations’ antagonism, mirror Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation due to PRC pressure. Moreover, throughout its long diplomatic history of isolation, Taiwan has engaged in numerous forms of collaboration with Israel. Consequently, political parties, regardless of their political stance, maintain significant ties with Israel. Such self-projection has led many in Taiwan to link Israel’s actions and circumstances to political discussions concerning Taiwan’s national sovereignty.

Taiwan’s identification with Israel has been shaped by multiple historical factors. In military terms, Israel’s remarkable turnaround during the 1973 Yom Kippur War profoundly influenced the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) government, which was grappling with the aftermath of its removal from the United Nations and ensuing diplomatic isolation. Following the United States’ cessation of diplomatic ties with Taiwan, Chiang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) administration struggled with the loss of US military and political backing. Consequently, the Chiang regime looked to the Israeli model of self-reliance as a potential lifeline. This emulation is evident in Taiwan’s self-developed military arsenal—from air defense missiles and the AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo fighter jet, to ventures in the nuclear industry—where one can trace the footprints of Israel’s defense industry.

After the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) came to power in 2000 and faced pressure from the PRC and mistrust from the United States, Israel resurfaced once again as an essential source of military technology. Israel has offered support across various domains, including reconnaissance satellites and submarine acquisitions. Israel’s resolute responses to threats from Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian attacks, and Iran’s influence have resonated with the DPP and its supporters. For the DPP—which has ruled in the past as government holding a minority position in the parliament, while facing a rapidly developing PRC—Israel stood out as a prime example of how to defend national sovereignty amid massive external pressure.

In this context, during the ongoing conflict Taiwan’s typically polarized mainstream media outlets have displayed a rare consensus in sympathizing with Israel, setting aside their usual political divisions over unification versus independence. Nonetheless, Taiwan’s interactions with Israel have primarily focused on commercial trade in the defense and energy sectors—with many in Taiwan lacking a holistic understanding of Israel’s political and social systems, and failing to distinguish the complexities between the Palestinian nation, Gaza, and Hamas. This has resulted in generalized indifference toward non-Israeli communities.

Taiwan’s self-identification with Israel has contributed to the development of a unique perspective, using the outcomes of Israel’s military operations in Gaza as a benchmark for shaping national security policies. However, due to the absence of a deeper understanding of the Middle East and historical context surrounding the Israel-Arab conflicts, external narratives can sow doubt and exacerbate ideological clashes within Taiwan. This environment can also be easily exploited by the PRC’s influence operations. For instance, following the outbreak of the current Israel-Hamas conflict, during which Israel’s Iron Dome failed to effectively intercept Hamas rockets, Taiwanese media raised doubts about the military’s ability to fend off PRC missiles. Some experts further questioned whether the massive weapon procurements by the Taiwanese government from the United States are indeed appropriate, arguing for a reevaluation of military acquisitions. Such doubts not only demonstrate a void in the understanding of actual policy needs, but also undermine public confidence in national defense.

PRC Efforts to Establish a New Foothold in Taiwan’s Public Consciousness

The PRC’s sudden diplomatic pivot from supporting Palestine to adopting an ambiguous, neutral stance has not been well-received domestically. However, in Taiwan, this change could serve as a new framework for shaping perceptions of the Taiwan Strait situation. Within this narrative framework, the PRC can leverage Taiwan’s self-identification with Israel, attempting to re-frame the recent Israel-Hamas war—as well as the United States’ support for Israeli actions—as a potential precursor for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Such interpretations would no doubt increase skepticism among those Taiwanese who are already doubtful of US support, intensifying the aversion to US military aid. Meanwhile, by framing itself as a supporter of humanitarianism, the PRC attempts to diminish its negative impression as an aggressor held by many Taiwanese. 

This approach aligns with the anti-United States narrative that the PRC has been cultivating for years. Its impact can be observed in the immediate reactions within Taiwanese society to the dissemination of misinformation regarding the Israel-Hamas war. Although Taiwanese generally see the fictional portrayals of Israel’s setbacks on TikTok as tasteless jokes, any disinformation about Israel or the United States now receives additional attention. For example, misinformation about Israel using white phosphorus and the involvement of US troops has been repeatedly broadcasted. The circulation of disinformation in Taiwan, including rumors about Israel’s non-compliance with international humanitarian law and Western nations’ perceived lack of commitment to justice, enhances the credibility of the PRC’s diplomatic narratives in Taiwan. In turn, this could also raise concerns within Taiwanese society about potential intervention by Western nations, particularly the United States, in the Taiwan Strait.

Indeed, the PRC’s neutral stance aligns with its objectives in the Middle East. Following the PRC’s successful efforts to facilitate diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran this March, traditional dynamics in the region are evolving. By integrating historically pro-US oil giants like Saudi Arabia into its economic networks, the PRC is positioning itself as a peace maker. While the US and other Western countries label Hamas’s attacks as terrorism and back Israel’s full-scale military operations in Gaza, the PRC is working to portray itself as an advocate for peace, attempting to foster dialogue between Israel and the Arab states.

The outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war has presented an opportunity for the PRC to recalibrate its role in the Middle East, ultimately using the conflict as a tool to influence perceptions surrounding the situation in the Taiwan Strait. As more countries urge their governments to denounce Israel’s military operations and the Global South seeks consistency in approaches to both Ukraine and Gaza, Taiwan’s self-identification with Israel could potentially put it at risk of further international isolation. This scenario could pave the way for the PRC to wage a diplomatic campaign to gain more international support. At the same time, the war offers an opportunity for Taiwan to reflect on the potential new challenges that the PRC’s Middle East engagement could pose to the Taiwan Strait from a broader, societal perspective.

The main point: While the PRC has historically aligned itself with Palestine, the recent Israel-Hamas conflict has seen Beijing take a more neutral approach. This shift could presage a broader effort by China to improve its international image and further marginalize Taiwan.