China and Taiwan are at war ... on social media.
The Chinese People's Liberation Army on Feb. 3, 2019 released a propaganda video celebrating China's desire to "unite" with Taiwan. By force, if necessary.
A day later on Feb. 4, 2019, the Taiwanese ministry of defense struck back with its own propaganda video depicting all the ways Taipei would resist unification. Warships, fighter jets, attack helicopters, tanks, artillery.
The PLA's video is the cheesier one. Set to the tune of "My Fighting Eagle Flies Around Taiwan," the video including painterly shots of beaches, mountains and forests and idylic tableaus of daily life.
Until the warplanes appear and the lyrics describe the Chinese people’s desire to "reunite Taiwan with the mainland.'" J-10, J-15 and J-20 fighters fly in formation, missiles hanging from their wings. Pilots gaze with determination at the horizon.
The message isn't subtle. Neither is the Taiwanese military's response.
The Taiwanese video, entitled "onstandby24/7," is less poetic than the Chinese video is. Sailors, soldiers and airmen toil over maps, speak into radios. Tanks deploy on a beach. Artillery fires. Destroyers and frigates sail side-by-side. Mirage 2000 fighters take off. AH-1 helicopters fire rockets.
"Threats from the enemy only serve to strengthen our resolve to protect our freedom and democracy," the Taiwanese defense ministry stated. "We will defend the Republic of China’s continual development and maintain peace within the Taiwan Strait and in the region."
Propaganda videos play a big role in military messaging and recruiting on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese air force in 2017 tapped a charismatic young stealth-fighter pilot to star in recruiting videos that the PLA Air Force hopes will help the air arm to satisfy its growing demand for new airmen.
The Taiwanese defense ministry for its part stages its annual island-defense drills specifically in order to facilitate television news coverage. “Staging a countrywide military exercise is as much about practical matters as it is about messaging,” a commentator wrote for the Hong Kong South China Morning Post. “First, the message to Beijing is that, for all the might that its military has accumulated since the 1990s, the PLA underestimates Taiwan’s capability and will to fight at its peril.”
But competing videos might belie the yawning gap between China's increasingly modern military and Taiwan's own, aging forces. In a couple of decades, China’s economy has grown to a size 20 times the size of Taiwan’s own economy.
All that new wealth has fueled rapid military modernization on the mainland while Taipei struggles to maintain and modestly upgrade armed forces that were on the technological cutting edge in the 1990s but today are falling behind.
"Chinese shipbuilding, aviation technology and weapons design have made steady inroads for the past 20 years—cutting into Taiwan’s edge in quality while calling into question the conceit that ROC quality will beat PLA quantity," argued James Holmes, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College.
"In short, the PLA has narrowed if not abolished the Taiwanese military’s technological advantage while also remaining far superior in brute numbers."
Taiwan benefits from a defensive posture and Western-style doctrine and organization, both of which could translate into superior battlefield performance. China's own military inexperience heightens Taiwan's doctrinal advantage. "Today, China's military has an increasingly impressive high-tech arsenal, but its ability to use these weapons and equipment remains unclear," the California think-tank RAND reported.
But China could overcome more skilled Taiwanese defenders with sheer mass. "The islanders may still hold an edge in tactical skill and élan, but, at some point, mainland forces will prevail by weight of numbers amplified by gee-whiz technology," Holmes warned.
Taipei might produce better propaganda videos than China does. But if the Taiwan Strait conflict escalates into a shooting war, it might not matter who won the video battle.
Image: YouTube sceenshot.