Taiwan’s Most Pressing Challenge Is Strangulation, Not Invasion
What is the greatest threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait? For a growing number of analysts and officials in capitals around the world, the answer is straightforward: An invasion or blockade of Taiwan by the People’s Liberation Army.
Such a fear is not without reason. China’s overt military threats to the island have grown steadily since 2016, when the Chinese government cut off formal contact with Taipei after the inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen as president. China’s military regularly conducts drills in the Taiwan Strait in order to signal resolve and hone its capabilities to seize and control Taiwan. The joint air and sea exercises that the People’s Liberation Army conducted after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan in August 2022 were widely seen as a rehearsal for a blockade. And, although Chinese leader Xi Jinping has not articulated a precise timeline to invade Taiwan, authoritative statements and documents clearly threaten to use military force to compel “reunification” if Beijing concludes it has no better options.
Preparing for a possible invasion or blockade, including ensuring that Taiwan and the United States have the capabilities to deter and defeat the Chinese military, remains essential. Indeed, the very foundation of any effective approach to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait begins with the Chinese Communist Party assessing that the United States has the means and determination to respond to a Chinese military attack.
Yet while an invasion is the most consequential scenario, we do not think it is the most probable, and treating it as if it is comes at the cost of distraction from the short- and near-term challenges to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing seeks to compel Taipei to enter formal negotiations on “reunification,” and to achieve goal, it is pursuing an increasingly aggressive “gray zone” campaign of political, psychological, economic, and diplomatic coercion that is designed to make Taiwan’s citizens feel powerless, divided, and isolated. If China can visibly undermine the credibility of American support and security assistance while simultaneously demonstrating to the Taiwan people that their government lacks the will or capability to respond to Chinese pressure, an invasion won’t be needed.
What’s more, Beijing’s “salami slicing” today means an even greater challenge tomorrow. A sustained and successful campaign of economic coercion and information warfare gives the Chinese government the ability to shape the strategic landscape of a possible future conflict. For example, the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to leverage the “provocation” of Pelosi’s visit to erase the center line in the Taiwan Strait and normalize air and naval operations up to the edge of the contiguous zone that extends 24 nautical miles from Taiwan’s coastline. The unwillingness of the United States and Taiwan to aggressively confront coercion at the lower end of the spectrum will only embolden the Chinese Communist Party to feel comfortable taking even more aggressive steps. Thus, deterring gray-zone actions is not a separate enterprise from deterring a blockade or invasion, but rather a critical early step in doing so.
While the United States and Taiwan should continue to focus on foundational military capabilities, they should also develop an aggressive campaign to counter Chinese gray-zone actions. Such an effort would include a higher tolerance for pushback against Chinese aggression, greater efforts to increase the transparency around Chinese actions, which have largely remained in the shadows, and stepped-up efforts to combat China’s information warfare.
Defining the Gray Zone
What is the “gray zone”? One Center for Strategic and International Security report defines the gray zone as the “contested arena that lies between routine statecraft and open warfare,” in which an actor probes for advantage and gains without “crossing a threshold that results in open war.” Perhaps the simplest way to conceptualize it is as a political strategy that seeks economic, military, diplomatic, or political gains without eliciting a costly and direct response from an opponent. While major gray-zone movements capture media attention, such as the People’s Liberation Army’s response to last year’s trip to Taiwan by Pelosi, the accretion of marginal gains through subtle actions can have an equally pernicious impact. This is precisely the strategy Beijing has been undertaking against Taiwan for decades, aimed at inducing psychological despair and persuading Taiwan’s government to begin formal political negotiations over the island’s de jure incorporation into the People’s Republic of China. While there have been periods of relative stability and improved ties in the cross-Strait relationship, such during the presidency of the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou (2008–2016), since 2016 the Chinese government has leveraged a range of coercive tools, including disinformation, cognitive warfare, economic and diplomatic pressure, cyber attacks, “united front” activities, and military operations in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
Consider disinformation. In June, Chinese spokesperson Zhu Fenglian claimed that the United States was preparing to “abandon” Taiwan after turning it into a “minefield” and “ammunition depot.” Still another narrative held that the United States is seeking to provoke a war in the Taiwan Strait in order to protect its regional influence from growing Chinese power, and that Taiwan should be wary of becoming America’s cannon fodder. Of course, such opinions are not in themselves “disinformation,” and there are many in Taiwan who organically hold these opinions. But the scale and coordination of these narratives strongly points to direct Chinese orchestration. And more worrying, this messaging campaign is facilitating the spread of “American skepticism” (疑美论) and an accompanying decline in belief that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense, as measured in a number of recent Taiwan polls.
The Chinese government has also been leveraging its deep economic ties with Taiwan to exert influence over specific political constituencies on the island. Earlier this year, the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Commerce launched a “trade barrier investigation” of more than 2,000 imported products from Taiwan that it claimed were non-World Trade Organization compliant. The political nature of this investigation was only thinly veiled, given that the investigation is set to wrap up on Jan. 12, 2024, just one day before Taiwan’s voters head to the polls to elect a new president. This latest action builds on previous de facto import bans of pineapples, sugar and wax apples, grouper fish, and mangos, all of which are among Taiwan’s top exports to China and are grown in southern Taiwan, historically a stronghold of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Beijing has also hinted that it could cancel the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, which was inked during the Ma presidency and facilitated significant tariff cuts for nearly 600 Taiwan products entering the Chinese market. While such a move would have a relatively limited impact on Taiwan’s overall economy, it is nonetheless a less-than-subtle attempt to shape political calculations in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election.
In February, two undersea cables connecting Taiwan’s Matsu Island were unexpectedly severed, disrupting access to the internet for the island’s nearly 14,000 residents. While Taipei has refrained from formally accusing Beijing, it is widely believed that a Chinese fishing vessel and a separate freighter were responsible for the severing. Matsu Island has also seen a dramatic increase in the presence of Chinese sand-dredgers operating just off its shores, as well as in the waters near the center line of the Taiwan Strait. According to reports, more than 4,000 Chinese sand-dredgers and accompanying sand-transport vehicles were confronted by Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration in 2020 alone. Such activities not only literally reform the territory around Taiwan, but they also send a potent political message to the residents on Matsu and nearby Kinmen Island that the People’s Republic of China dominates the waters surrounding Taiwan.
The above only scratches the surface of the Chinese government’s proliferating coercive tool kit. Other areas of concern including the use of legal and administrative means to normalize Chinese territorial claims (collectively known as “lawfare”), the leveraging of market access (or its denial) in order to compel Taiwan firms to lobby on China’s behalf, and diplomatic pressure on third countries to distance themselves from Taiwan in public forums and international bodies. Taken together, this is a systematic and unrelenting campaign designed to erode Taiwan’s domestic cohesion and resolve while dividing and degrading international support for Taiwan’s continuing autonomy.
How Can Taiwan — and the West — Respond?
The first step to formulating a response is to understand that the Chinese government’s gray-zone challenges, not an invasion by the People’s Liberation Army, pose the most significant near-term threat to Taiwan, its future, and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait more broadly. As the recently released Department of Defense China Military Power Report states, the Chinese goal is to “force Taiwan to capitulate to unification or compel Taiwan’s leadership to the negotiation table on the PRC [People’s Republic of China]’s terms.” An all-out invasion of the island would be, according to the report, “one of the most complicated and difficult military operations for the PLA [People’s Liberation Army],” which would also bring “significant political and military risk for Xi and the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]…” Beijing would likely only contemplate such a move if all other options are exhausted, or if Taiwan takes the drastic step of formally declaring independence. While it’s important to appreciate that autocrats can and do take risky and even reckless actions, as Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine clearly demonstrates, as it stands there are no signs that Xi has pivoted away from Beijing’s long-term strategy of isolating and strangulating Taipei in order to deter Taiwanese independence and force its government to enter into formal “reunification” negotiations.
Indeed, the Chinese government won’t need to launch a kinetic attack if it can continue to press forward with its current strategy unimpeded. Of course, Taiwan needs to press ahead with significant investments in its defensive capabilities, including asymmetric capabilities such as mines, anti-ship missiles, and other air-defense measures that could slow down an invading military, as well as stockpiling food, medical supplies, and energy to cope with a blockade. But, as officials in Taipei ceaselessly remind a growing chorus of newly converted “friends of Taiwan,” planning for a Chinese invasion cannot come at the expense of dealing with the entire range of threats the island faces, many of which are already having an impact on Taiwan’s struggle for security and prosperity.
What should Taiwan do to respond more effectively to the intensifying gray-zone threats? And how can other countries support their efforts? An effective counter-gray-zone effort should be centered on Taiwan prioritizing even more aggressive steps to counter Chinese influence.
As Chinese military operations across the center line and circumnavigating Taiwan become routine, Taiwan’s air force should maintain capable fleets of fighter jets that can scramble and intercept People’s Liberation Army aircraft operating in its air defense identification zone, even if they are unlikely to survive beyond the early hours of a conflict. Taiwan also needs surface combatants to respond to People’s Republic of China naval vessels now operating up to Taiwan’s 24 nautical mile contiguous zone, a demarcation that the Chinese military is likely to test in the future as it tries to probe Taipei’s resolve. Equally as important, Beijing will also use these boundary-probing actions to create scenarios where it can attempt to call the bluff of the United States and other regional actors. While some might criticize these efforts as a distraction from building an asymmetric “porcupine” defense strategy, these critics underappreciate the psychological influence on the Taiwanese people of knowing that the People’s Liberation Army is unopposed as it navigates the airspace and waters near Taiwan. True, scrambling F-16s to meet oncoming Chinese fighter jets won’t likely lead to Beijing pulling back on the number or frequency of these flights, but these actions will send an important signal to the Taiwanese people and other international observers that Taipei won’t bend to Chinese pressure tactics.
The United States and other regional partners can support these efforts by maintaining a calm yet persistent presence in international waters around Taiwan, including in the Taiwan Strait. Australian and French warships should continue to conduct occasional Taiwan Strait transits, and Canadian coast guard vessels can again join U.S. destroyers sailing through the strait. Other countries should consider doing so as well, not because they want to accept more risk, but because these signs of solidarity are important deterrence signals to the Chinese leadership.
Further, the United States should increase the effectiveness of its communications strategy around some of its air and naval activity in the Taiwan Strait to tie it more directly to Beijing’s growing belligerence. Recent efforts by the Philippine government to capture and publicize Chinese aggression in and around the Second Thomas Shoal are a good example of how to counter — or at least problematize — Beijing’s gray zone toolkit. The Chinese Communist Party does not like sunlight, and a new approach of aggressive transparency on their actions should be developed for the Taiwan Strait.
The more Beijing leans on displays of military aggression, including mock blockades, missile tests, and drone harassment, the more it should expect to see the United States provide weapons and training to Taiwan. As is stated in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States will supply Taiwan with “defensive articles and defense services” that are commensurate with the threat environment that it faces. The People’s Liberation Army has elevated that threat by increasing its presence in and around Taiwan and adopting actions that are bolder and more aggressive. This necessitates an even stronger show of support from the United States, including more active and direct engagement with the Taiwanese military, as well as supplying Taiwan with the hardware and training it needs to more effectively respond. The Taiwanese military, along with the United States and regional partners, don’t have to lock themselves into a rigid “tit-for-tat” response to Chinese military actions against, but they do need to increase the cost to Beijing for its growing impunity operating in the Taiwan Strait. Most importantly, Beijing should see a stronger direct linkage between its own bad behavior and outcomes that work against its interests.
Related to this is how to shape effective narratives around the growing prevalence of unsafe People’s Liberation Army maneuvers, which have targeted not only the Taiwanese military, but also the United States and other partners operating in the region. Whether this is operating at unsafe distances from U.S. ships, as in the case of the USS Chung-Hoon this past June, or a May 2023 incident where a People’s Liberation Army Air Force J-16 flew dangerously close to a U.S. surveillance aircraft operating over the South China Sea, the U.S. response has been to publicly call out the Chinese military for conducting unsafe and unprofessional actions. This approach is designed to bring more reputational cost onto Beijing, and these efforts should be expanded. The United States and other partners in the region should also strengthen the narrative that this Chinese strategy of deliberate escalation is aimed at deterring countries from operating in the international airspace and waters near Taiwan.
Taiwan, with the support of the United States and other partners, should also increase the security and reliability of its electrical grid and telecommunications system, both of which are vulnerable to Chinese government cyber attacks and sabotage. As it stands, Taiwan’s grid system is prone to blackouts and malfunctions, and its network is highly vulnerable since it relies on 15 undersea cables that come to shore at just seven landing stations. This is a very precarious position for an island economy. Building overlapping or redundant systems that rely on low earth orbit and medium earth orbit satellites is one step that Taiwan should take, with the support of the United States and other partners. Making the necessary investments to upgrade these systems and demonstrating urgency in doing so would not only be good for Taiwan’s economic resiliency but would also send a strong signal to both Beijing and the outside world that Taipei is serious about ensuring that Taiwan’s economy can withstand Chinese pressure.
According to Tsai, about 30 million cyber attacks target the island’s government every month, and more than half of these attacks are launched by the People’s Republic of China. Beijing employs cyber means to spread disinformation, sow chaos, and demonstrate its ability to bring the island to its knees. In the event of an invasion, cyber attacks would likely be used to aid a rapid takeover. Since Taiwan’s critical infrastructure, including gas, water, and electricity, is highly digitized, its systems are highly vulnerable to effective cyber attacks. During Pelosi’s visit last year, the television screens in all of the over 6500 7-Eleven convenience stores in Taiwan were hacked to display the message, “Warmonger Pelosi, get out of Taiwan.” Hours before Pelosi landed on the island, several websites run by the government of Taiwan were disrupted by distributed denial-of-service attacks, and immediately following her departure, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said its network was taken offline by such an attack.
The United States is quietly helping Taiwan to strengthen its cyber forces. For example, it has held joint cyber warfare exercises with Taiwan since 2019. But more can be done to ensure that Taipei has the digital capabilities to defend the island’s military and economic networks and infrastructure from malicious attacks. In addition to providing Taiwan with training and technology, the United States should conduct cyber security training exercises with Taiwan and leverage U.S. cyber security technologies to help defend Taiwan. The United States should also assist Taiwan in identifying intrusions and making its networks as resilient as possible by dispatching its cyber teams to the island, as it does for other allies and partners.
Disinformation is rampant in Taiwan, disseminated both domestically and by Chinese actors. Research by Puma Shen, director of Taiwan’s Double Think Lab, has found that online disinformation can significantly impact Taiwan’s democratic process, particularly when it reinforces offline rumors. Chinese disinformation campaigns frequently spread rumors designed to reduce the confidence of Taiwan’s people in its government and spread fear and panic throughout the society. During elections, such disinformation campaigns often target swing voters who can influence the outcome.
Taiwan’s government, legislature, civil society groups, and media outlets have worked assiduously to expose and counter disinformation and increase media literacy. The United States should do as much as possible to support Taiwan’s efforts to build resilience against disinformation campaigns. To strengthen U.S.-Taiwanese cooperation and more effectively respond to Chinese disinformation, Shen has advocated that Washington and Taipei establish a “center of excellence” to analyze and respond to disinformation campaigns, including investigating the source of campaigns through the identification of IP addresses. The United States and its allies should also advocate for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and nongovernmental organizations that create rules and norms for internet governance and wireless communications.
It is unrealistic to expect that Taiwan will ever fully combat Chinese gray-zone tactics, given the power imbalance across the Taiwan Strait and Beijing’s ever-evolving toolkit. But Taipei, along with external partners, should prioritize building the capabilities to blunt the more pernicious aspects of the People’s Republic of China’s pressure campaign. While the United States should develop the capability to deter and defeat a Chinese amphibious invasion, that scenario remains a low probability. What’s more, Taiwan is under assault day in and day out through the types of intimidation, boundary probing, and coercion described above. The discussions on and preparations for deterring a direct attack or blockade cannot come at the expense of the types of investments needed to ensure Taiwan’s continuing resiliency and confidence.
Jude Blanchette is the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Bonnie Glaser is the managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific Program.
Image: Taiwan Navy Command