China’s escalating coercion of Taiwan holds lessons for the international community

At a time of worryingly high tensions between the world’s two superpowers, last week’s visit to Taiwan by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi triggered an aggressive cascade of attacks by the Chinese government against the island on multiple fronts. An understanding of the full spectrum of coercive activity beyond the military domain is essential to counteract Beijing during further escalatory events.

The Chinese Communist Party will exploit any non-traditional security vulnerability to exert control over Taiwan, but it will also do so in international disputes that are deemed sensitive to its internal stability. It’s important to analyse the full scope and potential of the tactics used, as the tools employed to deter support for Taiwan will be largely the same in any international efforts challenging Beijing on a range of major issues.

Taiwan has always been a hotspot to watch closely for those studying CCP coercive statecraft. This is especially true of hybrid activity—the spectrum of grey-zone threats short of conventional warfare—across the economic, cyber and information domains. In recent history, coercion against Taiwan has been incremental and not necessarily attributable to a clear trigger; rather, it can be viewed as part of a broad campaign to pressure and isolate Taipei.

It’s rare to see the coordinated deployment of such a wide range of tactics in such a short timeframe and at such a scale and intensity as the response to Pelosi’s visit. This is a show of force intended as a warning for those who may be tempted cross China’s ‘red lines’ in the future, notwithstanding that the visit breached no international rules or commitments. With hybrid activity, Beijing likely believes it can impose costs on Taiwan while minimising the risk of military conflict and potential US intervention. Beijing will now hope the US and others allow this malicious activity to go unchecked, which will only encourage the CCP to ramp up its efforts.

In the economic domain, the past week provided what could be the most severe example of Chinese coercion against Taiwan, although the full extent and impact can’t yet be assessed. So far, Beijing has imposed new import bans on more than 2,000 Taiwanese food products and further curbs on citrus fruit and seafood. China’s commerce ministry also announced the suspension of natural sand exports to Taiwan. Cutting its own exports is rare for China, which generally favours sanctions limiting access to its market. Sand is a key material in the manufacture of semiconductors, although Taiwan said it is not heavily reliant on Chinese imports.

China’s typically contradictory and arbitrary justifications for trade restrictions were on display throughout the week. Official ministry sources cited technical and legal reasons, while state media made clear that the sanctions were punitive. This again raises several questions about how to manage this behaviour when lines are blurred and Beijing can exploit plausible deniability. Despite a growing list of precedents, there’s still much work for the international community to do on defining what support and collective action in the face of such measures should look like.

Since 2021, as part of its broader campaign against Tsai Ing-wen’s government, China has imposed targeted bans on Taiwanese pineapples, candy apples, grouper and meat. These sanctions have been manageable because agricultural products account for only US$200 million of Taiwan’s annual exports to China. One senior Taiwanese official said the bans were tailored to regions where Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party enjoys strong support.

‘But now they are broadening this immensely as they are targeting processed foods. That gives them enormous extortion powers,’ Chiu Chui-cheng, deputy chair of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, said. To avoid future retaliation, lowering Beijing’s extortion power will be key, and it should be coupled with a wider regional strategy of economic resilience vis-à-vis China.

In the cyber domain, Pelosi’s visit triggered a flurry of denial-of-service attacks on the websites of the Taiwanese president, defence ministry and foreign ministry and Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. Convenience store chain 7-Eleven, railway stations and government facilities using Chinese software in their digital signage systems were hacked and displayed messages slandering Pelosi. Chinese technology company Sina also abruptly suspended its Weibo service in Taiwan.

This escalation has occurred in a broader context of increasing cyber hostility. Cyberattacks against Taiwan’s foreign ministry increased 40-fold between 2018 and 2020, reaching 2,100 intrusions per day, according to local media reports. This should be yet another clear sign for countries to be concerned about the security and reliability risks associated with Chinese technology.

Pressure on Taiwan in the information environment has intensified, too. Taiwan’s defence ministry said it had uncovered 272 attempts at spreading disinformation in the past week, including a report by Chinese state-run newspaper the People’s Daily that People’s Liberation Army Air Force Su-35 fighter jets were crossing the Taiwan Strait. Information and influence operations have long been a lever used by China to pressure Taiwan. Earlier this year, the PLA official publication described information warfare as taking a central role over conventional military strength.

Just as China may use its coordinated escalation across these domains as exercises for future conflicts, it is a critical opportunity for the rest of the world to learn how these tactics might be deployed against any state in a dispute with China, and what effective remedies look like. The past week has highlighted the need for strategic communications to counter Chinese government narratives seeking to justify ‘countermeasures’, and to call out tactical disinformation more effectively.

Responding to the crisis over Pelosi’s visit, the US–Australia–Japan trilateral strategic dialogue and G7 foreign ministers plus the EU high representative expressed concerns over China’s ‘escalatory’ actions and the risk to regional stability, with the latter specifically calling out economic coercion. These were important displays of solidarity. China’s rejection of the G7 statement, scolding of the foreign ministers, and warning to Australia ‘to not create new troubles’ is testament to how staunchly Beijing objects to international demonstrations of support for Taiwan. Speaking up is vital, but it’s only the first step.

Taiwan has been an exemplar of restraint and resolve for any countries on the receiving end of the CCP’s use of coercive tactics. Governments should ensure they do not reduce or postpone their planned and potential meetings with representatives of Taiwan in the wake of Beijing’s latest actions. A smart agenda item would be to consult with Taipei on increasing understanding of the hybrid threats we all might face in the future, how to counter them, and how to further efforts to reinforce stability in the region.