Saturday 4 May 2024

Could The Threat of Information War Deter China From Attacking Taiwan?

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Taiwan is an independent prosperous liberal democracy of 24 million free people that the Chinese Communist Party solemnly promises to annex to its empire by whatever means are necessary. Although Taiwan's flourishing capitalist economy once allowed it to outgun and hence straightforwardly deter China from a military invasion, this military advantage has switched to China over the last 20 years. If Taiwan is to be kept free it must find another means to deter the CCP.


In fact, given the stakes, it makes sense for Taiwan to develop a new deterrence platform that rests on multiple pillars and is thus robust to the (partial) failure of any one of them. Hence Taiwan appears very sensibly to be pursuing closer and more militarised alliances with America and other democracies of S.E. Asia threatened by China's imperial expansionism (especially Japan and S. Korea). At the same time, Taiwan is moving to adopt a 'porcupine' strategic posture, investing in large numbers of cheap access denial weapons such as sea mines, torpedo boats, and anti-ship missiles that would exact catastrophic losses on any amphibious invasion fleet.

An additional possibility is for Taiwan to develop an independent nuclear deterrent of its own, which would be well within its technological capabilities (and something the KMT dictatorship actively pursued in the 1960s to 1980s before America persuaded them to drop it). On the one hand a nuclear deterrent would free Taiwan from dependence on US promises to risk a direct large-scale war with a nuclear armed super-power to stop a Chinese invasion (and the presidential elections that determine the worth of those promises). On the other hand, the ability to escalate a Chinese invasion to a nuclear conflict would also allow Taiwan to coerce its allies into upholding their promises of conventional military aid in case of an invasion, thus increasing the deterrence value of those promises in the eyes of the CCP. (Israel is reckoned to have done something similar at the nadir of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, making arrangements to ready its nuclear weapons for use that were intended to be visible to the US and thereby successfully extorting a massive airlift of conventional military supplies under the threat that 'if you don't save us, we are desperate enough to take this nuclear'.)

One thing all those other deterrents have in common though is that they are only capable of deterring the CCP from the most extreme actions it may be contemplating against Taiwan. But what if China drops the idea of a full scale invasion (because it is successfully deterred) and instead tries something else from its menu of options. For example, what if China blockaded Taiwan's ports and airspace, as it seemed to be practising during Nancy Pelosi's visit in 2022? Taiwan's weakness in conventional military power means that it can't contest China for control of its own sea and airspace. Moreover this is the kind of aggressive action short of military invasion that allies like Japan and America would not necessarily see as crossing their red lines, and even if they did, are unlikely to have any ready answers to. Yet such a blockade would be devastating to Taiwan's economy and society, and in the medium term would also undermine its military readiness and international perceptions of its legitimacy as an independent country.

And so perhaps we need to add another pillar to Taiwan's deterrence, but one that can be deployed in a proportionate way in response to acts of aggression that fall short of full scale military invasion. Note that this kind of deterrent is supposed to work by raising the total perceived costs above the perceived benefits of some planned aggression in advance so that the target actor will see that it wouldn't pay off. Deterrents may not have any effect on the target's ability to initiate the aggressive action, or continue it once started. (Compare with how the criminal justice system tries to deter crime with the threat that if you do it you may be discovered and punished.)

Economic sanctions such as those deployed against Putin's Russia are the obvious such device: versatile enough to be scaled up or down and powerful enough to impose immediate and severe costs on the CCP regime. There is also a pleasing additional moral legitimacy to blockading a country to punish it for blockading another. 

Unfortunately while economic sanctions would certainly hurt China's economy, they have some drawbacks. First, economic sanctions are indiscriminate weapons that would cause a great deal of hardship for hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese citizens who are entirely innocent of the crimes of their unelected and callous regime. Second, economic sanctions on Russia caused significant disruption to the world economy, including extended effects on innocent 3rd parties (such as via higher food and energy prices in poor countries). But China is a far more important part of the world economy than Russia, and so the consequences of such a blockade would be almost as severe for those imposing it, and for 3rd party countries in the Global South, as for China. It is an odd weapon that shoots whoever is using it in the face, as well as various bystanders, as well as the person they are aiming at. That oddness also undermines the most important feature of a deterrent: the regime you are trying to deter has to believe that you would actually do what you threaten to do.

Fortunately there is another possibility that seems more promising: Information warfare.

Information war is the attempt to subvert a regime's grip over its population, and hence its ability to order them about and to draw resources from them to advance its goals (whether those goals be to fight wars, to fight Covid, or to extract loot). As we all know, the internet - and especially social media - have made it much easier to promote distrust of governments and institutions in other countries, for example by amplifying social divisions and disinforming people about what is happening.

Up to this point, information war has largely been employed by authoritarian regimes against their own populations, and against the populations of democracies that defy them. For example, Taiwan is the target of disinformation and distrust campaigns on a vast scale by the Chinese Communist Party's dedicated information warfare units.

Democracies do engage in information warfare of course, but they are constrained by domestic laws and norms against governmental deception and lying (famous scandals from Cold War era CIA sponsored information operations being exceptions that prove the rule), and also by democracies' general lack of interest in what people in other countries think. The most democracies usually do is to (rather grudgingly) subsidise foreign language broadcasting that gives the populations of non-democracies some access to trustworthy information outside the control of their rulers. Naturally this enrages autocrats, but it is much less than democracies could do if they really tried.

The Chinese Communist Party is pathologically anxious about losing control because the basis of the legitimacy of their regime is the exclusion of any possibility of an alternative. Xi's concept of 'Comprehensive National Security' prioritises the survival of the regime and identifies a bewildering number of potential threats, including:

  1. Any form of civil society (besides economic) that allows citizens to organise themselves and come to think that they can get things done themselves, or demand that particular things should be done (better) by the government. And under Xi even private corporations - the source of all China's economic prosperity - have been brought more thoroughly under the supervision and control of the Party, at the cost of economic growth.
  2. Women's equality, which despite its place in official party doctrine Xi Jinping seems to see as the leading cause of China's demographic collapse. (Generally, Xi's obsession with social stability supports rather conservative values, and explains also why LGBT rights and even effeminate looking male influencers are being targeted)
  3. University student Marxist societies - since they may come to different interpretations of communist theology than that currently endorsed by the CCP
  4. Inconvenient facts which contradict the Party's claim to rule on the basis of its supreme competence. Every ten years or so the CCP rewrites China's history to whitewash its governance record clean of its various massacres and failures to respect and protect its people from Covid, earthquakes, and so on.
  5. Even very ordinary people outside China criticising the regime or its policies in Chinese.

This paranoia is actually one of the greatest threats to China's peace and prosperity, since it has spurred an extremely aggressive attitude to merely potential threats that undermines the functioning of the state and economy (e.g. treating all foreigners as spies; banning encryption on the civilian internet) and generates resentment and distrust from foreign governments (e.g. China has border disputes with all its neighbours; many of them are investing in their militaries and reaching out to each other and America).

The good thing about Xi Jinping's expansive and paranoid concept of Comprehensive National Security is that by greatly expanding what China considers a significant harm to its interests it necessarily makes it much easier to succeed in harming China at quite low effort. In effect Xi has made his regime into a hypersensitive snowflake, vulnerable to imaginary harms as well as real ones.


In response to Chinese aggression against Taiwan that fell short of military invasion, information war could be launched in retaliation. Among other things this might include broadcasting Chinese language radio over the borders; distributing free VPNs by text message and inside video games; and information-bombing students/tourists outside China. The goal would be to flood China with alternative opinions to those the CCP prefers, and inconvenient but truthful information on sensitive topics (such as the CCP's dismal record of killing more Chinese people than all foreign invaders combined over all of history). Besides inconvenient truths, satirical dramas and cartoons (such as comparisons of Secretary Xi Jinping with Winnie the Pooh) are also important, since dictators hate ridicule. We would emphasise also the fundamental truth that the West has no problem with the Chinese people, only with its despotic ruling regime. 

Obviously Taiwan couldn't do this alone. China's hypersensitivity is a danger as well as an opportunity (as Lithuania recently found).  But Taiwan's allies (especially America, Japan, S. Korea) could join it in collectively and quite credibly committing to flood China with information that the CCP considers an existential threat. We could refine techniques and demonstrate their power by already practising information warfare against Putin's regime, as recommended by Mark Galeotti.

Unlike the first set of deterrents that I discussed, information warfare allows for a proportional response to acts of aggression by China that fall short of full scale military invasion. It can also be modulated in response to China's own response, which facilitates the tricky business of de-escalating a conflict. Unlike economic sanctions, information warfare is very cheap for those employing it, and, because it is targeted at the bullseye the CCP's paranoia has painted on itself, it does not impose significant harms on large numbers of innocent ordinary people. Of course, information warfare of this kind would not actually topple the regime that misrules China. But the regime's exaggerated fear that it might do so creates the possibility of a deterrent, of raising the perceived costs of aggression against Taiwan to more than its perceived benefits.


Note: This essay was previously published on 3 Quarks Daily