China Wages Cognitive Warfare To Topple Taiwan Government: Report

China is waging "cognitive warfare" against Taiwan and aims to topple its government by targeting the public with escalating misinformation campaigns this year, according to a national security think tank in Taipei.

In its year-end report analyzing Beijing's political and military policies in 2020, the government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research said Chinese efforts to influence the Taiwanese public's voting behavior has so far backfired, but it expected more of the same strategy this year.

Released last week, INDSR's 200-page report makes special mention of China's online cognitive warfare—part of its larger "hybrid warfare"—which it conducts through Taiwan's mainstream media platforms, including popular forums and ubiquitous mobile messaging application LINE.

The aim, the authors say, is to create division and internal conflict, and to change the public's voting behavior in favor of a more preferred candidate. The tactic was taken straight from Russia's cyber operation playbook, according to a report chapter describing Beijing's attempts to influence public opinion and thought.

This is achieved through targeted misinformation campaigns as well as so-called "hack-and-leak" operations, INDSR said, noting that efforts to evoke emotions such as doubt, fear and anger all fall short of actual war, and are part of China's "grey zone conflict" against Taiwan.

Unlike authoritarian regimes with tightly controlled internet and media censorship, the guarantees of free speech and open society make liberal democracies particularly vulnerable to misinformation operations, the authors said.

Media outlets are at risk of being bought or their influence purchased through advertising and paid airtime. China also seeks to insert Beijing-friendly "agents of influence" into high-level positions in otherwise independent media organizations, the report continued.

INDSR's annual report notes China's own growing media influence in both Chinese and English through its state news outlets. The likes of China News Service, Global Times and broadcaster CGTN all publish on mainstream platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which are otherwise banned for its own citizens.

Together with an army of online trolls, news items aimed at controlling the narrative about the Chinese government's policies and motives target countries with notable Chinese-speaking populations. The report lists Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the U.S. as being of particular interest to the Chinese Communist Party.

However, Beijing's recent cyber operations in Taiwan failed to achieve the desired paradigm shift in its favor and had the opposite effect of creating more anti-China sentiment in the island democracy. This was due to the cognitive warfare operations being based on falsehoods, which were easily debunked and dismissed, said the report.

The COVID-19 pandemic also dealt a blow to China's reputation following criticism of Beijing's handling of the outbreak, it added.

Owing to seemingly unbridgeable political differences, there has been little to no dialog across the Taiwan Strait since President Tsai Ing-wen was elected to office in 2016. Events in Hong Kong then appeared to push Taiwanese public opinion further away from Beijing, resulting in a record-setting re-election victory for Tsai last January.

The setback, compounded by the Tsai administration's effective management of misinformation, meant that Beijing's efforts to conduct further psychological warfare on the public has so far been unsuccessful.

However, the think tank said Taiwan and other democracies needed to establish relevant mechanisms—such as fact-checking centers—to counter such a cyber threat.

Following Russia's playbook

INDSR's findings match those of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which analyzed reports of cyber-enabled foreign interference in elections and referendums between 2010 and 2020.

In its October 2020 report, ASPI found that China had interfered in three of Taiwan's political processes in the last decade. Also with three elections or referendums targeted during the same period, the U.S. and U.K. were tied with Taipei for first.

"China has targeted 10 elections in seven states and regions. Taiwan, specifically Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party, has been the main target of China's cyber-enabled election interference," the report said.

"China has adopted methods associated with Russian interference, such as blatantly destabilizing the general information environment in targeted countries with obvious mistruths and conspiracy theories," it continued.

"The repeated efforts are more reflective of what the target state hopes to achieve rather than the effectiveness of the tactic," Sarah O'Connor, one of the authors of the report, told Newsweek shortly after the report's publication.

"I would argue that China's online information operations in Taiwan have not been very effective, with Taiwan putting in place a number of mechanisms to respond to and defend against disinformation," she added.

Physical threat

Last year also marked an escalation of Chinese military activity near Taiwan not seen since the mid-1990s, said INDSR's chapter on the People's Liberation Army.

Chinese warplanes made incursions into Taiwan's air defense identification zone (ADIZ) more times than in any year since 1996, when the PLA conducted missile tests near the island before its first fully democratic presidential election.

Between January 1 and November 30 last year, PLA warplanes entered Taiwan's ADIZ on 91 days, the report said.

Chinese military planes flew about 380 sorties into the island's southwest ADIZ alone, Taiwan's defense ministry told the government-funded Central News Agency in Taipei. The island's vastly outnumbered air force scrambled interceptor jets each time.

Aerial threats peaked during the visits to Taipei by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar in August, Under Secretary of State Keith Krach in September and Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrcil between, INDSR said.

The security think tank predicted that if PLA intrusions continue in the future, it could justify the sale of U.S. offensive weaponry to Taiwan.

Taiwan Army Soldiers Wear Face Masks
File photos: Taiwanese soldiers wearing face masks amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images