If China Moves to Take Taiwan, Report Sees 3,500 Potential Targets

As China continues to threaten potential military action to reunify Taiwan with the mainland, a new study based on the contents of an open-source database tied to alleged cybersecurity incidents identifies nearly 3,500 potential targets.

The report, published earlier this week, was conducted by senior research fellows Christine McDaniel and Weifeng Zhong of George Mason University's Mercatus Center. It analyzes some 294,100 Taiwan-based points of interest found by the research group New Kite Data Labs in an "unguarded" Chinese IP address that the firm Breadcrumb Cybersecurity tied to "multiple malicious cybersecurity incidents between August 2019 and October 2021 targeting the United States."

The Mercatus Center researchers focused specifically on four categories of points of interest that would "more likely to be of military interest because those locations are strategically important and vulnerable in a kinetic conflict."

These included 183 points of interest related to Taiwan's military, 341 related to transportation, 550 related to information and communications technology (ICT) and 2,397 related to the government.

"The POIs are comprehensive, and their locations are spread across Taiwan's territory, including in areas that are sparsely populated," the report said. "The data suggest that at least one Chinese entity, possibly a government-affiliated entity, is paying close attention to a variety of economically and militarily critical locations on the island."

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A soldier takes pictures as an OH-58D helicopter approaches to land during the Han Kuang military exercise, which simulates an attack on the disputed island by the People's Liberation Army, on July 26, in Hsinchu, Taiwan. The exercises took place about a week before a visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stirred an uptick in tensions, as China conducted its largest-ever military drills surrounding Taiwan. Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

Military points of interest named in the report include the Taiwanese navy's Haifeng Brigade, an ammunition depot in Cishan, located near the southern city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan's Military Police Command headquarters, and the Army Logistics Training Center.

Transportation hubs labeled points of interest included the Taoyuan International Airport, the Taichung station of the Taiwan High Speed Rail and the Port of Kaohsiung.

In the ICT realm were an array of facilities belonging to Chunghwa Telecom and Taiwan Mobile, the headquarters of Qualcomm Taiwan Corporation and other ICT service provider offices.

Governmental points of interest included the National Security Bureau and a village government office on Orchid Island, which is located to the east of the Taiwan island.

Discussing the data in comments sent to Newsweek, McDaniel and Zhong said that "the entity that curated the data set had already labeled each of the nearly 300,000 locations with its type."

"Among the 2,397 government POIs, for example," the two said, "the type determined by the data's curator ranges from town- and city-level government offices to the headquarters of national government agencies."

"The curator also seemed to have been maintaining the data set for several years," they added, "because the transportation POIs also include two Greenpeace vessels, the Esperanza and the Rainbow Warrior, when they visited Taiwan in 2012 and 2013, respectively."

Among the most vulnerable and potentially consequential of these points of interest are the 15 undersea cables that provide the island with global internet access. The report identified the three landing stations in which these submarine lines reach Taiwan in the city of New Taipei surrounding the capital, the northern town of Toucheng and the southern town of Fangshan.

Severing these ties to the island of nearly 24 million people could cost something to the tune of $55.63 million per day or $1.69 billion per month, according to the report. The researchers also noted that "the economic effects over time would not be linear," and "the costs of disruption would quickly escalate if companies were compelled to make larger production adjustments during a sustained conflict."

"The notion that China's government or military is keeping tabs on 'points of interest' across Taiwan is expected," McDaniel and Zhong said, "but when you put those POIs up against population density across the island at a granular level, you see not only the ports but also the submarine cable landing stations pop up, and that gives you a pause."

"People think that data are in the cloud, but they are really lying across our ocean floors," they explained. "It's one thing if you need to repair a damaged cable or landing station in peace time — that would be disruptive but can be done nevertheless — but in a conflict, the implications would be much more severe."

"The fact that this vulnerability hasn't received the attention among policymakers and the public it deserves is more surprising to us than the data themselves," they added.

Bruce Jones, a former U.N. official and adviser to the U.S. State Department who now serves as director of the Brookings Institution's Project on International Order and Strategy and as a senior fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, also raised the alarm on the vulnerability of these underwater connections.

"The disruption to Taiwan would be far greater than the disruption to China because China has multiple other cables to every other part of the world," said Jones, who served as a reviewer for the Mercatus Center report. "So, China could impose some substantial confusion and complexity in Taiwan with only a relatively modest cost to its own operations."

To drive this point home, he underscored how some 93% of all global data flows through undersea cables.

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Four charts show Taiwan-related points of interest found in a Chinese database by New Kite Data Labs and analyzed by George Mason University's Mercatus Center. Mercatus Center/New Kite Data Labs

While there are no signs that a Chinese attempt to take Taiwan is imminent, pledges to do so have been a core tenet of President Xi Jinping's tenure, a historic era of leadership likely set to be extended during next month's 20th Communist Party National Congress. Tensions have soared in the leadup to the twice-in-a-decade event, as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month became the first in her position to visit Taiwan in 25 years, setting off massive People's Liberation Army drills surrounding the island.

Washington defended the visit, along with two more trips that followed from U.S. politicians, as being in line with the longstanding "One China policy" adopted when Washington severed formal ties with Taipei and established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979. The shift came three decades after China's civil war ended with the establishment of the Communist-led People's Republic of China on the mainland and the Nationalist-led Republic of China in Taiwan, which is now led by the Democratic Progressive Party.

However, the expansion of unofficial U.S.-Taiwan relations in the form of growing military support and political contacts has riled Beijing into accusing Washington of changing the status quo, especially at a time of already strained relations between the world's top two powers.

Given the potential seriousness of a direct clash, Jones said he was "very worried" about the present situation in the Taiwan Strait.

"I think that neither China nor Taiwan nor the United States want this to blow up into a full crisis right now or in the very near term," Jones said. "But nor does anybody want to give any ground, and there's an awful lot of room for miscalculation and an awful lot of room for mistakes."

"We're not ready to fight this war," he added. "I don't think the Chinese are ready to fight this war. I know the Taiwanese are not ready to fight this war. But we continue, all of us, to act in ways that increase the risk without really taking the serious preparations that would allow us to deter a crisis if it came to a real tipping point."