Amid Russia’s recent incursion into Ukraine, there’s a prevailing belief that such actions may foreshadow a potential Chinese military move toward Taiwan. However, this perspective may not fully capture Beijing’s approach. “I do think that Xi Jinping doesn’t actually want to take Taiwan by force. He will try to use other ways to do this,” General Charles Brown, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently opined.
As Taiwan prepares for a pivotal election in 2024, murmurs of China’s intentions have become increasingly deafening. Unlike the prevailing narratives among scholars and analysts, who focus on the security of Taiwan, we think China might lean more heavily on softer, non-military means of influencing the island’s fate, although the possibility of a forceful unification remains on the table. China is likely plotting to employ a multi-pronged strategy that extends beyond the scope of open warfare.
As the election draws near, Taiwanese will be deciding on their next leader while grappling with an intense dance of influence and coercion. The saga of Terry Gou, Foxconn’s billionaire founder and a presidential candidate, exemplifies the subtleties of China’s influence in Taiwan. The emergence of a tax probe into Foxconn by Chinese authorities concurrent with Gou’s campaign initiation may reflect strategic political calculus. Gou’s candidacy – which has since been withdrawn – risked dividing the opposition vote and disadvantaging China’s favored Kuomintang (KMT).
A connection between Gou’s brief candidacy and the Foxconn probe is impossible to prove. Rather, the episode serves as an illustration that Beijing has many potential tools beyond military might to potentially reshape Taiwan’s democratic integrity and geopolitical direction. A dive into three of China’s potential stratagems reveals how they could not only redefine Taiwan’s most important democratic process but also shape the trajectory of Taiwan’s geopolitical stance in the coming years.
Psychological Warfare: The Subtle Art of Manipulation
Picture this: You’re sipping your morning coffee, scrolling through your favorite social media platform when suddenly, a Taiwanese influencer you admire speaks fondly of unification with China. This is no accident but a meticulously planned strategy. China’s approach is not just about swaying the powerful and influential toward unification anymore; it’s about sowing seeds of doubt in the hearts of everyday people in Taiwan.
The Chinese Communist Party has been waging psychological operations against Taiwan for decades. This issue isn’t merely about electoral politics; it underscores the very fabric of Taiwanese identity and sovereignty. Given the ever-evolving nature of information warfare and its profound impact on shaping public opinion, it’s crucial for both policymakers and citizens to address this topic. Recognizing and countering such strategies not only ensures the integrity of Taiwan’s electoral process but also fortifies its resilience against external pressures that threaten its autonomy.
Joseph Wu, the Taiwanese foreign minister, has underscored the increasing subtlety of China’s attempts to influence Taiwan. Rather than the omnipresent military threat, the more immediate concerns emanate from China’s deepening “hybrid warfare.” This warfare isn’t characterized by military aircraft or naval ships, but rather a more covert infiltration of Taiwan’s free society “through traditional media, through social media.” A poignant example Wu shared is the propagation of Russian narratives in Taiwan following the onset of the Ukraine conflict. Such psychological maneuvers aim to shake the foundation of Taiwanese sentiments and beliefs.
China’s potential strategy could involve a systematic campaign to influence Taiwanese sentiments, seeking to sow divisions, create a sense of inevitability about reunification, or stoke fears about the potential consequences of resistance. By employing a combination of traditional and new media, Beijing might endeavor to propagate narratives that paint reunification as a desirable or inevitable outcome for Taiwan, influencing voters’ choices in the upcoming election.
Economic Coercion: Striking Where It Hurts
As Taiwan gears up for the 2024 elections, China is leveraging its economic might in an attempt to influence the outcome. China’s enormous economic clout offers a potent weapon: economic coercion.
Already, we’ve seen glimpses of this approach. From the suspension of individual travel permits for Chinese citizens to Taiwan to imposing sanctions on Taiwanese companies, Beijing has shown its willingness to use economic measures as leverage. By ramping up bans on various Taiwanese imports since 2021, Beijing has disrupted Taiwanese farmers, fishers, and exporters – notably targeting the southern region, a stronghold for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Chinese officials have also laid the groundwork to potentially scrap a 2010 trade deal with Taiwan right before Taiwanese voters go to the polls.
This tactic isn’t new. In the 2000s, China used similar economic incentives to sway Taiwanese voters toward the KMT. The strategy was straightforward: showcase prosperity under KMT leadership, a tactic that played a role in KMT’s electoral victories, culminating in Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 presidency.
In the future, this strategy could intensify. China could try to isolate Taiwan economically, pressuring multinational companies to reduce investments or relocate their operations. They might also manipulate trade restrictions, making it challenging for Taiwan to access crucial markets or raw materials. By making the economic cost of resistance too high, Beijing might hope to force Taipei into political concessions.
Political Isolation: The Diplomatic Squeeze
Another powerful tool at Beijing’s disposal is its ability to influence global diplomacy. Over the years, China has systematically wooed countries that recognize Taiwan, offering them incentives to cut their official ties with Taipei and establish relations with Beijing. The result is Taiwan’s shrinking diplomatic space.
This systematic strategy has borne fruit. Countries like Kiribati and the Solomon Islands (both in 2019), Nicaragua (in 2021) and Honduras (in 2023) have switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with a dwindling number of countries that officially recognize it. These diplomatic switches often come with tangible benefits for those countries, including access to China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other economic incentives.
In an attempt to discredit the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Beijing has taken nine of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies since Tsai Ing-wen first took office in May 2016. That’s in sharp contrast to the “diplomatic truce” China adhered to while the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou held the presidency.
If China’s diplomatic pressure campaign continues or intensifies, Taiwan might find itself increasingly isolated on the world stage, without formal support or recognition from other nations. This isolation could make it harder for Taiwan to negotiate international agreements, participate in global forums, or secure strategic partnerships, further pressuring the nation to consider reunification under Beijing’s terms. This is something voters will have to consider when they choose which party to vote for in 2024.
While most discussions about China and Taiwan are dominated by the dramatic shadow of potential military clashes, it’s crucial to note that Beijing’s playbook is far richer. Beyond the roar of fighter jets and battleships, there’s the silent dance of psychological maneuvers, the relentless squeeze of economic pressure, and the strategic game of diplomatic chess. China’s quest for influencing Taiwan’s election or even reunification isn’t confined to war drums alone; it’s a multi-layered saga unfolding across psychological, economic, and diplomatic arenas. As the narrative progresses, those watching need to tune into these multifaceted frequencies, realizing that the struggle isn’t solely on the battlefield but also in minds, markets, and meeting rooms.