China has significantly ramped up pressure on Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen was democratically-elected as the country’s president in January 2016. As Beijing’s external pressure on Taiwan grows, pressure for action is building on the Tsai administration, both from the opposition as well as from within her own party. The confluence of these factors will make it harder for the Tsai administration to sustain her administration’s pragmatic efforts to maintain the “status quo” in cross-Strait relations without greater international support.
As the United States and its partners weigh their response to Beijing’s intimidation and coercion, it is important to unpack Beijing’s intensifying pressure campaign and examine its constituent parts, if only to appreciate the astonishing range of ways Beijing has sought to pressure Taiwan following Tsai’s ascension to the presidency. Most analyses focus only on one or several aspects; but they must be considered in the aggregate, to better formulate a proportionate response.
China’s pressure campaign on Taiwan includes ten elements which are, generally speaking, meant to interact with and reinforce each other. Some are new, some are not. Most of those that are not new have seen intensified application in the past two years. These elements are: poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies; military coercion; economic coercion; excluding Taiwan from international organizations; pressuring foreign corporations; pressuring Taiwan’s non-diplomatic allies; economic incentives; political warfare; cyber espionage; and traditional espionage.
Most visibly, China is poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies at an accelerating rate, putting to an end the unofficial diplomatic truce between the two sides during the Ma Ying-jeou administration. The west African nation of Gambia severed ties with Taiwan in 2013, but did not establish diplomatic ties with Beijing until March 2016, a scant two months before Tsai’s inauguration. São Tomé and Príncipe switched on December 2016, while Panama severed ties in June 2017. In May 2018, the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso both switched their recognition to the PRC, leaving Taiwan with only 18 diplomatic allies remaining.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has ramped up its military exercises around Taiwan. Between August 2016 and December 2017, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense tracked at least 26 aerial exercises conducted by the Chinese military around Taiwan versus a total of eight in 2015 and 2016 combined (Global Taiwan Brief, August 30, 2017). Of those exercises, 15 encircled Taiwan, meaning that military aircraft either entered or exited the Bashi channel or near the Ryuku Islands (Global Taiwan Brief, February 7). Over the same period, the PLA Navy’s maiden aircraft carrier Liaoning conducted four long-range exercises around Taiwan: two to the west of the Taiwan Strait mid-line, another two along the eastern coast of Taiwan.
After Tsai’s election, Beijing began limiting the number of group tours visiting Taiwan from the mainland. Taiwan receives over 10 million tourists per year since 2015, of which tourists from China have comprised over 30 percent (Admin.taiwan.net.tw). In 2017, even as the number of Chinese tourists dropped by around 700,000 from the previous year, it was still 2.7 million out of a total of 10.7 million (Admin.taiwan.net.tw). The drop hit hard the parts of Taiwan’s economy that had come to rely on Chinese tourists. However, overall, the decrease in Chinese tourists was largely offset by a significant increase by tourists from New Southbound Policy (NSP) target countries . Over 2 million tourists from NSP countries visited Taiwan in 2017, a 30 percent increase from 2016. Tourists visits from Japan, Hong Kong & Macao, and South Korea all increased (Taiwan News, February 1).
Despite US efforts, for the second year in a row Taiwan was denied observer status at the World Health Assembly. Beijing is closing off procedural mechanisms that permit Taiwan’s meaningful participation in such forums, through a combination of its direct control over their functioning, and political coercion of member nations . In the lead up to the World Health Assembly this year, the PRC’s mission to the United Nations apparently warned a number of countries that support for Taiwan’s participation could endanger their cooperation with China.
In addition to preventing Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations, Beijing is utilizing the rules of these institutions to further marginalize Taiwan. This was on clear display in the case of Beijing’s unilateral move in announcing the northbound M-503 commercial air route along the Taiwan Strait, right before the lunar new year holiday—the heaviest cross-Strait travel season—without the prior consultation the two sides had agreed upon in 2015 (Global Taiwan Brief, May 2).
In late April 2018, Beijing issued a directive to 44 foreign air carriers demanding that they change their designation of Taiwan on their website to “Taiwan, China.” Eighteen carriers complied before the original May 25 deadline; the rest asked and were granted extensions until July 25 (China Brief, May 31). The US government has urged US airlines to ignore the Chinese demand.
This political pressure has gone beyond airlines. The Marriott hotel chain was forced to fire one of its employees after he liked a Tibet-related post on Twitter (United Daily News, March 4). Other companies such as Gap Inc., Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz, Zara, Medtronic, and Costco, among others, have been forced to apologize for depicting Taiwan or other issues Beijing considers sensitive in a manner that do not comport with the PRC’s definition of what is politically correct.
Beijing is also forcing non-diplomatic allies of Taiwan to downgrade their relations with Taipei. Nigeria reportedly asked Taipei to move its representative office from the capital of Abuja to Lagos (Focus Taiwan News Channel, July 4, 2017). In Dubai (UAE), Ecuador, Bahrain, Jordan, and most recently in Papua New Guinea, Taiwan’s representative offices were pressured to remove any reference to the Republic of China or Taiwan in the name of their de facto embassies (Taiwan News, June 14, 2017; Taipei Times, June 2). China has also continued to pressure those countries with which it has diplomatic ties with to deport Taiwan nationals convicted of criminal offenses to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), instead of to Taiwan. This has happened in Cambodia, Kenya, and Spain, among many others (Taiwan Democracy Bulletin, January 31).
In addition to punitive measures, Beijing is also attempting to entangle Taiwanese people and businesses more deeply with the PRC’s economy through generous economic incentives. In February 2018, Beijing announced a raft of 31 measures aimed at providing equal—and in some cases preferential—treatment for Taiwanese persons and businesses operating in China. These include measures designed to incorporate Taiwan into the PRC’s “Made in China 2025”—a wide-ranging industrial policy aimed at moving the Chinese industrial base up the value chain. Other incentives include generous tax breaks for Taiwanese high-tech corporations, as well as equal intellectual property rights protection for Taiwan-owned legal entities registered in China.
Other measures include allowing Taiwanese persons to participate in the national “thousand-person program”—a CCP-managed project designed to attract foreign talent to help with the country’s national development goals. Most importantly, Taiwanese professionals are now eligible to apply for various state-provided funds for the promotion of science and arts. These measures are worrisome over the long term, since they could further exacerbate Taiwan’s “brain drain” (Global Taiwan Brief, March 21).
While Beijing authorities continue to spurn meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s government, it has stepped up United Front Work Department (UFWD) activities against Taipei. The UFWD is a CCP department charged with harnessing party-state organizations under direct CCP control to indoctrinate, mobilize, and manipulate non-CCP individuals and entities—PRC native and foreign alike—in service of the Party’s policy objectives (USCC.gov, April 5). In Taiwan, the UFWD targets a broad range of constituencies, including aborigines, local villages and townships, youths and students, pro-China political parties and groups, and Taiwan military veterans (Liberty Times, January 15). Taiwan’s government has previously estimated that China spends at least $337.8 million per year on UFWD recruiting efforts in Taiwan, but has also said it believes there might be more “invisible funding” (Taipei Times, January 15).
Taiwan’s national security organs have noted a growing volume of disinformation circulating in Taiwan’s media space, the product of PRC “content farms”. Beijing is apparently using social media disinformation and propaganda to generate social instability in Taiwan (China Brief, April 24). For instance, during a tense period in an ongoing pension reform debate in Taiwan, users of LINE—the most popular messaging application on the island—and other internet reported a flood of messages and websites that falsely claimed that the central government was planning to impose draconian restrictions on pensioners. Taiwan’s government was forced to quickly issue a statement denying the fake news.
Although PRC hacking has made news in the US and Europe, Taiwan is the top target for China-sponsored cyber espionage (China Brief, December 5, 2013). Indeed, Taiwan has endured more than a decade of targeted cyber-theft and attacks from China of the kind that are now being directed towards larger countries. Taiwan reportedly suffered 20 million to 40 million attempted hacking attacks on its public sector per month in 2017 (Taiwan News, April 5). According to the Taiwan government, most of the hacks originate from China (Taiwan News, April 5).
Taiwan is struggling to recover from the “dark decade,” a period between 2006-2016 in which more than 40 Taiwanese citizens were prosecuted for espionage and espionage-related crimes involving China, among them serving and retired officials, military officers, and businesspeople (Global Taiwan Brief, September 28, 2016). As noted by one former US government analyst: “While Taiwan faces an espionage and subversion challenge from China at a scale that no modern democracy has faced, its leading political parties struggle to address the problem.” Indeed, “… covert Chinese activities [against Taiwan] have increased in scope, sophistication, and intensity. For the first time in many years, Taiwan’s national security officials see change rather than continuity as a hallmark of Beijing’s intelligence and subversive operations” (China Brief, August 17, 2017).
In the final analysis, it is clear that China has significantly increased pressure on Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen’s election in January 2016. As external pressure on Taiwan grows, internal pressure on the Tsai administration is also building. It is no exaggeration to say that Taipei’s is the only government on either side of the Taiwan Strait committed to the peace and stability of the status quo. Maintaining the status quo, however, cannot be the responsibility of Taipei alone. In the face of Beijing’s mounting pressure, the US and other like-minded nations must push back against PRC coercion, lest it become even more difficult for Taipei to stay the course.
Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.
 The NSP is a comprehensive strategic policy developed by the Tsai administration to strengthen economic engagement and deepen people-to-people exchanges between Taiwan and 18 countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.
 Increasingly, PRC nationals oversee important multinational institutions. Interpol’s current president is a PRC national, as is the International Civil Aviation Organization secretary general, who was reappointed for a second consecutive term commencing August 2018. A PRC national also runs the International Telecommunications Union, an important standards setting body for the global internet (China Brief, June 5).