Join “Zooming In” host Simone Gao in her conversation with Ian Easton, research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, on the changing relationship between China, Taiwan, and the United States; how China is trying to subvert Taiwan’s democratic system; and what should be done about it.
Changing Relations Between China, Taiwan, and the U.S.
In many ways, no other nation has followed the United States’ political system as closely as Taiwan. It is 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.
Can you explain 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.
China’s Strategies to Influence Taiwan
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. At a Brookings Institution event on September 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 often times, 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, Yeong 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.
China’s Military Threat to Taiwan
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.
In 2015 Chinese leader Xi Jinping initiated a massive military reform in China. What was the goal, and what does that mean for Taiwan?
Ian Easton: Well, that’s a very good question. What we have seen is, in December 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 writings, 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.
Press play to hear the whole episode and find out why America should pay attention to China’s efforts to influence Taiwan.