China’s invasion of the “renegade province” of Taiwan has already begun. Of course, not a physical assault by military forces – not yet, at least – but rather a campaign of psychological and diplomatic pressure against Taiwan that has seriously intensified in recent months.
Take, for example, the issue of airline reservations, with China issuing a directive in April to 44 foreign airlines that they change the name “Taiwan” to “Taiwan, China” on their global websites.
Numerous carriers such as Qantas, Air India, Lufthansa, British Airways and Air Canada caved in, even though the White House criticised Chinese demands as “Orwellian nonsense” and “part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party [CPC] to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies”.
In like fashion, the Marriott hotel chain, Gap clothing and Mercedes-Benz have all at some point felt China’s wrath for offending its sensibilities about descriptions of Tibet or Taiwan. Each apologized for not complying with China’s standards.
This Chinese pressure has been ramping up since President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party took office in Taipei in January 2016. There was an immediate cooling of relations with Beijing, and China has attempted to marginalize Taiwan at every opportunity. Tsai insists she wants to maintain the status quo in terms of bilateral relations, but the CPC fears she will push for formal independence.
Tsai is facing extreme pressure from China, as well as internal political and civil pressure to modify her stance. Nevertheless, it appears that Taiwan is the only party intent on observing the status quo in cross-straits relations. China certainly is not.
In March at the National People’s Congress, President Xi Jinping said, “It is a shared aspiration of all Chinese people and in their basic interests to safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and realize China’s complete reunification.”
Xi received rapturous applause when he threatened, “Any actions and tricks to split China are doomed to failure and will meet with the people’s condemnation and the punishment of history.The Chinese people share a common belief that it is never allowed and it is absolutely impossible to separate any inch of our great country’s territory from China.”
Later, in June, Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office in China, warned, “We have the stern will, full confidence and sufficient capability to defeat any form of Taiwan independence separatist plots.” He added that China “absolutely will not permit Taiwan independence forces to interfere with the course of China’s great rejuvenation.Taiwan independence is a dead-end street. We warn Taiwan independence forces not to play with fire.”
Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a Virginia-based think tank, told media, “In the past ten years, most people took peace for granted. Most thought Taiwan’s going to be absorbed.by China. They thought this is a flashpoint not worth considering anymore. The US didn’t talk much about it and nor did its allies.”
However, Easton said the threat to Taiwan has grown greatly under Xi. “There’s no question about it.Clearly his approach is different to that of Hu Jintao – his personality is different, he’s much more ambitious, much more aggressive, he’s much more interested in Taiwan than Hu Jintao was.” Easton pointed out, “Xi Jinping has been much more focused on preparing to one day occupy the island. It’s always been the party’s and the People’s Liberation Army’s [PLA] main strategic direction ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
For now, China is prosecuting a short-of-war campaign to bludgeon Taiwan. Russell Hsiao, writing for The Jamestown Foundation, delineated ten elements to this pressure campaign: poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies; military coercion; economic coercion; excluding Taiwan from international organizations; pressuring foreign corporations; pressuring Taiwan’s non-diplomatic allies; economic incentives; political warfare; cyber espionage; and traditional espionage.
Taiwan now has diplomatic relations with only 18 countries worldwide. It lost formal ties with Sao Tome and PrÃncipe in December 2016, Panama in June 2017, and the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso in May 2018, after China lured them away.
Beijing, like it did with South Korea over the topic of a US Army missile defense battery stationed on its territory, is unafraid to use its considerable economic clout against Taiwan. Thus, it limited the number of tourists travelling to the island since Tsai assumed office, with the number falling 700,000 in 2017 alone.
In international organizations, China has gleefully pressured others to ostracize Taiwan. Thus, Taiwan was denied observed observer status at the World Health Assembly in May. Another example is the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), with China pressuring the group to exclude Taiwan. The ICAO has remained silent on China backtracking on its 2015 agreement with Taiwan over using the commercial M503 flightpath near the centerline of the Taiwan Strait.
Authoritarian China, thanks to its growing technological and digital know-how, is increasingly taking advantage of the liberties and openness of Western and Taiwanese democracies. Indeed, Easton warned that China is subverting Taiwan’s democracy, “everything from espionage to cooperating with pro-unification and organized crime syndicates in Taiwan, gun running, drugs and smuggling people into Taiwan. They’re going to do things that will destabilize Taiwan’s society.” Easton even spoke of Chinese intelligence operatives being mixed in with pro-unification groups and their protests, some of which have turned violent.
The United Front Work Department (UFWD) is actively engaged against Taiwan. Hsiao commented, “In Taiwan, the UFWD targets a broad range of constituencies, including aborigines, local villages and townships, youths and students, pro-China political parties and groups, and Taiwan military veterans. Taiwan’s government has previously estimated that China spends at least $337.8 million per year on UFWD recruiting efforts in Taiwan, but has also said it believes there might be more ‘invisible funding’.”
China is routinely using social media disinformation, propaganda, “content farms” and bots to fan the flames of social instability via UWFD proxies. Taiwan has an extremely high internet usage rate of 82.3% and smartphone penetration rate of 73.4%, and China can relatively easily spread fake news on messaging sites such as Line, as well as imagery. One example of the latter is a picture of a Chinese H-6K bomber flying near Jade Mountain in Taiwan. Such an event did not occur, yet the image still went viral. China is also good at misquoting officials or ex-officials in either Chinese or Taiwanese forums to show purported approval of the CPC.
Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute,concluded, “The CPC has a long history of using propaganda and disinformation against Taiwan. In social media it has found a fertile information environment to amplify its time-honed tactics of political and psychological warfare. Flooding Taiwan’s society with propaganda and disinformation can weaken its people’s trust in democratic institutions and lead to political instability.”
He continued, “The CPC’s ultimate goal is the subjugation of Taiwan under the PRC, and propaganda and disinformation are means to weakening morale and people’s resistance towards that political end.”
Likewise, China is manipulating the cybersphere to its advantage. Taiwan is the number one target of Chinese hacking, with a reported 20-40 million attempted hacks against its public sector each month throughout 2017.
Hsaio explained that Taiwan has suffered a number of embarrassing high-profile espionage incidents too, often involving the military. From 2006-16, some 40 Taiwanese – including military officers, businesspeople and government officials – were prosecuted for spying on behalf of China.
With such intense bullying of Taiwan and of anyone else that does not submit to Beijing’s narratives, and with mounting concerns over China’s hard-nosed One Belt, One Road initiative, China is beginning to face adverse reaction on the international stage. Ironically, Beijing’s squeezing of Taipei does permit more countries to see the ugly nature of this authoritarian regime and its leader.
While China is happy to bully those weaker than itself, it also shows a remarkably thin skin for a nation that regards itself as a global power. China was incensed by Trump accepting Tsai’s congratulatory telephone call in December 2016. Beijing also feels antagonized by ongoing American military equipment sales to Taiwan, with the USA the only country willing to stand up to Chinese bluster. China was further infuriated by Trump’s legislation encouraging the USA to send senior officials to Taiwan and vice versa.
China continues to ramp up pressure against Taiwan militarily. It has hundreds of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles aimed at the island. It has also boosted the number of military exercises near the island. For example, from August 2016 to December 2017, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense counted at least 26 PLA aerial exercises, of which 15 circumnavigated the island. There were just eight in 2015 and 2016 combined. The Chinese Liaoning aircraft carrier has passed Taiwan four times already.
Media asked whether a military confrontation between China and Taiwan becomes more likely the longer Xi stays in power. Easton replied, “Yes, it does,” and he outlined two reasons. One is that Xi will inevitably get older, weaker and face more health issues. ‘There are going to be potential power struggles, and there are going to be all the problems associated with a dictatorship – especially a communist-style dictatorship – and we’ve seen this with Mao and Stalin.”
Easton described the potential for leaders to develops megalomania because they become godlike. “There’s already this incredible cult of personality in China, and being godlike makes people go crazy. It corrupts their sense of reality, so there’s a real risk of that.” A related danger is that Xi will not receive accurate information from his underlings. After having done so much to eradicate opponents within the party and military, Xi could end up being surrounded by “yes men” who simply tell Xi what he wants to hear. This may lead to huge miscalculations, with Xi making decisions based on wrong assumptions.
The second reason given by Easton regarding the rising possibility of war is that the PLA will grow increasingly stronger over the coming 10-20 years. China has made huge investments in the PLA, but these may not bring a payback straight away. Indeed, it may take years to get a return on that investment.
“So a lot of the heavy military spending, research and development and training that we’re seeing right now, they’re going to come to fruition in the next one to two decades. When they do, China’s going to have so much more military power than it currently has and that it has had over its entire modern history. When that happens, I should think there’s going to be even greater temptation to do something that could be disastrous,” Easton warned.