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29 March 2023

Letter from Kinmen: Taiwan is already under attack

The West’s focus on a Chinese invasion ignores the real struggle.

By Katie Stallard

Every morning at nine o’clock, the Beishan Broadcast Wall sputters to life. Perched on a sea cliff facing China from the north-westernmost tip of Kinmen, the closest of Taiwan’s islands to the mainland, the hulking concrete structure was used to pump out propaganda during the Cold War. There are eight rows of loudspeakers stacked three storeys tall, although only a handful still work. The walls are cracked and weathered with waist-high undergrowth closing in. There is a clunk, a burst of static and then a disembodied woman’s voice.

“Dear compatriots in mainland China, I wish you well,” begins the recording of Teresa Teng, one of Taiwan’s most famous singers during the 1960s and 1970s, beloved on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. “I am ­speaking from the Kinmen broadcasting station. Life here is so happy, and I hope our compatriots on the mainland can soon enjoy the same life.” The wall has long since been decommissioned. These days it is a tourist attraction, cycling through the old broadcasts at a fraction of their previous volume as visitors pose for selfies and peer across at the skyscrapers of the Chinese city of Xiamen on the opposite shore.

Yet the most striking feature of Kinmen is not the Cold War relics or the rusting anti-landing spikes that still line the beaches. It is the constant guttural thrum of the fleet of dredging ships in the channel beyond. They are at least 100 metres long with a spike jutting from the bow that pumps out a steady plume of inky run-off. They are part of a land reclamation project to build a new airport for Xiamen. An old man who had stopped to look called them “the ships that steal the sand”.

Beijing insists these ships operate legally within its own territorial waters, but Taipei views the sand dredgers as a form of intimidation. Not only do they suck up great quantities of sand from the sea floor, but they also damage local fishing grounds and tie up valuable coastguard resources, which now conduct round-the-clock patrols to monitor for intrusions. A 2021 report by Taiwan’s ­Ministry of Defence described the ships as part of Beijing’s strategy to undermine the status quo in the Taiwan Strait in order to achieve its goal of “seizing Taiwan without a fight”.

[See also: How Xi Jinping views the world]

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Kinmen was the site of the last major confrontation between Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Kuomintang (KMT) forces of Chiang Kai-shek, who established a rival government on Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Thousands of PLA troops landed on Kinmen’s beaches that October, but they were repelled. The island’s defenders dug in, ­blasting a network of deep tunnels and fortifications into the steep granite cliffs, some of which are still in use.

The island was heavily shelled during the First and Second Taiwan Strait Crises in 1954-55 and 1958. During the latter, it was bombarded by artillery for 44 days. Even after that crisis faded, the PLA shelled Kinmen and its neighbouring islets on alternate days for two more decades. The last shells landed in 1978.

“Every village on the island was shelled,” explained Shanti Lu, who works as a tour guide on Kinmen, driving around the island with a shiny pink stiletto-shaped air freshener on the dashboard of her car. She pointed out a small concrete hut with a narrow door that led down to an air raid shelter. “There are many of these all over the island for hiding from the air war.”

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, there have been growing fears in Washington that Taiwan is next. Beijing claims the self-ruling democracy as part of China and has refused to rule out using force to take control. In January, the US air force general Mike Minihan warned his officers in a leaked memo that they must be prepared for a war with China over the territory. “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025,” he wrote. (The US defence department said this did not reflect its view.)

Some analysts fear that offensive would start in Kinmen or one of the other small island chains not covered by the Taiwan Relations Act, the legislation that commits the US to providing Taiwan with the means of self-defence. In September 2022 Taiwanese troops shot down a Chinese drone near a military facility on Kinmen’s coast. In March, Chinese ships severed the undersea internet cables from Taiwan to the Matsu Islands, another archipelago close to mainland China, highlighting the territory’s vulnerability. Like Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the seizure of one of Taiwan’s outlying islands could allow Xi Jinping to flex China’s military strength and test international resolve.

Andrew Chubb, of the Asia Society Policy Institute think tank, wrote in February: “In contrast with a bloody and potentially catastrophic all-out invasion or a blockade that would risk conflict with the US, outlying island seizure could offer Beijing a low-risk yet highly symbolic rallying point in a period of likely economic struggles and rising social dissatisfaction.” This would present a far greater challenge to the US and its allies as to how to respond than a conventional assault on the main island. The fixation in Western capitals on the threat of a D-Day style attack also misses the struggle for the territory’s future that is already under way.

The sand dredgers anchored off Kinmen are one component of the “grey-zone” tactics – coercive acts that fall below the threshold of outright conflict – that Beijing deploys on a daily basis. These include repeated flights by PLA fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait and stifling economic and diplomatic coercion, along with what Taipei calls ­“cognitive warfare”, the sophisticated disinformation campaigns that have replaced the propaganda loudspeakers of the Cold War. The aim is to wear down Taiwan’s will and capacity to defend itself.

[See also: The diplomatic battle for Taiwan]

In Taipei I met with Yujen Kuo, the director of the Institute for National Policy Research. He focuses on regional security and has given considerable thought to how an invasion could unfold. “We need to prepare for the unexpected,” he told me. Dressed in a smart dark grey suit, sipping a black coffee, he outlined the report he had drafted for Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen in October, which addressed what he considers the moments of greatest danger that lie ahead.

This included several “windows of opportunity” for Beijing, such as crises concerning US allies – for instance, conflict between North and South Korea – or the collapse of Western support for Ukraine, forcing Kyiv to accept a settlement on Putin’s terms. Kuo fears this would send a dangerous message to Xi that any international backlash would be short-lived and he could later “fix things by talking”.

The scenario that worries Kuo the most, however, is of domestic instability in Taiwan, which could give Beijing an opening to impose a blockade under the auspices of protecting the territory’s security. One example would be the assassination of a presidential candidate ahead of the January 2024 election, which will be closely contested between the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the KMT. (This is not as far-fetched as it might sound given the assassination of the former Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo last July.)

In terms of a more conventional offensive, Kuo is blunt about how he believes an attack would start. “No matter what kind of invasion style, step one is always a missile attack,” he explained. “In the first four days of the Ukraine war, Russia fired 394 missiles and killed around 4,000 Ukrainian people. But around 70 per cent of Taiwan is mountains, so the population density is much higher. Even if China is aiming at military targets, they will hit civilians in large numbers, and the casualty figure will be 100 times higher. That’s inevitable.”

In his view, this actually makes such a large-scale assault less likely, as Xi would have to weigh the cost of enormous casualties among a population he has always insisted is part of China, as well as the accompanying international outrage. Combined with Taiwan’s forbidding topography and the difficulty of staging an attack across more than 100km of water, he believes these factors count against Xi ordering an invasion of the main island except as a last resort. Instead, Beijing will try to exhaust Taiwan’s defensive capabilities and to convince the population resistance is futile.

Chinese jets and vessels cross the midway point of the Taiwan Strait near daily, forcing Taiwan to scramble its own aircraft. Kuo says this “attrition warfare” is designed to wear out Taiwan’s air force and numb the population to the shifting status quo, while also allowing the PLA to map Taiwan’s defences.

The need to respond to this pressure has caused some friction between Taipei and Washington, which has urged a faster shift to asymmetric capabilities, such as the shoulder-operated anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles that have been so effective in Ukraine. “The US has gone full-throttle behind the counter-invasion scenario, prioritising weapons systems that are appropriate for a full-scale amphibious invasion,” said Randall Schriver, a former US assistant-secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific affairs who now chairs the Project 2049 Institute. “This has thwarted Taiwan’s efforts to procure other kinds of platforms that would be helpful in this phase of constant coercion, such as anti-submarine warfare helicopters and aerial surveillance aircraft.”

The argument against investing in such capabilities is they would be destroyed in the first wave of a Chinese assault. But Schriver contends that Taiwan needs both the asymmetric weaponry to fight back against a conventional assault, and the resources to respond to the intensive pressure campaign.

“I think some Americans are a little lazy when they talk about the ‘Ukraine model,’” he said. “Ukraine is not a great model for Taiwan in the sense that Ukraine was invaded – deterrence failed, and their country has been decimated.” Schriver argues for a greater focus on helping Taiwan to respond to Beijing’s intimidation tactics. “Ironically, one of the problems if they are not able to respond to this coercion robustly is that it actually makes the unlikely, but dangerous scenario of an invasion more, not less likely.”

[See also: How Xi Jinping views the world]

In 2018 Taiwan was gripped by a strange news story about hundreds of tourists stranded in Japan. An approaching typhoon had forced Kansai Airport, near Osaka, to shut, but while the Chinese embassy had dispatched buses for its citizens, Taiwanese media outlets reported their citizens had been left behind. There were photos of the passengers and reports of how some pretended to be Chinese to get on the buses.

“The news got wild,” Wu Min Hsuan, who goes by Ttcat, told me in Taipei. He is the co-founder of Doublethink Lab, a non-profit organisation that studies disinformation. “Everybody was talking about why our diplomats in Japan didn’t rescue our people, even me.” At the height of the frenzy, a Taiwanese diplomat in Osaka took his own life.

Yet the news about Taiwanese tourists being left behind “was fake”, Ttcat explained. The Japanese government released a statement clarifying that there had been no special buses for Chinese citizens. “People… found that the original story was actually from Weibo [a popular Chinese micro-blogging platform], which had then been picked up by Taiwanese media.” Ttcat started Doublethink Lab not long after.

The false story fits into the broader narrative that Beijing has sought to perpetuate in recent years that Taiwan’s government is unable to provide for its people. This matters. While Taiwan represents a formidable battlefield for an invading army if the 23 million-strong population fights, things look substantially different if Beijing succeeds in instilling the message that the government is inept.

Another key component of these efforts is discrediting Taiwan’s international partners, insisting, in particular, that the US cannot be relied upon. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 was a gift to Chinese propagandists in this respect.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, opinion polls recorded a more than 20 per cent drop in the number of people who believed the US would send troops to defend Taiwan, according to research by the independent Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation. “The Ukraine war destroyed much of Taiwan’s public confidence in US intervention,” Paul Huang, a fellow at the foundation, told me over breakfast at a Taipei café. “They saw that the US didn’t intervene militarily and that really changed people’s perception.”

Then there is the surge in conspiracy theories, fuelled by social media. These have included the claim that the US has a secret plan to destroy the island. It started with a Twitter post by a radio host on Sputnik – a Russian state-run outlet – in Washington, which was then amplified by Chinese officials, including the foreign minister Qin Gang. “It’s just not true,” said Ttcat, “but the more you hear it, the more it starts to make sense.”

Bonnie Glaser, who directs the Indo-Pacific programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, experienced this first-hand in February. A Taiwanese fact-checking centre asked her to help debunk the claim that the US was plotting to destroy the island. “There is really pervasive mistrust of the US, and this disinformation is aimed at driving wedges in society, exacerbating the existing polarisation and undermining trust in the government,” she told me. As with all effective propaganda it draws on an element of truth: Taiwan has been abandoned by the US before. “People remember that the US broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979 [when it switched recognition to Beijing].”

[See also: Is the clock ticking for TikTok?]

Taiwan is still losing diplomatic allies. On 14 March Honduras’ president Xiomara Castro announced her country would establish official relations with Beijing. This will leave Taiwan with 13 formal partners, down from 22 when Tsai took power in 2016. It is part of a coordinated Chinese campaign to isolate Taiwan. Taiwan’s complicated status would also make it harder to rally a response if there was an attack.

Meanwhile Beijing is intensifying its economic coercion – imposing unofficial sanctions on countries that increase support for Taiwan, such as Lithuania – and leveraging its extensive trade. China remains Taiwan’s largest trading partner and in June 2022, its customs administration abruptly banned imports of Taiwanese grouper fish, which it claimed had tested positive for prohibited chemicals. Over dinner in Taipei, a government minister gestured proudly to a dish of steamed grouper and announced, “we call this freedom fish”.

There are real consequences to these actions. “Defence and security are important,” Huang told me. But “for a lot of people, their major concern is the economy and issues like the cost of living”. Taiwan is currently suffering an egg shortage, for instance, which is connected to a global outbreak of avian influenza, but on social media has been largely blamed on the government’s incompetence. Whichever party wins the 2024 election, it will have to show that it can secure Taiwan’s economic future, as well as defend its democracy.

Fish and eggs might seem like banal concerns compared to an invasion, but it’s all connected: the relentless incursions, the disinformation campaigns, the diplomatic and economic coercion are all aimed at weakening Taiwan and ingraining the message that it should accept its fate as part of China.

During my meetings with government officials and experts in Taipei, nobody was casual about the military threat, but they stressed that the more immediate challenge is the pressure campaign against Taiwan. If the West wants to support Taiwan, it must start by helping to counter these tactics. Back in Kinmen, I had asked Shanti Lu, who now has two children of her own, what she thought the future would hold. “Of course, we are worried that they will rule us by force,” she said, looking out towards the Chinese coast. “So we have to be very strong.”

A portion of the travel costs associated with Katie Stallard’s trip was paid by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The New Statesman retained complete editorial independence throughout

[See also: China is laying out a path to conflict with the US]

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special