Small Wars Journal

Taiwan: China’s Gray Zone Doctrine in Action

Fri, 02/11/2022 - 9:21pm

Taiwan: China’s Gray Zone Doctrine in Action

By Charity S. Jacobs and Kathleen M. Carley

Carnegie Mellon University


Tensions between Taiwan and China have been rising rapidly since the 2016 election of Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-Wen. Chinese incursions into the Taiwanese air defense identification zone (ADIZ) have drastically increased, from about 20 flights in 2019 to almost 900 in 2021 (Buckley and Qin, 2021). The threat of conflict stems from key differences in how Taiwan and China view the small island on the issue of reunification, with the potential to become a flashpoint between the United States and China. China’s actions towards Taiwan fit within the US Special Operations Command’s definition of the gray zone as the “intense political, economic, informational, and military competition more fervent in nature than normal steady-state diplomacy, yet short of war”, representing the actions between peace and war on the conflict continuum (Votel et. al, 2016). As strategic competition grows in an exponentially connected information environment, understanding how near peer competitors like China are adapting and using this domain is vital to maintaining national interests. China remains the US “pacing threat”, which the US Secretary of Defense Austin Lloyd describes as the “means that China is the only country that can pose a systemic challenge to the United States in the sense of challenging us, economically, technologically, politically and militarily (Garamone, 2021).” It is critical to understand China’s framework for influence operations in order to understand the long-term strategy towards achieving Chinese national goals and interests. Taiwan provides a remarkable opportunity to analyze China’s gray zone operations in exerting influence towards securing Taiwan under a One China principle.

Lessons Learned from the Past RMA

The past thirty years of conflict demonstrate China’s doctrinal ‘leapfrogging’ from other nations’ wars regarding warfare and influence operations. The two US-coalition Gulf Wars played a critical part in modernizing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrine. Desert Storm in 1991 would renew international thinking on the notion of revolution in military affairs (RMA) theory and was a significant wake-up call for the PLA that modernization efforts were necessary if China was to become a world power capable of fighting wars of the future. US information superiority enabled the rapid, decisive victory in the Gulf War, connecting sensors, shooters, and decision makers to enable increased combat power that rapidly defeated enemy forces and greatly contributed towards the development of network-centric warfare, a roadmap for warfare within the information age (Alberts et al., 1999). Over the next 15 years, Chinese doctrine responded with the theory of ‘Informatized Warfare’(信息化) with the goal of winning local wars in an information environment (China’s National Defense in 2008). The term ‘High-Technology Local Wars’ was coined to describe the unified combat systems incorporating command and control, ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities, communications, logistics, and network systems necessary for a unity of effort over a large expanse of land. China reformed its doctrine to include an operational level of war based on campaigns, where some sequence of campaigns within a local war could bring strategic outcomes (Cheng, 2011, p. 159).

 Although Beijing sharply criticized the legality of US military interventions abroad after the first Gulf War, Chinese Analysts observed with great interest the way US leaders manipulated foreign and domestic public opinion. China maintained a critical view of the US coalition efforts in Operational Iraqi Freedom, which it perceived to be an illegal war due to the lack of a UN Security Council vote (China’s Position on the US War in Iraq). China viewed this as a strategic misfire that lowered the US standing on the world stage and marked the beginning of American power decline (Scobell, 2011, p. 9, 16). However, the PLA did extensive research on the “soft battles” or non-kinetic operations that enabled a rapid collapse of the Iraqi government, to include pre-kinetic operations within the information domain. While the Gulf War was the first to be massively televised, the Iraq War had extensive television coverage for years leading up to and including ground operations. The PLA saw sanctions against the Iraqi government for alleged weapons of mass destruction as a form of financial non-military warfare, much of which was covered by the western media in the years leading up to 2003 (Liang and Wang, 1999). President George W. Bush used increasingly hostile rhetoric, labeling Iraq and its allies as an ‘Axis of Evil’, drawing a line in the sand between the US and Iraq (Bush, 2002). As the US made efforts to garner international consensus via the UN, public opinion and public relations were critical in drumming up internal and external pressure for a US-led coalition. China saw media coverage by CNN and NBC as a key function of US war efforts, and believed these outlets were employed directly by the US government and the Department of Defense (Cheng, 2011, p. 183). The PLA also noted the effectiveness of more overt communication channels, such as the ‘Office of Global Communications’ the White House stood up, designed to plan, coordinate, and manage news and information related to public opinion and press releases (Cheng, 2011, 178).  Lastly, the Iraq War reinforced many of the lessons learned from the first Gulf war, specifically the modernization required to fight and win within an information environment in addition to the need for doctrine to capture ‘soft battles’ of non-kinetic functions.

The PLA introduced Three Warfares doctrine in 2003, centered around psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare in response to the effective psychological operations and effective use of media executed in the Iraq War and other recent conflicts. Psychological warfare is the fundamental warfare seeking to influence a target’s beliefs or perceptions by disseminating information through channels to disrupt, support, or weaken an adversary’s beliefs using techniques such as propaganda, coercion, deception, etc. Public Opinion warfare seeks to shape both external and internal opinions in order to gain support towards an end goal. Lastly, Legal Warfare seeks to set a legal framework through which China can legitimize its actions (Kania, 2016). PLA leaders understood non-kinetic operations needed to be integrated into existing military doctrine if the PLA was going to fight in contemporary wars. They observed how effective news coverage of precision-guided missiles hitting targets was in propping up US public opinion but also demoralizing the Iraqi military. They debated how instrumental the broadcast imagery of dead Rangers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu was in demoralizing the American will to continue supporting the 1993 UN Operation in Somalia, in addition to unifying a nation at war against a foreign presence. They criticized conflicts in which they deemed illegitimate and illegal such as the Kosovo and Iraq Wars, but noted the influential media coverage used to gain positive public opinion (Liang and Wang, 1999, p. 12).

Three Warfares is commonly understood to be the foundation for Chinese influence operations in addition to framing political operations within a military context. China’s modernization and integration of joint operations entailed using a ‘system of systems’ framework for capabilities at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Operational Elements are the key capabilities enabled by integrated information systems that are force multipliers in combat effectiveness, such as intelligence and surveillance (ISR), command and control, precision strike, information confrontation, and Three Warfares. Tactical capabilities rely on modular operational units that can easily be scaled up or down depending on the mission requirement. The ground forces operational element is a combined arms battalion, which can be aggregated to form larger tactical formations, joint campaign formations, and an operational system of systems, all enabled by operational elements to include Three Warfares (McCauley, 2013). The PLA integrated non-kinetic operations such as Three Warfares to support kinetic operations and enable more shaping operations within a conflict spectrum. Base 311 or Unit 61716 is China’s premier psychological warfare unit under its Strategic Support Force, the PLA’s branch with cyber, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities (Costello and McReynolds, 2018). This unit is based in the Fujian province directly opposite Taiwan. Its capabilities and campaigns in Taiwan are difficult to attribute, but it has extensive literature on the importance of disinformation emulating a target population, the use of bots and automation, and the need for more advanced natural language processing and other machine learning methods for Three Warfares efforts (Harold et. al, 2021).  

China had its modern ' sputnik' moment when Google’s AlphaGo program beat the world’s top Go player, Ke Jie in 2017. This event both inspired and galvanized the Chinese public and China’s ‘Silicon Valley’ Zhonggauancum due to the historical significance of the game in addition to the sheer computational feat of beating Go, which has nearly infinite branching possibilities (Lee, 2018, p. 3-4). The CPC published the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan later that same year with a roadmap to becoming the world’s leader in AI by 2030 (Notice of the State Council, 2017). This drive for AI is aligned to Intelligentized (智能化) Warfare, the CPC’s latest iteration on modernizing informatized warfare. Intelligentized Warfare integrates ideas of informatized war in the age of big data and increasingly connected social networks, media consumption and commerce, where instead of a ‘system-of-systems’ framework, China seeks to have algorithmic advantage in order to achieve an operational advantage (Kania, Testimony, 2019). China is prioritizing artificial intelligence to gain maturity with emerging technologies in order to gain an advantageous position for what China sees as the next RMA (Kania, Chinese Military Innovation, 2019). Intelligentized Warfare can also be understood as a response to the US Third Offset Strategy of 2014-2018, in which the DoD prioritized integrating AI capability into military applications, network autonomous systems, and human-machine collaboration (Hillner, 2019, p. 3). China’s New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan incorporated a ‘Whole-of-Nation’ strategy to create extensive technical talent and capability within the country and invest in disruptive technologies. Technical challenges within this domain include ‘human-out-of-the-loop’ automation, increased 5G connectivity and data as the foundation for the intelligentized battlefield (Kania, Testimony, 2019). Within the context of Three Warfares, autonomous systems capable of information operations without a human operator will likely drastically increase the magnitude if not the effect of influence operations.

Winning Without Fighting (不战而屈 人之兵)1

To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” - Sun Tzu


China’s informatized warfare led to ‘peacetime-wartime integration’, or the blurring of information operations in peacetime and wartime across the conflict spectrum (McReynolds, 2001, p. 199). This integration incorporates the Three Warfares framework in addition to the seminal 1999 book Unrestricted Doctrine by PLA Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. Qiao and Wang argued that the lines separating the battlefield from society no longer exist in future war: “When we suddenly realize that all these non-war actions may be the new factors constituting future warfare, we have to come up with a new name for this new form of war: Warfare which transcends all boundaries and limits, in short: unrestricted warfare (Qiao and Wang, 1999). The authors expanded the Clausetizian concept of war to compel an enemy to submit to one’s will, opening the aperture to include “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.” Unrestricted warfare deviated from earlier notions of network-centric dominance and provided a framework for shaping operations during peacetime to set winning conditions for wartime, given dynamic and unpredictable adversarial lines (Barno and Bensahel, 2016). Three Warfares demonstrates China’s peacetime methods of warfare within the political realm, and how information dominance enables ‘winning without fighting’, a Mao-ist era saying that draws from Sun Tzu. In a fight over ideas and perception, Three Warfares is effective in shaping the battlefield of world opinion and demonstrates that the “warzone” extends beyond physical conflict zones. 

China’s refinement on psychological warfare is evident in PLA literature on “cognitive domain operations” (CDO); the use of information to influence an enemy’s cognitive functions for both peacetime and wartime functions (Beauchamp-Mustafaga, 2019). PLA theorist Zeng Huafeng defined tactics to win mind superiority: 1) “perception manipulation” through propaganda narratives; 2) “cutting off historical memory” so that targets will be open to new values; 3) “changing the paradigm of thinking” by targeting elites to change their ideology; and 4) “deconstructing symbols” to challenge national identity (Kunlun, 2014).  Zeng would also be one of the first to underline the role that social media and the internet will have in attaining mind superiority. A framework of different technologies for CDO was later developed in 2018 that incorporated techniques for cognition to affect the ability to think and function, in addition to subliminal cognition or a person’s underlying perception of the world around them (emotions, knowledge, beliefs, values, etc.). CDO appears to be the underlying concept for China’s influence operations involving social media, to include propaganda and disinformation efforts.

Three Warfares is a guiding doctrine for the CPC and is not limited to the PLA. An internal PLA review had concluded that the military did not have the resources or capability to modernize for high intensity localized warfare, to include many of the ‘soft battles’ required for influence operations (Kania, 2016).  The CPC utilizes whatever ways and means in order to reach its objectives, including use of other departments and capabilities within its purview. Both the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) and what CPC Chairman Xi Jinping has called “China’s magic weapon” the United Front Work Department (UFWD) play key roles in Three Warfares within a non-military context and form the two pillars for the Chinese disinformation operations.

The United Front is an organization with ‘deniability by design’, focused on influencing the Chinese diaspora, foreign governments, and other actors towards pro-Beijing policies. The UFWD accomplishes this with far-reaching liaison connections that facilitate business relationships, academic oversight and control abroad, influence campaigns for different target regions such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Xinjiang region, espionage recruitment, and influence of the Chinese diaspora (Bowe, 2018). China has used it to broker ‘shadow diplomacy’ (Diresta et. al) in addition to monitoring Chinese student activities abroad and using student organizations to shut down dissent in western countries (Sakaguchi, 2021).

The CPD in comparison is the CPC’s centralized authority for ideological party propaganda, media licensing, internet regulation, and messaging campaigns. Over the past decade as China has consolidated control and censorship over Chinese media outlets, it has embraced western social media sources in a ‘right to speak’ campaign to the rest of the world.  In 2007, the CPC launched the Grand External Propaganda Campaign (大外宣) to create a PRC-controlled media platform Xinhua capable of shaping global narratives about China (Diresta et. al, 2020). The CPD additionally exploits social media networks to shape opinions for the Chinese diaspora and international community. The CPC has embraced western social media in its proliferation of cognitive domain operations and “Three Warfares” efforts to influence public opinion. China is now Facebook’s largest advertising client in Asia (Mozur, 2017), and Chinese Diplomats and Embassies have jumped onto Twitter and Facebook to communicate directly with the public (Schaefer, 2020). The emergence of the “Wolf Warrior”, or Diplomats that aggressively defend Chinese interests signals a turning point in official CPC communication, using confrontational or conspiratorial messaging, amplification of anti-western stories from other countries like Russia and Iran, and viral memes to gain followers. Facebook and Twitter have also found many instances of inauthentic account activity that amplifies these official social media messages (Scobell, 2021).  Astroturfing is a known tactic that the CPC has utilized, with state-sponsored commenters posting to sway an opinion under the guise that they are a part of the targeted population. The CPD manages and trains its ‘cyber armies’ or state-sponsored social media commentators who wage more covert influence campaigns on these social networks, the largest and most well-known is the 50 Cent Party (50c). Past research on leaked 50c reimbursement emails have demonstrated coordinated messaging with an impressive throughput of nearly 500 million posts annually (King and Roberts, 2017, p. 494).

Influence Operations in Taiwan

A recent RAND report claimed that Taiwan is China’s test bed for disinformation campaigns on social media (Harold et. al, 2021). Since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, both Taiwan and China have claimed to be the one true China, with China replacing Taiwan’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council in 1971. Although the US does not officially recognize Taiwan as a country, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 which maintained a non-diplomatic relationship and non-committal military support to Taiwan if China were to invade, underlining ‘strategic ambiguity’ and preservation of the status quo (Clark, 2010, p. 3-4). While Taiwan and China have had increased cross-strait relations since the early 90s, tensions have drastically increased since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-Wen won office in 2016. This was a strategically important event for China; the first time in history a pro-independence party has won, signifying a strong anti-Beijing pivot for Taiwan and accompanying Chinese hostility using increasingly visible gray zone operations. China’s ‘peacetime’ unrestricted warfare demonstrates its gray zone strategy, using all instruments of power below the threshold of war, to include the more unattributable efforts that fall within Three Warfares (Layton, 2021).   

China’s gray zone operations have increased precipitously close to this threshold of open conflict. In November 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned China that an invasion of Taiwan would have ‘terrible consequences’, but did not commit to troops or US intervention, underlining the US policy of strategic ambiguity (Lonas, 2021). China’s strategy in Taiwan demonstrates how flexible its instruments of power are in furthering CPC goals towards reunification by eroding Taiwan’s will to resist. A few years after Three Warfares was published, the CPC passed the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, which threatens non-peaceful actions against Taiwan if there is a declaration of independence (Anti-Secession Law, 2005). This is legal warfare in action, creating what China sees as a legitimate path to coercing Taiwan into not declaring independence, and providing a justification for war in the instance that Taiwan does pursue independence. Additionally, the CPC views the 1992 Consensus, a meeting between the CPC and then ruling party Kuomintang (KMT) as a Taiwanese acceptance of a One-China rule in exchange for increased cross-strait trade and commerce (1992 Consensus). However, Taiwan has never adhered to this policy, with the KMT claiming ‘One China, Different interpretations’, and the DPP not recognizing the 1992 consensus. China has become increasingly aggressive regarding the definition of ‘One China’ with Xi Jinping stating in 2019 that there are no different interpretations for a ‘One China Principle’ (Grossman and Millan, 2020).

China has also wielded its massive leverage to attack Taiwan via diplomatic isolation and reduce Taiwan’s world standing. After the election, China immediately suspended the cross-strait hotline with Taiwan, signaling a complete degradation in official communication. Since 2016, China has poached seven more diplomatic relationships from Taiwan (Templeman, 2020). Panama reported that China had offered access to COVID-19 vaccinations in exchange for recognition (Sands, 2021). Conversely, China recently downgraded relations with Lithuania over a Taiwanese Embassy that opened up and has retaliated by blocking all Lithuanian goods from entry (Bounds, 2021). China will usually offer a carrot vs a stick in poaching these relationships vis-à-vis aid and trade, but it will also use economic coercion as Lithuania demonstrates. These actions all support China’s efforts to force Taiwan into accepting the 1992 consensus of ‘One China’ via diplomatic isolation. While diplomatic isolation promotes psychological warfare against Taiwan in denigrating its claims of being a sovereign nation, this strategy is mostly symbolic as most of Taiwan’s trade is currently conducted with countries that do not diplomatically recognize Taiwan (Shattuck, 2020).  

China is increasingly using military incursions assisted with propaganda to conduct psychological warfare against Taiwan, often amplified by state-sponsored media sources. The year prior to the election, the PLA conducted a widely broadcast urban training exercise of tanks, artillery, and infantry forces attacking a mockup of the Taiwanese Presidential Office, likely aimed at Taiwanese voters to make the “right choice” in the election (Cole, 2015). Immediately following the 2016 election, China widely broadcast amphibious and live fire drills across the strait from Taiwan (Denyer, 2016). Over the past couple of years, the uptick in ADIZ incursions is a daily reminder to Taiwan that there is nothing it can do to stop China’s military actions. In October 2021, China sent nearly 200 PLA flights into the ADIZ, most of which were clustered around the National Day of the People’s Republic of China. These incursions have likewise had an uptick in fighter jets (Feng, 2021).  While the incursions have not yet violated Taiwanese sovereign airspace, these PLA flights are leading to extreme stress and potentially long-term attrition on Taiwanese fighter jet responses and the Taiwanese public, as these incidents become normalized (Buckley and Qin, 2021).           

China’s cross-strait business and trade within Taiwan is the United Front’s business model. China’s media Influence on Taiwanese companies stems from “censorship through capitalism” or influencing private companies towards CPC interests under the threat of economic coercion (Kurlantzick and Link, 2009). Through artful use of ‘United Front’ work using taishang businessmen, the CPC has been successful in influencing the private sector using a model of ‘economic independence’ that leads to political influence. The culture of guanxi or maintaining deeply held personal social connections has historical importance within Chinese and Taiwanese culture (Wu, 2016), but this is also a perfect avenue for political interference.  The most famous example is Taiwan’s Want food conglomerate, which enjoyed rapid growth in the 90s from increased trade, earning 90% of its revenue from mainland China. In 2008, the Want Chairman bought up Taiwan’s largest media company China Times, creating the Want Media Group. Over time, the China Times transitioned over to pro-Beijing news coverage and has converged with state-sponsored media on issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang (Wu, 2016, p. 431; Kurlantzick, 2019). Despite increased tension, China has allowed the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in remain in place, despite Taiwan rejecting the 1992 Consensus. This agreement has the potential to become a significant economic coercion tool that China may use to threaten Taiwan short of war (Grossman, 2021).

China’s disinformation efforts in Taiwan seek to ‘divide and demoralize’ Taiwanese society and promote the inevitability of reunification (Harold et. al, 2021, p. 65). Taiwan is a ripe landscape for Chinese disinformation efforts; it maintains a high internet penetration rate of about 92%, with heavy usage of social media platforms (Asia Internet Stats, 2021). After the 2016 Election, hundreds of thousands of Chinese netizens jumped over ‘the great firewall’ via VPN to spam Tsai Ing-Wen’s Facebook account with anti-Taiwan independence comments, many of which were written in simplified Chinese: a strong indicator of mainland China (Dong, 2016). This brigading effort was coordinated on the Chinese social media site Diba and represents an interesting grass-roots effort that at the very least was sanctioned by the CPC but also demonstrates the aggressive nationalism China holds towards Taiwan.

Disinformation rumors that propagate from Taiwan’s social media platform Professional Technology Temple (PTT) and messaging app LINE have also been successful and demonstrate China’s ‘localized campaign’ methodology. These false narratives have exploited natural fissures and fears in Taiwanese society, such as the Taiwanese government banning traditions (ghost money), draconian pension reform, military leasing of land to the US government, partisan issues, election integrity, and Chinese diplomacy poaching (Harold et. al, 2021). These narratives have at times resulted in real-word consequences, with a 10,000+ person protest for the ghost money campaign, but also decreased Taiwanese trust in media sources and increased socio-political divisions.

Content Farms are another way that the CPD has outsourced content creation. These websites provide a mix of content from clickbait to disinformation and propaganda, designed to generate traffic and ad revenue. These farms are usually corporate or individual entities that either generate original content or ‘launder’ material from state-sponsored sources. Similar to Russia’s outsourced troll farms in Ghana and Nigeria (Hern and Harding, 2020), the CPC has a booming content farm business in Malaysia in addition to China and Taiwan. An investigative report by the Taiwan Gazette demonstrated how content creators in Malaysia work in organized networks with website platform support, content tutorials, money transfer tips, and extensive messaging on profit-earning. These groups also dynamically share tips on how to circumvent emerging inauthentic account detection changes that Twitter and Facebook enact, dynamically changing their methods and content to avoid inauthentic behavior detection (Liu et. al, 2021). There are also Chinese and Taiwanese content farms run by pro-unification Chinese Fujian or Taiwanese citizens that may be more effective due to a deep understanding of Taiwanese hedge issues. Mission is one of the better-known farms that contributed to a disinformation rumor campaign on the Taishang airport in 2019, resulting in one Taiwanese Diploma’s suicide. Mission’s formula is to generate ‘viral’ content, but also exploit search engine optimization techniques that drive user traffic to a website. Mission and other content farms have reinforced top-down messaging from state-sponsored sources like Xinhua by providing bottom-up low-level state-sponsored media with disinformation and propaganda content (Delian et. al, 2020).  

Despite China’s increasing disinformation and influence efforts against the Tsai Administration, Tsai Ing-Wen won the 2020 election with a larger margin than the 2016 election. Many believed the negative impact from disinformation efforts seen in the 2018 election would continue, resulting in more lost seats for the DPP party with the government becoming more pro-Beijing and pro-unification over time. Researcher Kharis Templeman attributes this decrease in disinformation impact to a few factors concerning Taiwan’s economy and China’s gray zone approach. Perhaps most importantly, China underestimated the rise in anti-CPC sentiment over the last few years. With the 2019-2020 collapse of democratic efforts and autonomy in Hong Kong, a ‘One-China-Two-System’ framework has become more of a warning for Taiwan of things to come. The CPC’s ‘sharp power’ use of military via ADIZ incursions and psychological warfare propaganda has galvanized the Taiwanese to resist notions of reunification. Additionally, Taiwan’s economy was boosted by some of the US-PRC trade disputes during the Trump Administration, aided by tax and policy incentives to draw Taiwanese businesses back to the island from China in order to lessen its economic dependence (Morgan, 2018). Lastly, the government enacted a series of proactive measures to combat disinformation; an interagency task force working with social media companies and watchdog organizations to shut down disinformation campaigns, increase political financial transparency, and strict prosecution for vote-buying and espionage (Templeman, 2020, p. 83-87).


With Hong Kong and Xinjiang under CPC control, Taiwan is one of the last bastions of ‘unclaimed territory’ for China, indicating that gray zone operations to include influence efforts will continue to increase potentially past the threshold of war. The PLA have enormously modernized over the past 30 years, ‘leapfrogging’ in phases with lessons learned from the United States and other countries regarding the operational level of war, joint operations, network-centric warfare, and influence operations. The country is currently on a trajectory to be a major player if not the most advanced country in the next AI-driven RMA, prioritizing both the creation and integration of AI capabilities in order to gain algorithmic advantage for an operational end state. How this technological drive will change China’s influence operations remains to be seen, but detection of disinformation campaigns will likely become more difficult.

China’s peace-time wartime integration engenders a ‘whole-of-society’ approach towards forwarding national interests. China’s influence operations towards Taiwan include high visibility psychological warfare using military incursions and propaganda, United Front business relationships to create a model of economic dependence and “censorship through capitalism”. Within the information environment, the CPC has embraced social media narrative propagation through official channels like state-sponsored media and CPC officials in addition to more covert methods such as non-attributable content farms, bot networks, state-sponsored commenter brigades, and Three Warfares PLA/Base 311 efforts.

There are key events that will serve as milestones on the conflict spectrum prior to China crossing the gray-zone with Taiwan to force reunification. These include more economic coercion and incentives towards other countries as China seeks to isolate Taiwan, the dissolution of existing China-Taiwan trade, increased propaganda aimed at decreasing Taiwan’s resistance to reunification via economic promises, and renewed efforts to poach Taiwan’s top talent in strategic supply chains like processor chip manufacturing. Legal updates to either the 1992 Consensus or the Anti-Session Law would also be indicators, assisted by media and social media narratives regarding why these laws need to be updated. Taiwan does not have the protected legal status of a sovereign nation, but it does have allies, a military, and the company of other Asian nations that fear Chinese expansionist goals. For this reason, China will prioritize gray zone coercion against Taiwan in order to win without fighting, using its flexible instruments of national power to achieve its goals.




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About the Author(s)

Kathleen M. Carley, PhD, is a professor of societal computing in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, an IEEE Fellow, the director of the Center for Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems (CASOS), and the CEO of Netanomics. She is the 2011 winner of the Simmel Award from the International Network for Social Network Analysis and the 2018 winner of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Academic Award from GEOINT.

Charity Jacobs is a PhD candidate at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, a Data Scientist at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and a Major with the U.S. Army Reserve. She holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin in political science and an MS from the University of Chicago in computational analysis and public policy. Her research interests include applied machine learning, natural language processing and disinformation detection.


General Winter

Wed, 02/16/2022 - 5:22pm

"While Taiwan and China have had increased cross-strait relations since the early 90s, tensions have drastically increased since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-Wen won office in 2016. This was a strategically important event for China; the first time in history a pro-independence party has won, signifying a strong anti-Beijing pivot for Taiwan and accompanying Chinese hostility using increasingly visible gray zone operations. "


This is inaccurate, Chen Shui-bian (President from 2000-2008) was also from the DPP.