How Would China Weaponize Disinformation Against Taiwan in a Cross-Strait Conflict?

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How Would China Weaponize Disinformation Against Taiwan in a Cross-Strait Conflict?

What might China’s future disinformation operations against Taiwan focus on and how can Taipei and its partners combat them?

How Would China Weaponize Disinformation Against Taiwan in a Cross-Strait Conflict?
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Last month, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned in its Annual Threat Assessment that China is intensifying its “efforts to mold U.S. public discourse” and will also likely continue to “apply military and economic pressure as well as public messaging and influence activities while promoting long-term cross-Strait economic and social integration to induce Taiwan to move toward unification.” 

Next month, Taiwan’s President-elect William Lai Ching-te will assume office. Recognizing that its past uses of economic and diplomatic pressure have failed to compel Taiwan’s submission, China’s Xi Jinping may decide to use military force and information operations to achieve his aspirations. 

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) authors have written extensively about the role of “cognitive domain operations” in supporting military operations, which they see as helping to undermine an opposing society’s will to defend itself and its leadership’s resolve and effectiveness. Beijing has already employed disinformation against Taiwan for years, with one recent report concluding that Taiwan is the country most affected by disinformation worldwide. 

What might China’s future disinformation operations against Taiwan focus on and how can Taipei and its partners combat them? China would likely have at least five discrete audiences for disinformation operations in mind, with specific lines of effort and goals for each.

First, leveraging control over its domestic information environment, the organs of the party-state would strive to create an impression that an invasion of Taiwan is not only popular but perhaps even a response to public demands for action, despite recent evidence suggesting that public opinion in China is more liberal than many assume. At the same time, Beijing would work to advance a narrative that Taiwan forced it to act. China’s government would also strive to convince its own public that the outside world supports the decision to use force and that any third-party actors that intervene are trying to contain China and prevent its national rejuvenation. 

A second target for China’s information operations in a cross-strait crisis would be Taiwanese society, where Beijing would aim at inducing doubts about the Taiwan leadership. China’s agents would employ disinformation to pin the blame for the conflict on Taiwan’s leaders or suggest that they have a secret plan to flee the island once conflict erupts, both of which Beijing has reportedly previously messaged. 

A separate line of effort would be targeted at degrading public confidence in the ability of Taiwan’s armed forces, presenting them as incapable of defending the island, another message Beijing has put out before. China’s propaganda would also likely amplify claims by prominent Taiwan figures, such as former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who believe that “we can never win.” 

Finally, Beijing would probably strive to convince the Taiwan public that the outside world is not coming to its aid and in fact is on China’s side, and that the United States is giving up Taiwan like an “abandoned chess piece.”

As regards the Taiwan leadership, through the use of espionage and disinformation, China will likely strive to induce doubts about the loyalty and competence of Taiwan’s armed forces as well as the opposition parties. Disinformation will also likely be used to confuse and complicate the Taiwan leadership’s response by injecting false or misleading information into its decision-making. And Beijing will probably aim to impose costs on Taiwan’s leaders by forcing them to respond to disinformation, possibly revealing their location or status, something that could be useful for China in assessing the effectiveness of any attempted decapitation strikes.

A fourth set of targets would likely be the United States, Japan, Australia, or other countries that might step in to help Taiwan resist aggression from China. Because they likely could not hope to fully mask  indicators and warnings about the PLA’s impending actions, one initial goal of Beijing’s disinformation vis-à-vis such actors would probably be to muddy the waters. 

A second goal would likely be to create an impression that Taiwanese society is fighting incompetently, or offering only half-hearted resistance, knowing that some observers question Taiwan’s will to fight, even if they probably should not

A third aim would be to confuse foreign decisionmakers about the scale of the PLA’s intervention and thereby delay third-party support for Taiwan. 

A final aim might be to suggest that China “will never compromise” and its willingness to endure costs is unlimited, and that it is therefore foolish to waste resources resisting China’s efforts to conquer Taiwan.

A final target for Beijing’s information operations would almost certainly be audiences in the rest of the world, where China has already spent billions of dollars to shape the global information environment. Some examples of China’s past global strategic disinformation campaigns have included efforts to blame the United States Army for the COVID-19 pandemic that originated in Wuhan and to convey the false impression that AUKUS violates the Non-Proliferation Treaty

In a Taiwan scenario, Beijing’s primary goal would be to build a legal and moral narrative that justifies its military aggression while delegitimating Taiwan’s resistance and imposing diplomatic costs on any effort to rally a broad coalition in favor of foreign intervention. China clearly recognizes that it is unlikely to sway the advanced industrial economies and democracies of the world. But Beijing would likely believe it could have greater success in the “Global South” by claiming that the United States “forced China’s hand” on Taiwan, much as Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed in trying to justify to his invasion of Ukraine.

In light of all this, what policy options should concerned parties consider? 

First, countries aiming to preserve peace in the Taiwan Strait could work collectively to generate an authoritative assessment of China’s disinformation tactics, techniques, and procedures, as well as past disinformation campaigns. Such a report could be modeled on the U.S. Department of Defense’s Annual Report to the Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, or Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies’ 2023 China Security Report on China’s quest for control over the cognitive domain. This could help set a baseline for number of attacks, suspected threat actors, means and vectors of disinformation insertion, and thematic content. Partnering with researchers from Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research, which publishes the country’s annual National Defense Report containing a wealth of insights into how the PLA thinks about leveraging disinformation to undermine Taiwan’s resistance, could be a smart move. 

Second, the United States, Japan, Australia, and Taiwan could increase the number of workshops they host on media literacy through the Global Cooperation and Training Framework. These not only highlight the Taiwan government’s experience as a constant target of China’s disinformation, but they also serve to highlight what works when partnering with civil society to defeat disinformation campaigns. Taiwan civil society groups such as Cofacts, Taiwan FactCheck Center, and Fake News Cleaner are already leveraging high- and low-tech solutions to counter disinformation. 

Third, like-minded allies and partners could work to develop common understandings of the problem and response options. For example, in 2023 defense leaders from the United States, the Indo-Pacific, and Europe came together to the discuss whole of society resilience at a workshop hosted by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. A possible next step could be to invite partners from around the world to the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies to focus attention on how to work collectively to defeat disinformation, building on the center’s previous work on the topic

Finally, as Congress and the White House consider steps to compel Chinese firm ByteDance to sell TikTok or face a ban in the United States – a measure Taiwan is also considering and that India undertook in 2020 – concerned nations could work to support a freer and cleaner global social media space. While steps to pry TikTok free from China’s control are laudatory, they really address Beijing’s efforts to curate the information reaching non-Chinese speakers. Leaving the Chinese diaspora exposed to the Chinese Communist Party’s dominance of global Chinese-language print, TV, radio, and social media applications would be a mistake, as this is a primary vector by which Beijing seeks to exercise influence. For this reason many have called for a ban on WeChat and the forced divestment of other media assets by Chinese firms as a next step beyond merely requiring state broadcasters such as the China Global Television Network to register as foreign agents

Preparing for a potential conflict with China over Taiwan is an immense and unsettling undertaking, but one best begun early and coordinated with as many like-minded allies and partners as possible so as to raise the prospects of achieving deterrence through denial of the Beijing’s ambitions. Taiwan’s experience provides evidence that democracies can protect their elections, educate their publics, and preserve their freedom if they pull together and act quickly and firmly.