China is ramping up the pressure for Taiwan’s election

Supporters hoist a giant Taiwan national flag during a campaign rally of Kuomintang (KMT) ahead of Taiwan's presidential election, in Taipei on December 23, 2023.
Image caption,Campaigning is in full swing for Taiwan’s presidential election on 13 January

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes

BBC News, Taiwan

The December sun is baking on the Heng Chun peninsula, the tongue of land that juts out from the bottom end of Taiwan into the Philippine Sea.

A half-smoked cigarette pokes from the corner of Hsu Keng-Jui’s mouth. He is part of a network of volunteers – most of them veterans like him – who track the now-constant presence of Chinese ships and aircraft just outside Taiwan’s territorial limit.

Using plastic zip ties, Mr Hsu straps a long radio antenna to a steel railing, then sits down with his portable radios and begins to scan the military channels. At first all we hear is the soft southern lilt of the Taiwan coastguard directing sea traffic. Then a different accent and a different tone comes through the heavy static. It’s the Chinese navy.

China has been ramping up the pressure ahead of a pivotal presidential race in Taiwan, an island it has long seen as a renegade province. With just weeks to go, Beijing looms larger than ever before – on the ballot, and at Taiwan’s borders.

“We represent all the people of China,” the voice from the Chinese navy intones. “The People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government of China, and Taiwan is an inseparable part of China.”

Dragging on another cigarette, Mr Hsu looks unmoved: “I hear it every day now. It’s like they’re reading from a script.”

Another voice comes across the airwaves. It’s the captain of a Chinese tugboat, just three miles off Taiwan’s coast.

The captain has been asked to move out of Taiwan’s territorial waters, but he refuses: “What territorial waters are you talking about? Taiwan doesn’t have any territorial waters!”

Mr Hsu is suddenly furious. He leaps up, grabs a handset and lets loose a stream of invective over the airwaves. He swears as he sits back down, muttering, “Who does he think he is?”

Hsu Keng-Jui tracking the Chinese navy
Image caption,Hsu Keng-Jui is a veteran who volunteers to track Chinese military intrusion into Taiwan’s territory

For decades the governments in Beijing and Taipei had an unwritten agreement not to stray across a median line that divides the 110-mile-wide strait between them.

Now China is crossing it almost daily, at sea and in the air.

On one day in September the People’s Liberation Army sent more than a 100 aircraft towards Taiwan, 40 of which crossed the median line.

Map of Taiwan's air defence identification zone

This so-called “grey zone warfare” is meant to “subdue the enemy without fighting” to borrow the words of a legendary Chinese military strategist. In this case the enemy is Taiwan’s government, those who support Taiwan’s permanent separation from China, and its foreign allies in the United States and Japan.

“China is sending a very strong message to the United States and even Japan,” says retired Admiral Lee Hsi-min, a former commander of Taiwan’s armed forces. “It’s telling them that Taiwan is part of China. That this is our area so we can do whatever we want here. Meanwhile it’s aimed at making Taiwanese people scared and making them capitulate.”

With Taiwan due to elect a new president on 13 January, the key objective is to undermine support for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The island’s current president Tsai Ing-wen is stepping down after eight years in power.

Beijing on the ballot – again

President Tsai, who has been candid yet deft in her defence of Taiwan’s sovereignty, is deeply disliked by Beijing. But the man running to replace her, current vice-president William Lai, is far worse in their eyes. Despite saying he will do nothing to change the status quo, Mr Lai is seen by China as a hardline “splittist”, an advocate of formal Taiwan independence.

Beijing’s message to voters in Taiwan is that a vote for William Lai is a vote for war. It’s also the message from the main opposition party, the nationalist Kuomintang or KMT. Their candidate Hou Yu-ih told supporters at a recent rally: “Our whole generation will lose everything we have fought for during our lifetime [if Lai wins].”

But DPP supporters don’t seem cowed. They have seen this movie before, and every four years since Taiwan’s first presidential election in 1996.

Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's president, center, during a rally at the Banqiao First Stadium in New Taipei City, Taiwan, on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.
Image caption,President Tsai (C) with her vice-president and frontrunner William Lai (L) at an election rally in November

On a recent drizzly Sunday afternoon, around 60,000 DPP supporters crowded into a square in downtown Taipei to see Mr Lai and his running mate speak.

Then President Tsai stepped onto stage and the crowd came alive cheering and waving little, green DPP flags. Dotted among them were many rainbow flags of gay pride. Ms Tsai is adored by the LGBT community here for making Taiwan the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage.

Democratic elections aside, this is yet another thing that sets Taiwan apart from China. And it is one of many reasons DPP supporters are adamant this island will never be part of the People’s Republic of China.

“I am very worried [about the threats from China], but I am not afraid,” said Frederika Chou. “Because I will volunteer to be a soldier and fight if they ever try to invade our beautiful country.”

“Some day we may have war, but I’m not afraid because I am Taiwanese, and I need to protect my country,” said 27-year-old Abby Ding who’d come to the rally with her father all the way from Tainan in the south.

Beijing is far from the only issue on the ballot. Rising costs, unaffordable housing and shrinking opportunities have driven dissatisfaction against the DPP – and sent young voters into the arms of the Taiwan People’s Party and its populist candidate Ko Wen-je.

Once a DPP supporter, Mr Ko now positions himself as a middle-of-the road option between his main rivals – and one who can broker better ties with Beijing. While “reunification” was always a possibility, China’s claims have now turned more urgent, especially with its leader Xi Jinping’s repeated vows to take the island, with a deadline to boot.

The issue of how much Taiwan should prepare to fight divides the island’s main parties. The current DPP government has invested heavily in new, domestically-built submarines and bought scores more F16 fighter jets and modern missiles from the US. It has reinstated 12-month-long compulsory military service and says it will do more if re-elected.

Supporters attend a Kuomintang (KMT) campaign rally ahead of Taiwan's presidential election in Taipei on December 23, 2023.
Image caption,Supporters at a recent rally for KMT, which is campaigning on a promise to secure peace with Beijing

The KMT is much more ambivalent. Its candidate for vice-president, Jaw Shaw Kong, has labelled the submarine building programme a vanity project and a huge waste of money. Mr Jaw’s family is from China, and he has long been seen as one of the most Beijing-friendly voices in Taiwan politics.

He says the only way to secure peace for Taiwan is to talk to Beijing, to reassure Mr Xi that Taiwan is not intent on independence, and that one day Taiwan and China can and should be united.

This is far from an unpopular opinion in Taiwan. The island’s links to China, from family ties to trade, run deep and are tangled with complicated questions about the past and identity. It’s an issue that often pits an older generation with stronger ties to the mainland, against young people who have grown up in a democratic, open society.

No-one will deny the military threat from China but they are divided over how best to deter it.

While the main parties squabble, Taiwan’s air force is being slowly and steadily exhausted by the constant Chinese pressure.

Early one morning in December a group of Mirage 2000 fighter jets scrambled from their base on the west coast and roared out in to the Taiwan straits. The base is home to the 45 jets of Taiwan’s rapid reaction squadron, tasked with confronting those Chinese aircraft daily probing the edge of Taiwan’s airspace.

The jets were bought from France in the early 1990s and are now getting old. China is wearing down the Taiwanese air force, says retired admiral Lee. And they can feel the impact because maintenance has increased and “it is actually affecting our capability”, he adds.

China can afford to fly as often as it likes. The People’s Liberation Army has more than 2,000 fighter jets and is building many more. Taiwan has fewer than 300, many of them now over a quarter of a century old.

Military experts say that the wear and tear on the Mirage fleet is so high and the cost of fixing them so prohibitive that they’ve quietly stopped scrambling to intercept all but the most threatening of Chinese intrusions.

A Taiwanese Mirage 2000 jet on its way to intercept Chinese aircraft
Image caption,Taiwan’s Mirage 2000 fighter jets are old – and they are being exhausted by Chinese incursions

The long game

The latest polling data suggest Mr Lai and the DPP are heading for victory in January albeit by a small margin. For the DPP it would be an unprecedented third consecutive presidential term, and a slap in the face for Beijing.

But the DPP will probably get less than 40% of the vote. That means there is still plenty to play for. Taiwan has a free press and an open internet. So the door is wide open for China’s propaganda apparatus to target the 60% of voters who won’t vote for the DPP. They will also be voting in a new legislature, which the KMT could win.

For years the main target of Chinese propaganda has been Taiwan’s older population, particularly those with family ties to the mainland, people who have traditionally voted for the KMT.

“It’s been very effective,” says Puma Shen, an academic and political activist who has spent years studying Chinese influence operations around the world. Mr Shen is running to be a DPP legislator in the January election.

“If you look back in history, supporters of the KMT used to be very anti-Chinese Communist Party. But now they have become anti-Taiwan independence. They now believe people who support Taiwan independence are the ones who could trigger a war.”

A group of voters who used to think of the Chinese Communist Party as the enemy, now think the DPP is the real danger. It’s not a rare view in Taiwan. Older Taipei residents speak disparagingly of President Tsai and her party as a “bunch of troublemakers”.

But Beijing knows the key to success will be winning over young voters, those who have no party affiliation and are dissatisfied with both the old traditional parties. They are now being targeted through TikTok and YouTube. China has over 200 channels that are uploading videos daily.

“They are very good at finding out what young Taiwanese are interested in and then creating content to attract them,” Mr Shen says. It’s what he calls “paving the road”. Once an audience is established and trust develops, pro-China messaging is then introduced.

Mr Shen’s research has shown an increase in groups of young Taiwanese who are not pro-China, but have become increasingly anti-US and anti-Japan. Such influence operations are unlikely to yield any sudden embrace of China. But Beijing is playing the long game.

“This election is only one short-term goal for them,” Mr Shen says. “The grand strategy, the real end game, is to get Taiwan to sign a peace agreement without the need to fight.”

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