Taiwan is ploughing an uneasy passage between the Scylla and Charybdis of foreign interference and the danger of lurching back towards authoritarianism as it comes to terms with its role as ground zero for Chinese cybersecurity and sharp power threats.

This was the takeaway from the inaugural Defense Forum on Regional Security, hosted Oct. 8-9 by the government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), a think tank founded in May 2018. The conference addressed regional cybersecurity, the threat of disinformation, and Chinese "sharp power": a newly fashionable term described at the forum by Chung Chien-peng (鍾健平), Professor of Politics at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, as "hard power in a soft power glove."

Scholars and public officials ruminated on U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's aggressive policy speech on China last week, a Bloomberg story on an alleged Chinese hardware hack, and the disappearance and resignation of Interpol President Meng Hongwei, who has been accused by China of taking bribes.

In assessing this shifting security environment, the upshot was that Taiwan has much to clarify about its strategy of inter-departmental and external collaboration in confronting, and coexisting with, China. At the conference, academics from East, Southeast, and South Asia shared analyses and proposed policy responses with an audience of Taiwanese officials, foreign representatives, and journalists.


Credit: Nick Aspinwall

Forum attendees pose for a group photo on Monday, Oct. 8.

David Lee (李大維), Secretary General of the National Security Council, delivered opening remarks Monday, addressing cyberattacks and disinformation and calling for a "global response" to attempts to "undermine and subvert" Taiwan's democracy.

"Taiwan cannot address cybersecurity issues alone," said Lee. "We are keen to work with like-minded countries to ensure that our democratic institutions are protected."

Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Deputy Minister Chen Ming-chi (陳明祺), speaking on Tuesday, noted Taiwan's struggle to react more assertively to Chinese sharp power while preserving its own democratic ideals, nodding to an overarching theme present throughout the forum.

"Our laws should be amended" to "prevent, prosecute, and punish" foreign sabotage, he said. "But given Taiwan's authoritarian past, our civil society is highly concerned if the government takes any action that might constrain the freedom of the press."

"We are navigating in the troubled water between a free society and our sovereignty concern," he said, tacitly referencing an ongoing debate over whether Taiwan's national security laws should be amended in the face of a gathering threat of fake news promulgated by Chinese actors.

Coordinating a cybersecurity response

Since taking office in 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has prioritized domestic cybersecurity, establishing the cabinet-level Department of Cybersecurity and, last year, the Information and Electronic Warfare Command, a dedicated cyber branch of the military.

The cybersecurity department's director general, Howard Jyan (簡宏偉), said at the conference that Taiwan has long been a testing ground for cyberattacks, which have targeted government, infrastructure, and media institutions. In his opening remarks, INDSR Chairman Feng Shih-kuan (馮世寬) expressed concern that the think tank itself was targeted by cyberattacks shortly after its opening.

The Department of Cybersecurity says Taiwan's government agencies endured 288 successful cyberattacks in 2017, with 12 of those leading to serious breaches threatening sensitive information or data loss. Reports published by cybersecurity firms FireEye and Mandiant have repeatedly linked advanced persistent threat (APT) groups targeting Taiwan to actors linked to China's People's Liberation Army (PLA).


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Part of the building of 'Unit 61398', a secretive Chinese military unit, in the outskirts of Shanghai. In 2013, Mandiant said the unit was behind APT1 Chinese cyberattacks, a claim China denies.

Taiwan's cabinet-level National Information and Communication Security Task Force (NICST) coordinates governmental response between executive branches and the military. Jyan told The News Lens that his department "builds up a mechanism to share information and training classes" with the military's cyber unit.

At the conference, academics openly wondered whether Taiwan can, or should, do more to cooperate with other countries to coordinate a cybersecurity response.

Much of Taiwan's critical infrastructure relies on industry control systems (ICS) in need of security upkeep to defend against potential breaches, a process which requires foreign assistance. "We are seeking to cooperate with international experts to build up capacity on our ICS systems," said Jyan.

But on one panel, defense analysts from South Korea and Japan discussed their own lack of readiness and expressed concern about whether their countries were prepared to serve as examples for other states. And there's a worldwide shortage of information security professionals; over 200,000 cybersecurity experts are needed in the U.S. alone.

Disinformation and 'sharp power'

In the lead-up to November's local elections, panelists also discussed the perils of disinformation campaigns. Yeali S. Sun (孫雅麗) of the National Communications Commission (NCC) described her agency as one of three "pillars of cybersecurity," though she stressed the NCC focuses on news rather than social media. Earlier this year, the government began responding directly to fake news via a website that collects information from both print and online media.

Ma Ying-han (馬英漢), Major General of the military's cybersecurity command unit, told the forum that the work of China's "50 Cent party" (五毛黨) of paid internet commentators, which publishes information favorable to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is being "replaced by artificially intelligent editing robots."

"We all know that AI is still miles away, but for now, we use big data analytics" to calculate the success rate of bots, he said. "We will follow up regarding the development of AI in the [creation of generation] of fake news," Ma said. "However, there's an ethical line that we will watch over and not cross."

Deputy Minister Chen of the MAC said the government has taken a "minimalistic approach" in regulating Chinese news agencies operating in Taiwan. "It is not easy to balance sovereignty and civil liberty," he said on Tuesday. "We cannot request Chinese news agencies in Taiwan to register as foreign agents," he continued, nodding to a strategy the U.S. has utilized with some Chinese and Russian news outlets.

Last week, Premier William Lai (賴清德) said his cabinet was reviewing legislative approaches to combating the effects of 'fake news.' In June, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on Taiwan to reject a proposal that would make the spread of fake news punishable by fine or imprisonment.


Credit: Nick Aspinwall

Panelists Kwei-bo Huang (黃奎博), Parris Chang (張旭成), and William Stanton discuss Chinese 'sharp power' on the forum's second day.

Chen cited disinformation as one aspect of a larger Chinese "sharp power" strategy, a term coined in a 2017 report by the National Endowment for Democracy which has caught fire in think tank circles when analyzing Chinese influence strategies such as President Xi Jinping's signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In his remarks, Chen said China aims to rebuild a Ming-Qing dynasty era system of "tributary states" through the BRI and other efforts to increase its global influence. "Ironically, Xi Jinping's 'China Dream' has woken up the whole world," he said, adding that the Taiwanese people must "show the will" to care about their sovereignty and enable the administration to aggressively respond to what it sees as the dangerous threat of a growing Chinese presence.

Some panelists, swimming against the current of much of the conference, warned against characterizing all Chinese overseas actions as "sharp power" initiatives. Huong Le Thu of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued that China is "indulging authoritarianism" in Southeast Asian countries with existing autocratic regimes, calling this "coercive power, but not necessarily sharp power." Professor S. Philip Hsu (徐斯勤) of National Taiwan University said there was no clear evidence that China's Confucius Institutes "influence or persuade other countries that China's authoritarian values eclipse democracy."

In 2018, Taiwan has edged closer to the U.S. as the White House has bristled towards China; on Oct. 5, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) thanked Mike Pence for his remarks, delivered about two weeks after U.S. defense officials announced a US$330 million (NT$10.2 billion) arms deal with Taiwan. As the U.S., like much of the world, has struggled with its democratic identity, Taiwanese officials likewise expressed the challenges of maintaining the country's own proud, if unofficial, position in the democratic world order.

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Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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