Chinese warships and airplanes now regularly cross the median line of the Taiwan Strait—an unofficial buffer. Image: Eyepress News/Shutterstock

In Taiwan, China is covertly preparing for battle

Ahead of Taiwan’s elections, Beijing is amping up its campaign of intimidation, disinformation and cyber attacks. Such tactics fall short of outright war—but only just
December 6, 2023

Preparations for Taiwan’s presidential elections on 13th January are in full swing. The eight-year tenure of Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, is ending. Buildings and billboards are plastered with the beaming faces of the remaining presidential candidates. In the coming weeks, they will stage grand campaign rallies, complete with elaborate performances and laser shows.

The festival-like atmosphere jars with the purported stakes of the competition: for Taiwan’s political heavyweights, the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), the vote is a choice between autocracy and democracy, or war and peace.

Taiwan is a flashpoint for great power conflict. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) regards Taiwan as an inalienable part of its sovereign territory, and “reunification” as an “inevitable requirement for realising the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. ­Beijing would prefer a peaceful reunification with Taiwanese “compatriots”, but if Taiwan crosses the PRC’s “red lines” and moves towards formal independence, Chinese law enshrines the right of the Communist Party (CCP) to respond with violence. 

Despite growing geopolitical isolation and aggression from the island’s expansionist, communist neighbour, Tsai has nurtured Taiwan’s hard-won democracy with cool determination. For Beijing, the rule of her pro-sovereignty, independence-leaning DPP has become ever more of an affront. Accordingly, the CCP’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric about unification has been accompanied by the rapid modernisation and development of their armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This includes advanced missile systems, capabilities in cyber warfare and in blocking adversarial forces from entering a theatre of war, and the further expansion of what is already the world’s largest navy. Shortly before stepping down, former Chinese premier Li Keqiang announced a military budget of 1.55 trillion yuan (roughly $224.8bn) for 2023, explicitly calling for heightened “preparations for war”.

Hives of analysts spend their days gauging how these threats could escalate, and for good reason: a potential invasion could start World War Three. The US, though not legally bound to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese invasion, has implicit defence commitments to the island encapsulated by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act—though these commitments are intentionally left vague. This shroud of “strategic ambiguity” allows the US manoeuvrability and dissuades both unprovoked attack by China and unilateral declarations of independence by Taiwan. Still, Taiwan sits at the heart of the security architecture and trade routes of the Asia-Pacific region. To abandon it would be to unravel US influence in the western Pacific. The US has sold arms to the Taiwanese military for decades and Joe Biden has, on multiple occasions, let it slip that America would support Taiwan with its own military against coercive force. For Beijing, gambling on US intentions could be fatal.

The possibility of clashing with a US-led coalition, along with the logistical obstacles of deploying forces by sea, serves as a strong deterrent for the PRC. The Taiwan Strait is 110 miles wide and whips up 20ft tidal surges. Chinese troops who managed the tricky amphibious landing would encounter miles of bogs, mountainous terrain and Taiwan’s potent asymmetric defence networks, which use unconventional tactics and technologies in an attempt to counter a military that is roughly 14 times the size of its own. Success would be far from guaranteed; any failed attempt would be catastrophic. Diplomatically, a violent annexation would risk international isolation for Beijing, inviting sweeping sanctions and lasting diplomatic rifts. Economically, an invasion would further weaken China’s faltering economy and jeopardise its standing in the global market. Consequently, a forceful “unification” likely poses too great a threat for both the stability of the CCP and its grander strategic ambitions—that is, for now. Analysts and senior US figures, including CIA director William Burns, US secretary of state Antony Blinken and the former commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Philip Davidson, have predicted that the PLA will be war-ready by the centenary of their founding, in 2027. In the meantime, Beijing is covertly preparing the battlefield.

Russia, Iran and China do not perceive war and peace in binary terms, instead operating fluidly in the “grey zone”. Labelled variously as political warfare, sub-crisis manoeuvring and hybrid warfare, grey-zone activities are coercive statecraft actions below the threshold of armed conflict. This nebulous realm exists between peaceful diplomatic engagement and outright warfare, allowing revisionist states to shift the status quo through a subtle blend of political, informational, technological and economic tactics. These methods often deviate from internationally accepted norms and are calibrated to advance these states’ interests little by little—without triggering armed combat or providing a casus belli. The emphases are on ambiguity and gradualism, allowing room for plausible deniability. For example, the Kremlin’s actions before its annexations in Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014) exemplified the grey-zone approach: in Georgia, it backed separatists and staged military exercises, and in Ukraine, it deployed unmarked troops— “little green men”—to seize the Crimean parliament, thereby achieving strategic gains while denying involvement. 

The PLA have similarly mastered the grey zone. Chinese military thinkers drew pivotal lessons from the 1991 Persian Gulf War, noting the transformative impact of precision munitions, real-time intelligence and surveillance systems, and electronic warfare in the US-led coalition’s victory. From this, they predicted the centrality of information in modern warfare, an idea that transformed traditional conceptions. Now, the battlefield is everywhere, and encompasses all economic, financial, technical and informational domains. A new warfare paradigm emerged, with PLA colonels advocating the use of every means at a nation’s disposal to “compel the enemy to accept one’s interests”. 

President Tsai, whose term ends in January, has overseen the cultivation of a vibrant civil society, pioneered same-sex marriage in Asia, and led an impressive Covid-19 response. Image: Chris Stowers/Panos Pictures President Tsai, whose term ends in January, has overseen the cultivation of a vibrant civil society, pioneered same-sex marriage in Asia, and led an impressive Covid-19 response. Image: Chris Stowers/Panos Pictures

In 2003, China incorporated the “Three Warfares” (三戰, sanzhan) into its PLA Political Work Regulations, formalising this shift. This strategy comprises public opinion warfare (輿論戰, yülunzhan), aimed at aligning global and domestic narratives with Beijing’s interests; psychological warfare (心理戰, xinlizhan), intended to sap the morale of enemy forces and exploit internal divisions; and legal warfare (法律戰, falüzhan), the manipulation of legal frameworks to serve China’s geopolitical aims. 

These offensive operations function in concert as what’s known as the peacetime employment of force, tilting the geopolitical balance in line with China’s interests while undermining the political, ideological, psychological and legal domains of its adversaries. It constitutes a continuous, long-term reconfiguration of the battlefield that falls under the threshold of overt conflict, and lays the groundwork for swift victory. The ideal is to win without fighting (不戰而勝, buzhanersheng). 

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, China deployed tools of public opinion warfare in the west through multilingual media, social media platforms, government officials and online networks, deflecting pandemic blame and spreading narratives insinuating the US created the virus as a bioweapon. In Xinjiang, psychological warfare is given the form of random arrests, frequent inspections, forced labour, digital tracing and mass internment, terrorising the ethnic Uyghur minority under the pretext of combating extremism. The 2020 National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong, characterised by its vague criminalisation of ­various acts and extraterritorial reach, exemplifies the PLA’s legal warfare, providing Beijing a veneer of legal legitimacy with which it can suppress dissent globally and project power beyond its borders while claiming to uphold “national security”.

Taiwan is effectively on the front line of Beijing’s grey-zone warfare tactics. It is what Georgia and Ukraine were to Russia: a real-world testing ground, an “R&D laboratory” for sustained and multi-pronged covert and overt influence, espionage and interference campaigns. These tactics, perfected in Hong Kong and Taiwan, are then deployed against other democracies. In the UK, for example, the Intelligence and Security Commission (ISC) has sounded the alarm about Beijing’s penetration into every sector of the British economy and academic institutions, noting it now exerts undue political influence, suppresses criticism of the CCP and uses UK intellectual property to enhance its military capabilities. These tactics have set the UK on track for what the ISC has called a “nightmare scenario” of losing control over its sovereign interests.

In Taiwan, Beijing aims to convince Taiwanese people that unification is inevitable and irresistible, balancing its deployment of coercive measures to constrain decision-makers with ­incentive-driven approaches to “win Taiwanese hearts and minds”.

In mid-October 2023, crowds flooded Taipei’s central boulevard to demand peace across the Taiwan Strait, frantically waving flags emblazoned with the “blue sky, white sun, and wholly red earth” of Taiwan. A gruesome video had mobilised them: a soldier massacring scores of civilians and consigning them to a mass grave (ostensibly taken from the war in Gaza, though according to Eve Chiu of Taiwan FactCheck Foundation it actually originated from Syria’s civil war in 2013). Its Chinese caption read: “This is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not a movie! This is war. People have nowhere to escape, families are destroyed.” Sinisterly, the footage had been repurposed to propel the narrative of a pro-unification rally—that peace must be preserved at all costs—denouncing the DPP as warmongers and demanding an end to their rule in 2024.

Taiwan’s information ecosystem swims with this type of disinformation, compounding deep-seated ideological divisions about the country’s relationship with China. This rift manifests in a political spectrum polarised between “blue” pro-engagement parties under the KMT and the DPP-led “green” China-sceptics. Each side discredits the other using propaganda, creating fertile ground in which disinformation injected and amplified by PRC agents flourishes. 

According to an analyst from Doublethink Lab, a Taiwanese NGO investigating PRC global influence and information operations, the PRC exploits vulnerabilities in Taiwan’s open, free and relatively unregulated media ecosystem, intensifying longstanding debates and muddying the truth. Previously, fake or deliberately misleading journalism created in Chinese “content farms” was relatively simple to identify, because of its clumsy phrasing and lack of originality. However, since 2018, the PRC’s tactics have shifted significantly, and are now underpinned by extensive data collection and advanced artificial intelligence technologies. This has resulted in the amplification of comparatively convincing content that appears to originate from sources within Taiwan. Tailored, misleading messages and unverified rumours are spread widely through bots and trolls, flooding social media and the popular messaging app LINE, where they are further circulated by unsuspecting Taiwanese users. The aim is to “Lebanonise” Taiwanese society, intensifying existing societal divisions by fostering confusion and fear. Beijing’s revised approach enables it to better elude detection by Taiwan’s vigilant civil society. 

Additionally, in line with a Mao-era policy known as “using civil actors to promote political ends”, Beijing targets and co-opts individuals with economic, cultural or political influence—often social media influencers and artists—to disseminate narratives that spread discord in Taiwan’s media environment. The DPP is portrayed as inherently corrupt and responsible for Taiwan’s societal challenges, such as wage stagnation and rising youth unemployment. Parallel narratives question the Taiwanese military’s competence, undermining trust in its defence capabilities. The “American scepticism narrative” (疑美論, yimeilun) paints the US as an opportunistic ally who will abandon Taiwan. This narrative is especially pernicious given the island’s geopolitical isolation, ambiguous status in international law and its vulnerability—acknowledging the CCP as the only legitimate Chinese government and de-recognising Taiwan is sine qua non for establishing diplomatic relations with mainland China. Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have therefore been whittled down to just 13 governments, and it is barred from participation in multilateral organisations such as the UN and WHO, where it could otherwise defend its interests. All roads lead to Rome, and the “master narrative” is that Chinese and Taiwanese are one family and should be united—vote for blue, or “Taiwan will be the next Ukraine”.

The ‘master narrative’ is that Chinese and Taiwanese are one family and should be united

Beijing’s pollution of Taiwan’s media environment is accompanied by another form of psychological warfare: constant military intimidation, including daily incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ)—a buffer between international and Taiwanese airspace—and naval drills in the Taiwan Strait. Following former US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022, the PRC launched a 10-day military exercise, Operation Joint-Fire Strike, where 11 ballistic missiles were launched near the island. Similarly, following a visit to New York by William Lai, Taiwan’s vice president and the DPP’s 2024 presidential candidate, whom Beijing has menacingly branded a “troublemaker” separatist, China initiated air and naval patrols around Taiwan.

Military demonstrations overtly display China’s power and resolve, but the PRC’s covert use of civilian vessels allows for a more subtle, yet persistent, form of pressure while furthering its military objectives. Fishing fleets and research vessels loom in the contested waters of the South China Sea and around Taiwan, conducting maritime militia operations, surveillance and data collection. This grey-zone strategy of combining direct military aggression with disguised maritime presence asserts China’s territorial claims and complicates international responses by blurring the lines between civilian and military engagement. These threats serve dual purposes: they not only degrade Taiwan’s military equipment and deplete its resources but also aim to instil a perpetual sense of crisis.

If this were not enough, Taiwan endures around 20m cyber-attacks every day, predominantly from China. The establishment of the Strategic Support Force (SSF) within the PLA, consolidating space, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities, underscores Beijing’s emphasis on information control in any conflict scenario. In the event of invasion, the primary goal of the SSF would be to disrupt, paralyse or destroy Taiwan’s critical infrastructure, intelligence networks and military command systems, thereby gaining information superiority. During the 2019 Hong Kong protests, the PLA were unable to roll in tanks as they might have wished due to high levels of connectivity and, hence, visibility. In Taiwan, the emphasis is clear: in areas yet to be “liberated”, China plans a communications blackout, which could plunge the country into darkness and sever it from the outside world.

You would be forgiven for wondering how Beijing intends to win over Taiwanese hearts with threats, aggression and manipulative interference in its internal affairs. Has Beijing reached its Machiavellian moment in its operations against Taiwan, and realised that peaceful unification is a pipe dream? Bizarrely, no. As Tsunghan Wu from Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research explains, under Xi Jinping, the approach has evolved. China is now applying more intense pressure, and offering more enticements—in other words, harder sticks and juicier carrots. This strategy is manifested in economic statecraft, and is particularly evident in the “31 Incentives’’ of 2018, boosted by 26 additional measures in 2019, designed to beguile young Taiwanese entrepreneurs and professionals and foster closer integration of Taiwan’s economy with China’s. Additional seats for Taiwanese students are reserved at China’s prestigious Peking and Tsinghua universities, and ­handsome awards and funding are offered for Taiwanese scholars. But young Taiwanese must weigh the advantages of these lucrative offers and their career prospects in China’s vast market against potential compromises in their quality of life and freedoms.

Presidential candidate William Lai has softened his former
pro-independence stance. Image: Daniel Piris/EPA/EFE/Shutterstock Presidential candidate William Lai has softened his former pro-independence stance. Image: Daniel Piris/EPA/EFE/Shutterstock

Meanwhile, the PRC’s harsh takeover in Hong Kong and oppression of minority groups have alienated younger Taiwanese, fuelling a generational shift in favour of Taiwan having a distinct, autonomous identity. Greater support for progressive values and more connections with other liberal democracies have intensified Taiwan’s ideological divide from China. Recent polls indicate that less than 6 per cent of Taiwanese favour unification, while more than 88 per cent support the current status of de-facto independence.

The positions of the 2024 electoral candidates reflect this. The DPP’s William Lai, leading in polls at the time of writing and seen as the “continuity candidate”, has softened his former pro-­independence stance and made assurances that he would not alter the status quo. In the blue faction, the KMT’s Hou You-yi, former police commissioner of New Taipei City, proposes a “three Ds” strategy for stability in the Taiwan Strait (deterrence, dialogue and de-escalation), indicating cautious optimism towards the mainland while also upholding the status quo. Independent candidate Terry Gou, founder of the iPhone assembling giant Foxconn, promised Taiwan economic and technological prosperity and a defence policy involving 80,000 robots (he’s since dropped out). For a while it looked as though the Taiwan People’s Party, led by former Taipei mayor Ko ­Wen-je, might break the long­standing KMT-DPP duopoly. Ko advocates pragmatic solutions to domestic issues and appeals to anti-establishment voters tired of the blue-green divide. These may be too few in number, but his judgement that Taiwan’s 24m residents do not want to think about the “China question” every day could still work in his favour—most people want higher wages and affordable housing.

Given the PRC’s acrimonious stance towards the DPP and their candidate William Lai (Zhu Fenglian, spokeswoman for the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office, has equated a vote for William Lai with “bringing war to Taiwan”), might we expect an escalation in China’s grey-zone tactics if it looks like they will win another term? Will Taiwanese people be scared into voting for the party most accommodating to Beijing? I asked Marco Ho of Taiwanese Civilian Defence organisation Kuma Academy. “No. The foundation of China’s current legitimacy in governance is expansional nationalism… Any military ventures or escalation of conflict depends entirely on the legitimacy crisis faced by the ruling authority. The stances of current candidates merely serve as pretexts for future Chinese actions rather than actual reasons.” The real indicator to watch, then, is how secure the CCP leadership feels in face of legitimacy challenges as it manages rising debt, plateauing economic growth and demographic decline—not the rhetoric of election candidates in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s fiercely competitive elections underscore the island’s commitment to democratic ideals and self determination—even as it resists grey-zone aggression from its anti-democratic neighbour. But, as Chiu emphasises, “What do you do in the face of a bully, when he keeps pushing you? You don’t beg him to stop. You stay calm and confident, and you make yourself so strong that he can’t touch you any more.”

Revanchist autocracies such as Russia and China seek to rewrite the rules-based international order through grey-zone warfare. To withstand it, values and institutions must be bolstered—and not just in Taiwan. This island’s battle to preserve its democratic system is part of a broader battle for liberal democracy and against authoritarianism everywhere. If it is to be won, allied governments should learn from Taiwan the best practices for neutralising grey-zone tactics, and share knowledge and technologies to assist its cause. Only with unambiguous, multilateral support from international allies, can Taiwan’s future be secured. 

The writer has used a pseudonym to protect their identity