Taiwan Uses Artificial Intelligence To Puncture China’s Info War; Beijing’s Plan Of ‘Threat Unification’ Thwarted

China’s direct military actions and other intimidatory measures have not prevented the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of Taiwan from securing a grand victory for its candidate, Lai Ching-te, as the next President in the elections, held on January 13.

Lai defeated his nearest rival candidate Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT), who was arguably the one whom Beijing was supporting. There was a third candidate, Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).  According to the latest available figures, Li got 5,586,019 votes (around 41 percent) as against Hou’s 4,671,021 (33 percent) and Ko’s 4,671,021(26 percent).

Li’s win gives his party a third consecutive term in power, a new record since the island nation adopted direct Presidential elections in 1996. He has promised to stick with the approach of the current leader, President Tsai Ing-wen: keeping Beijing at arm’s length while seeking to avoid conflict and strengthening ties with the United States and other democracies.

As the EurAsian Times had noted earlier, China had tried its best over the last few years to influence the elections by resorting to military threats and grey zone tactics. In fact, on Saturday, the day of the polling, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) claimed to have tracked eight Chinese military aircraft and six naval vessels around Taiwan between 6 a.m. on Friday (Jan. 12) and the same time on Saturday (Jan. 13) — the date for Taiwan’s presidential election.

Of the eight People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft, one Shaanxi Y-8 anti-submarine warfare plane entered the southwest corner of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), according to the MND. No PLA aircraft crossed the Taiwan Strait median line during that time.

Of course, China has always tried its best to influence the Taiwanese elections. In fact, more than military threats, it is “the disinformation war” against Taiwan to demoralize its 23 million people that Beijing has emphasized more as a strategy.

But all this seems to have proved ineffective. As   Kenton Thibaut, Senior Resident Fellow for China at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has pointed out, the island has responded with its own wave of innovation.

“Taiwan has a network of civil society groups, such as DoubleThink Lab, that are pioneering new ways to combat foreign meddling. The government, too, has advanced anti-disinformation initiatives, and it is working hard to root out Chinese proxies (Taiwanese agents or sympathizers). And Taiwanese voters are highly attuned to Beijing’s operations”.

Apparently, civil society organizations have established “the Taiwan Fact Center” to enhance media literacy and curb the effects of disinformation. Other digital innovations—like fact-checker apps for popular social media platforms in Taiwan—have also sprouted up to combat China’s assaults on Taiwan’s information space. They have developed new artificial intelligence tools to quickly scan and flag posts on social media platforms for misleading content.

Taiwan’s government has also undertaken complementary measures to tackle disinformation efforts more directly. Last year, it set up a task force, bringing together different departments—including the Digital Affairs Ministry, the Ministry of Education, the Central Election Commission, and the Ministry of Justice—to monitor the Internet and media for signs of information manipulation surrounding the election.

Taiwan has also passed laws to crack down on suspected instances of election meddling. There is the Anti-Infiltration Act, which prohibits foreign entities from making political donations and bars the use of illegally procured funds for political aims. The government is now using this law to shut down Beijing’s attempts to leverage local proxies.

However, the best antidote to China’s influence in Taiwan’s elections is the remarkable unity among all the political players on their commitment to inclusive democracy and the status quo of neither formal independence nor support for the One-China principle. In fact, Beijing’s attempts to coerce voters seem to be strengthening the island’s democracy.

Take, for instance, all the three Presidential candidates. Li, Hou, and Ko, regardless of their political affiliation, had made it clear that Taiwan would not be allowed to become the next Hong Kong or the next Kyiv.

They all agreed that the best way to protect their island was to continue the outgoing President Tsai’s defense policies and diplomacy of strengthening ties with the United States, Japan, and other democracies. All three emphasized the importance of pursuing an asymmetric approach that prioritizes the development and purchase of a large quantity of smaller systems and platforms, such as missiles, mines, and drones.

In this context, it is noteworthy that for his last mega public rally in Taipei on the day before the election, Hou did the most unimaginable thing of not inviting the KMT’s senior most leader and Taiwan’s former President Ma Ying-jeou. Ma has been extremely close to Beijing and openly says that Taiwan must not spend much on defense and one should “trust Chinese President Xi Jinping” as Taiwan can “never win against China.”

“Former president Ma and I have very different positions on certain issues. If I am elected, I will not touch on issues regarding unification with China. When it comes to cross-strait issues, we cannot rely on goodwill from one side. It would be very dangerous if we have absolutely no preparation before addressing them,” Hou said in an interview.

“As a former detective (he had an illustrious career as a Police officer), I know you cannot negotiate with a criminal if you do not get your raid squad ready first. If leaders across the Taiwan Strait should meet, there must be consensus on this matter from Taiwanese society. At this stage, I think there remains a long way to go before leaders in Taiwan and China can meet,” he said, adding that cross-strait exchanges can begin only in the private sector.

“We are no comparison with China when it comes to defense spending, but we are confident that China would not dare start a war in the Taiwan Strait because it is a price it cannot pay,” he said.

In an essay in the prestigious publication Foreign Affairs, Hou introduced a framework of the “Three Ds”: deterrence, dialogue, and de-escalation.

“By increasing the likely cost of any war, Taiwan can reduce its opponent’s willingness to invade. I will also continue to assess our defense needs and strengthen our capabilities through arms procurement….In response to the increasing number of gray zone actions Taiwan has endured in recent years, I will direct relevant agencies to establish an early warning system. Such a system will better anticipate PLA displays of force or gray zone behavior and help develop various contingency plans to deal with Beijing’s harassment, infiltrations, and provocations”, he wrote.

Even while conceding his defeat on Saturday evening, Hou hoped that Taiwan’s political parties would work together to face Taiwan’s challenges as one country.

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Similarly, Li, in his victory address to the Taiwanese people, said that when he formed his government on May 20, it would be “staffed by individuals based on their capabilities rather than party affiliation. This way, it could effectively respond to challenges, be open and inclusive, and unite Taiwanese to face both domestic and international challenges”.

In any case, the DPP and KMT have to devise a working mechanism to work together because elections to the 113–member Legislative Yuan (parliament) that were also held simultaneously have resulted in a Hung House, with KMT emerging as the single largest party (52), followed by DPP’s 51, TPP’s 8 and two independents.

What this means is that without a sense of give and take, Li,  as President, will find it difficult for his proposals to get parliamentary approval. And there are differences on burning domestic issues such as inflation, reduced exports, housing, and energy.

Where does all this leave China? Beijing had made it very clear that a victory of Li or DPP would risk pushing Taiwan “closer and closer to war and recession.” It is logical, therefore, to assume that China could further escalate economic and military pressure on Taiwan in the coming days and weeks.

As it is,  many analysts say that President Xi has stated that the Taiwan issue cannot be passed on to future generations and that achieving unification is the essence of the country’s rejuvenation. He has called unification a “historical inevitability,” and as Xi faces growing economic headwinds, he may seek to make unification a major part of his political legacy.

However, that seems to be a very dangerous prospect not only for the rest of the world but also for China itself. So it is unlikely. “The last eight years have obviously been uncomfortable with the DPP in power, but it hasn’t led to war, they’ve been able to find an uncomfortable middle ground. And the hope is that even with a Lai presidency, we can continue to have this sort of uncomfortable silence without having to go to war”, Lev Nachman, a political science professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, has said.  He may prove to be right.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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Prakash Nanda
Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com