Will China's Disinformation War Destabilize Taiwan?

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen attends the annual Han Kuang military drill in Penghu, Taiwan May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

There is evidence to suggest that China is increasingly dependent on computational propaganda in its efforts to destabilize Taiwan.

While analysts continue to pay close attention to the increasingly frequent passages by People’s Liberation Army vessels and aircraft near Taiwan, an equally important development is the ongoing saturation of Taiwan with information to overwhelm the population and create a sense of permanent crisis.

With every sign suggesting that President Xi Jinping will tighten the screws on Taiwan prior to—and possibly after—the 19th National Congress later this year, we can expect an uptick in PLA operations, including intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone and other forms of signalling meant to intimidate Taiwan. These exercises reinforce notions of powerlessness and inevitability, as well as serve to incrementally “normalize” such passages by the PLA by making them routine.

Alarming though this may be, these new developments should be regarded as part of Beijing’s propaganda strategy more than as preparation for use of force against Taiwan. Notwithstanding the widening capabilities gap between Taiwan and China, internal PLA reports continue to point to the immense challenge of initiating major military operations against Taiwan, the occupation of which would necessitate a highly risky—and potentially costly—amphibious assault. Therefore, predictions that the PLA could be ready to take over Taiwan by force as early as in the middle of 2018 or in 2020 (the latter is a timeline often used in Taiwan’s own military assessments) are arbitrary and probably do not reflect reality. Assuming continuity in the Cross-Strait relationship, Beijing will therefore remain extremely reluctant to embark on a major military campaign against Taiwan, especially given the difficulty in predicting how the United States, as well as Japan, would react to such a contingency—not to mention the potentially destabilizing effects in China should the campaign not go as planned.

Thus, while the shadow of China’s growing military is—and will remain—a matter of concern for Taiwan, it should not be treated as the foremost threat facing the island nation. In fact, focusing too much on the military threat risks distracting us from other, more pressing developments. Saber-rattling by the PLA is background noise. It is continuous and part of larger, non-kinetic strategy underpinning efforts to annex Taiwan without use of force.

The more immediate threat instead lies in the intensification of political-warfare efforts against Taiwan, from ramped up efforts by China’s United Front apparatus to recruit and co-opt academics, journalists and local officials in Taiwan and abroad to a major campaign of (dis)information saturation to distract from the real issues and create a sense of permanent crisis in Taiwan. The campaign is aimed at undermining democratic processes, eroding public support for the Tsai Ing-wen administration, and overwhelming the Taiwanese government by sapping its finite resources.

There is solid evidence to suggest that China has intensified its reliance on computational propaganda. It is now using bots, various social media (e.g., LINE, WeChat) and content farms (also known as content mills) to saturate Taiwan with pro-Beijing agitprop—the standard Chinese modus operandi. China is also using the bots to spread disinformation targeting the government, which increasingly has embedded itself into traditional (dis)information campaigns, pitting the Democratic Progressive Party against the Kuomintang (KMT). In other words, computational propaganda has allowed Beijing to insert itself into the battleground of domestic Taiwanese politics, so much so that various (dis)information campaigns can no longer be solely attributed to the KMT and other pan-blue forces, which adds to the confusion. In recent cases, Chinese disinformation efforts have overlapped with—and in some cases appear to have co-opted—traditional blocking action by opposition legislators and civic groups opposed to reforms. These recent cases include protests against pension reform, government plans to limit the (environmentally unfriendly) burning of large quantities of incense and ghost money at Buddhist temples, and limits for the Tsai administration’s Forward-looking Infrastructure Development Program.