Narration: China is undergoing the most comprehensive military restructuring in its history. What’s the goal?
Ian Easton: It’s the full-scale invasion and occupation of Taiwan, an operation that it would have to conduct against the Republic of China, or Taiwan.
Narration: What else is the Chinese Communist regime doing to gain influence in Taiwan?
J. Michael Cole: Taiwan is targeted–on Facebook–is targeted by 2,400 individual disinformation attacks, if I can use that term. 2,400 every day, all of which originates somewhere in China.
Narration: Is the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 capable of helping Taiwan and deterring China?
Ian Easton: There’s a lot of very important initiatives that are in there. And if the Trump administration did act upon all of those, I do think it would make a very, very positive impact.
The Fight to Keep Taiwan Independent from CCP Influence
Simone Gao: Welcome to Zooming In, I’m Simone Gao. In many ways, no other nation has followed the United States’ political system as closely as Taiwan. It’s a vibrant democracy that values freedom of speech and freedom of belief. It’s a stark contrast to mainland China’s authoritarian, one-party rule. Increasingly, the Chinese Communist Party is ramping up its military and trying to subvert Taiwan’s democratic system. Meanwhile, the United States is overhauling its China policy and increasing relations with Taiwan. In this episode, we’ll take a look at the changing relationship between China, Taiwan, and the United States. We’ll also discuss how China is trying to subvert Taiwan’s democratic system, and what should be done about it.
Part 1: Relations Between China, Taiwan, and the U.S.–A History
Narration: China’s Kuomintang (KMT) government fled to Taiwan in 1949 after the Chinese Communist Party took control of the mainland. The UN and Western countries recognized the KMT as China’s legitimate government until the 1970s. In 1972, President Nixon visited China which eventually led to the U.S. severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan and normalizing relations with Beijing in 1979.
Narration: Despite the change, the U.S. has always been one of Taiwan’s biggest supporters. In 1979, the Taiwan Relations Act, drafted by the U.S. Congress, requires the United States “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” On the other hand, the act does not guarantee the U.S. will intervene militarily if the PRC attacks or invades Taiwan. In 1982, President Reagan agreed to the Six Assurances, which ensured continued U.S. support to Taiwan.
Narration: In February, President Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act. It allows high-level Taiwan officials to visit the United States and vice versa. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visited the U.S. twice in August, angering China’s communist government.
Narration: As U.S.-Taiwan ties strengthen, other countries are embracing Beijing. Since 2017, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador have cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Only 17 countries currently recognize Taiwan diplomatically.
Narration: President Trump signed the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act in August. The NDAA had several pro-Taiwan elements, supporting joint military exercises and support.
Simone Gao: Will the 2019 NDAA help Taiwan maintain its international space and deter China’s threat to its sovereignty? I had a discussion with Ian Easton, Research Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute.
Simone Gao: President Trump signed the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act in August, and there were a number of pro-Taiwan military elements in it. Do you think it’s enough?
Ian Easton: I think it would be very positive. For the most part is the sense of Congress, the only thing that Congress actually mandated the Department of Defense to do is to produce a report. Pretty much everything else in there is the sense of Congress. It’s an expression of the aspirations, the hopes of the American people, an expression of support for Taiwan and for U.S. national interests in the western Pacific. But it’s very good. The language, if you look at it and you break down everything from supporting a potential hospital ship visit to Taiwan, to reaffirming the Taiwan Relations Act, and Reagan’s Six Assurances to Taiwan, it’s the bedrock for U.S.-Taiwan relations in the absence of official diplomatic ties. Everything from supporting regularized arms sales to Taiwan, increased arms sales to Taiwan, increased communications at the highest levels between our two militaries. There’s a lot of very important initiatives that are in there. And if the Trump administration did act upon all of those, I do think it would make a very, very positive impact. I worry, however, that because of longstanding bureaucratic inertia, it may be slow. And so I’m not sure that all of the good things that are suggested by Congress will actually happen over the next year.
Simone Gao: Can you elaborate on just how important Taiwan is to the U.S. strategically?
Ian Easton: Well, for the United States, Taiwan is important strategically on two different levels. One is the level of–it’s really the level of principles and values. Taiwan is a like-minded country for the United States. It’s a democracy, it values freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, all of the core elements of American principles, all the things that our Founding Fathers and all the generations that have come since then, all of the intrinsic values that we have, the things that we hold to be sacred as a nation, and all the things that have made us very, very successful as a nation, the Taiwanese government, the Republic of China government, agrees with. Also, as a matter of geostrategic interest, this is less about values and more about our own cold, rational calculations of how do we maintain our power and our influence and our economic prosperity. If you look at Taiwan, its location, it’s situated in the middle of the first island chain, which is critical geography. It sits at the nexus of the world’s most heavily trafficked maritime lines of communication and airlines of communication. It occupies essential geostrategic terrain. This is a place that the United States simply cannot afford to lose on that basis as well.
Simone Gao: How can the United States really help Taiwan instead of just making symbolic gestures? For example, do you think downgrading the U.S. diplomatic relations with countries who dump Taiwan diplomatically for China is a good way to help Taiwan maintain its international space?
Ian Easton: Well, I think anytime the United States government, and especially the U.S. State Department, which until recently has been very, very accommodating to the regime in Beijing, anytime that they protest, anytime that they demarche the Chinese or they demarche countries or corporations or organizations that are cooperating with Beijing, I think that’s a good thing. However, having said that, I think that it is not fair for the U.S. government to take its own anger out, if that’s what it is, or its own disappointment out on those particular countries because we’re talking about countries in Central America and South America who are under tremendous stress economically, politically, and diplomatically. And it makes little sense for the United States, the strongest country in the world, to use those countries, and in effect to bully those countries when the true target of the problem, the root of the problem is the People’s Republic of China. It’s Beijing. It’s Beijing that is acting irresponsibly. It’s Beijing that is changing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and around the world. It’s Beijing that is isolating and alienating Taiwan and silencing Taiwan on the world stage. And so it would make more sense, at least in my own opinion, for the U.S. government, and the State Department in particular, to express its dissatisfaction and its disappointment with the regime in Beijing directly, and not to go after smaller countries in Central America or South America, or in the future it could be Africa or in the South Pacific.
Narration: Coming Up: China’s strategies to influence Taiwan.
Part 2: China’s Strategies to Influence Taiwan
Narration: The Chinese Communist Party uses cultural activities, the media, education programs, and people-to-people exchanges to influence public opinion around the world. In Taiwan, the CCP is trying to infiltrate Taiwanese politics and society.
Narration: At a Brookings Institution event on Sept. 11th, Taiwan-based security analyst J. Michael Cole discussed how the CCP uses social media to gain influence and undermine Taiwan’s Democratic government.
J. Michael Cole: Well, one of the big things that we’ve seen in recent years is disinformation, which is a more academic term for fake news. That’s a term that’s caught on in recent years. We’re seeing a marked increase in computational propaganda, disinformation operations using social media. As we know, Taiwan has the highest penetration of Facebook users on the face of the planet. So Facebook has been a very important playground for disinformation in Taiwan, a lot of which is generated domestically, but also there’s an increased component coming from China, which sometimes, or oftentimes, is also reinforced by like-minded individuals and groups in Taiwan as well. So we cannot claim the all the disinformation being aimed at Taiwan is coming out of China. That being said, there are a number of studies that are being conducted in Taiwan by tech-savvy, young Taiwanese, and what they are trying to do now is not only to identify the type of disinformation, where it is being shared, and the subjects that they are working on, but also doing the investigation to trace it back to its origin. One of the preliminary reports demonstrates that, on a daily basis, Taiwan is targeted–on Facebook–is targeted by 2,400 individual disinformation attacks if I can use that term. 2,400 every day, all of which originates somewhere in China. And the reason why, with a certain amount of certainty, we can argue that it comes out of China is that during Golden Week the number of attacks tends to drop dramatically. That’s a bit of a telltale sign. And most of these attacks are aimed at discrediting Democracy in Taiwan, its institutions, certainly trying to undermine the image and reputation of President Tsai Ing-wen and her administration, as well as the DPP, but also encouraging myths of inevitability, resisting the forces of history is futile, therefore the Taiwanese should blah, blah, blah, and augmenting any signaling and messaging coming from Beijing, anything that President Xi–or leader Xi Jinping says, as well, pertaining to Taiwan. They’re getting better at it. Earlier, Taiwanese consumers of disinformation could tell that it probably was disinformation because the Chinese terms that were being used were quite different sometimes, even though the two sides use the same language, but they use different terminology and whatnot. So now what they are doing is they seem to be hiring people in Taiwan, content farms and disinformation units in China, hiring young Taiwanese to generate false news content aimed at a Taiwanese audience. So now it sounds legitimate, it sounds Taiwanese because it is produced by Taiwanese.
Narration: In addition to disinformation, the CCP is also trying to infiltrate local grassroots organizations in order to bypass Taiwan’s governmental organizations.
J. Michael Cole: What they are doing is recruiting agricultural associations, recruiting young individuals, students, fisherman organizations, cultural organizations, temples, Buddhist temples, and they are establishing–well, two associations that they’ve established recently is the Cross-Straight Guangdong Exchange Association and the Tainan Cross-Straight Exchange Promotion Association. That’s very ironic that they would set up one of these organizations in the heartland of DPP support in Tainan. Also very interesting that when “White Wolf,” or Chang An-lo came back to Taiwan after more than a decade in exile in China in June 2013, one of the first campaign offices that he opened was also in Tainan, when William Lai, who is currently premier, was still mayor. What these organizations and parties are doing is basically bypassing central government organizations altogether and facilitating connectivity between grassroots, local organizations in Taiwan and dealing directly with their counterparts back in China. Much of this stems from the realization in Beijing that the CCP simply cannot hope to accomplish what it wants by working with the DPP, but more and more you will hear voices in the CCP who also claim that the KMT is no longer the counterpart that they were banking on for unification with Taiwan.
Narration: Coming up: How the U.S. and Taiwan are countering China’s military threat.
Part 3: China’s Military Threat to Taiwan
Narration: While Beijing is spreading disinformation and infiltrating local associations in Taiwan, they’re also building up their military capabilities. According to the Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China in 2018, the PLA is undergoing the most comprehensive restructuring in its history to become a force capable of conducting complex joint operations. The PLA strives to be capable of fighting and winning “informatized local wars”–regional conflicts defined by real-time, data-networked command and control, and precision strikes. Reforms seek to streamline command and control structures and improve jointness at all levels.
Narration: China’s military modernization targets capabilities with the potential to degrade core U.S. operational and technological advantages. To support this modernization, China uses a variety of methods to acquire foreign military and dual-use technologies, including: targeted foreign direct investment, cyber theft, and exploitation of private Chinese nationals’ access to these technologies. Additionally, as China’s global footprint and international interests have grown, its military modernization program has become more focused on investments and infrastructure to support a range of missions beyond China’s periphery, including: power projection, sea lane security, counterpiracy, peacekeeping, etc.
Simone Gao: What does China’s military buildup mean for Taiwan? Here’s Ian Easton again.
Simone Gao: In 2015 Chinese leader Xi Jinping initiated a massive military reform in China. What was the goal of that reform, and what does that mean for Taiwan?
Ian Easton: Well, that’s a very good question. What we have seen is, in Dec. 31st, this reform program started, this massive reform and reorganization program started. And it’s continued until today, and apparently the stated deadline of the reform is the year 2020, and the stated objective of the reform is to build a joint-capable People’s Liberation Army. And the concern that I have, and the concern I know that many share, is that when the Chinese Communist Party talks about a joint-capable military, what they’re really talking about, according to their own doctrine, according to their own writing, is a military capable of actually invading and occupying Taiwan. Because if you look at the Chinese, their own literature, there’s only one operation that would really require a joint-capable military, and it’s not a border conflict with India, it’s not a conflict on the Korean peninsula, it’s not a blockade of Taiwan, and it’s not an air or missile campaign against Taiwan. It’s the full-scale invasion and occupation of Taiwan, an operation that it would have to conduct against the Republic of China, or Taiwan, Taiwanese military, but also an operation that would require them to prepare to deter, to delay, and ultimately to attempt to destroy the U.S. military forces that would be ordered to come to Taiwan’s rescue.
Simone Gao: Xi Jinping indicated that the unification with Taiwan will happen by 2035. So in your opinion, should the U.S. take that indication seriously?
Ian Easton: Absolutely, I think we should take it seriously any time the leader of the world’s second most powerful country makes a statement like that. That is a not unveiled threat. It’s very clear what they intend to do. They’re signaling their intentions. I don’t know that, in this particular case, that he was that direct in terms of exactly how he put it, but I do think that is certainly their long-term intentions. And I’m also not sure that they have a timeline that extends out to 2035 in terms of this mission. I think they want the PLA to be ready even before 2035. In fact, well before 2035. There were reports that came out starting in 2008, and then again it was repeated in 2012, at the 18th Party Congress that the PLA was ordered by the Politburo Standing Committee to be prepared to carry on a full-scale, all-out war against Taiwan by the year 2020.
Simone Gao: Do you think the Trump administration is aware of China’s plan toward Taiwan?
Ian Easton: It’s not clear that the highest levels of the U.S. government are aware of this. I’m sure that our military planners are familiar with this strategic problem that we face and that our intelligence community is aware. But if you look at our policy behavior at the highest levels, it’s certainly not clear that our policymakers are thinking a lot about this strategic challenge. And I think that’s probably natural because, obviously, policymakers have to spend the lion’s share of their time and their attention looking at day-to-day crises that are in front of them right now, what is in the news today. What is the problems that we confront today. And this is more of a long-term challenge, and so I think there’s always a tendency to say, well, if I don’t have to worry about that today, I’m not going to worry about it right now.
Simone Gao: Just like America pays a great deal of attention to China, it should also pay a lot more attention to Taiwan. Taiwan is a testing ground for the Chinese people to implement democracy. The success of Taiwan’s democratic system has great impact on the mainland Chinese people in terms of whether they think this system is viable for them or not. This judgment eventually will decide whether China will stay as a rival or could be a potential ally of America. Thanks for watching Zooming In. I am Simone Gao. See you next week.