How the PLA Really Sees America

Posted on Monday, April 9, 2018 by Drew Jones

The Western Theatre Command covers Tibet, Xinjiang, Ningxia, Qinghai, Sichuan and Chongqing.
(Shot from PLA Propaganda Video. Source: AFP)
By: Ian Easton

In December 2017, the U.S. Government published a new National Security Strategy. This remarkable document referred to the People's Republic of China (PRC) as a "revisionist power" that sought "to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests." One month later, in January 2018, the Pentagon released the unclassified version of its National Defense Strategy, which stated that "China is a strategic competitor." Thanks to these documents, we now know how the American military―and the broader national security community―officially views China.

Less clear has been how the Chinese military, as an institution, views America. Indeed, many of the messages emanating from uniformed officials in Beijing appear mixed and even self-contradictory. The overall message they appear to be conveying is that China's armed forces have benign, peaceful intentions toward America, but they must sometimes react aggressively to destabilizing events created by others. 

An initial assessment of authoritative Chinese sources indicates that Beijing is exploiting increased international attention to (and engagement with) its military to engage in a well-orchestrated strategic deception campaign. While the Chinese military's external propaganda tends to deny or downplay strategic competition between the U.S. and China, its internal writings are often strident and anti-American. The reality is that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) sees the U.S. as an adversary and acts accordingly―while at the same time working to lull American officials into a false sense of complacency.

Defining the Problem

China is not known for its transparency. In the most recent World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders described China as "the planet's leading censor and press freedom predator," and gave Beijing a score of 176 out of 180, ranking it fifth from the bottom. Yet while it might be difficult to assess the validity of specific pieces of information appearing in Chinese propaganda, it is relatively easy to spot broad narratives and themes. China's state-run media might not tell its consumers everything that is going on at home and abroad, but it will tell them how they should interpret the events that are selected for coverage.

Chinese military writings offer many insights. Unlike the United States, China does not have a professional national military. The PLA is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a political organization that has exercised a monopoly on power in China since 1949. As such, PLA writings must pass through a rigid censorship process to make sure they are "correct" reflections of the CCP's official position before they can be published. This process ensures that communist party officials speak with one voice on all important issues. 

Like any military, the PLA produces field manuals, technical studies, and other written materials that are not intended for outside consumption. Compared to propaganda writings, internal PLA materials are often more candid and detailed. What is the official PLA view of America? Is there a difference between how Chinese military sources portray the U.S. in public statements and internal ones? If so, what does this imply about Beijing's intentions?

Image result for PLA military watching USA
(PLA General Visits Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Source: U.S. Air Force)
PLA Propaganda 

Authoritative PLA writings that are made available to external audiences will sometimes make unflattering remarks about the United States, but they avoid describing America as an adversary. They do not portray the U.S. as a strategic competitor, hostile force, or enemy. They generally use neutral or mild terms to describe U.S. actions. When they are critical, China's military writings will often refer to the U.S. indirectly, and they will not suggest the possibility of armed confrontation. 

For example, the most recent white paper made available by China's defense ministry is entitled, "China's Policy for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific." Published in January 2017, this report hints that problems between the U.S. and PRC might exist, but stresses the stable and constructive nature of bilateral security relations. Prior to that, "China's Military Strategy in 2014" made note of the U.S. rebalance to Asia strategy, but did not express any explicit concerns.

The 2012 iteration of China's defense white paper was a bit more transparent about how the PLA felt. In an indirect criticism of the U.S., it stated that "there are signs of increasing hegemonism, power politics, and neo-interventionism...some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser."

China's 2010 defense white paper, again, without mentioning the U.S. by name, stated that: "International military competition remains fierce...Some powers have worked out strategies for outer space, cyber space and the polar regions, developed means for prompt global strikes, accelerated development of missile defense systems, enhanced cyber operations capabilities to occupy new strategic commanding heights." China's 2008 defense white paper expressed similar concerns about the U.S., using almost the exact same indirect language.

In contrast to official statements made by China's defense ministry, retired or semi-retired PLA generals and admirals, many of whom have backgrounds in political warfare and intelligence, are openly hawkish and anti-American. A number of such individuals regularly appear as commentators on Chinese state-run television shows. [1] Many also frequently publish strident editorials in state-run media and PLA publications. However, when challenged, Chinese authorities can credibly (if disingenuously) claim these are non-authoritative individuals whom are only expressing their own personal views. [2]

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(Source: South China Morning Post)
The Internal View

Authoritative PLA writings show that the Chinese military's institutional view of the U.S. has far more in common with the hawkish commentators than the authors of China's defense white papers. A survey of PLA materials shows that internal Chinese military publications often refer to the U.S. as the "Strong Enemy" (强敌). This term is commonly used across a broad range of writings. Moreover, authoritative PLA publications take pains to paint America as a hostile force and frequently discuss the possibility of launching first strikes on the U.S. in wartime scenarios.

For example, the Liberation Army Press textbook Informatized Joint Operations, written by a team of officers at the Nanjing Army Command Academy in 2006, describes the "Strong Enemy's" strategy as "provocative, offensive, and expansionistic in nature." It states that America "ignores the rules of international relations...using gunboat diplomacy and relying on its own military power to serve as the world policeman, making up all kinds of rationales and excuses to push forward its hegemonic power politics all over the world." [3]

The book goes one to assert that the American military's wartime target list includes China's major cities, nuclear power plants, chemical plants, and dams, targets which would cause mass civilian casualties and wreck havoc across Chinese society. [4] The book then describes in detail how the PLA would defend against such attacks and defeat the "Strong Enemy" in war. [5]

According to the PLA Academy of Military Sciences' 2013 Course Book on Wartime Political Work, U.S. military intervention against China is "inevitable" (particularly in a local conflict against Taiwan) because "the Strong Enemy seeks world hegemony and works to contain China's rise." [6] To counter this, the book discusses the application of media, legal, and psychological warfare against the "Strong Enemy." Should these operations fail to deter American intervention, the authors note the importance of conducting offensive strikes on U.S. aircraft carrier groups. [7] 

In a similar vein, the 2014 PLA Air Force textbook Research on Air Force Strategy Problems dedicates over 60 pages to a discussion on the "threats" posed to China by the U.S. military. [8] Notably, many military capabilities considered defensive by Americans, such as early warning satellites, surveillance radars, and missile defense systems, are listed in the threat category. [9] The authors advocate dealing with the "American threat" by expanding China's stockpiles of intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, and theater missiles. The authors further advocate increasing the PLA's ability to carry out first strikes on U.S. port facilities, airbases, and missile defense sites using a combination of theater missiles, electronic attacks, and saboteurs. [10]

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(Chinese Animation of Missile Attack on U.S. Carrier Group. Source: Defense News)

While unconfirmed, an initial assessment of Chinese military writings suggests that the PLA is engaged in a long-term, centrally-managed, strategic deception operation aimed at the United States' government and military. While propaganda materials create an image of a relatively benign and friendly China, internal PLA writings espouse a doctrine that is fundamentally offensive and hostile to American values and interests. Irrespective of what is said by Chinese military propagandists in their defense white papers and public statements, the reality is that PLA officers are trained to view the U.S. as an enemy, and they will plan and act accordingly. 

While the new U.S. national strategy reports are clear-eyed in their assessment of Beijing's intentions, so far little has been done which would indicate that Washington has actually reached a consensus on its China policy and is prepared to execute a long-term strategic competition. Much hard work will be required to turn wise words into action. In that sense, the PLA has a significant head start. It decided to become America's strategic competitor long ago ― and if the "Strong Enemy" didn't realize what was going on, for them, so much the better.

[1]For examples of various programs, see;; and
[2] See Andrew Chubb, "Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA's 'Hawkish Faction,'" Jamestown China Brief, July 25, 2013, at
[3] Cao Zhengrong, Wu Runbo, and Sun Jianjun (eds.), Informatized Joint Operations [信息化联合作战] (Beijing: Liberation Army Press, 2008), p. 236. Note this is from the second edition of the book. It was first written and published in 2006. 
[4] Ibid. p. 241.
[5] Ibid. p. 242-262. 
[6] Wu Zhizhong (ed.), Course Book on Wartime Political Work [战时政治工作教程] (Beijing: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2013), p. 194.
[7] Ibid. pp.195-196.
[8] Zhu Hui (ed.), Research on Air Force Strategy Problems [空军战略问题研究] (Beijing: Blue Sky Press, 2014), pp. 306-371. 
[9] Ibid. p. 310-315.    
[10] Ibid. p. 369-370. Note that similar anti-American terminology is seen across the spectrum of internal PLA books and field manuals, including authoritative works on topics as diverse as army operations, space warfare, and military medicine. 

Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia.

Assessing the Resiliency of the Chinese Communist Party

Posted on Wednesday, March 21, 2018 by Drew Jones

(Source: Congressional Research Service | Central News Agency)

Watch a video of the conference here.

By: Emily David and Gary Wang

At the 19th Party Congress in Beijing, Chinese leaders projected an image of China (People's Republic of China, PRC) as a strong and united country destined to become a new global leader. However, the extraordinary measures undertaken to control information, assembly, and capital outflows suggest the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may be weaker than it appears. China, under the rule of the CCP, has denied its people their natural rights, including freedoms of assembly, thought, and expression. Since the late 1970s, the PRC leadership has pursued a policy of "reform and opening" that has advanced the Chinese economy, while ensuring the Party's continued monopoly on all forms of political power. The 13th National Party Congress' ratification of the abolished presidential term limit is the latest and most consequential move aimed at ensuring General Secretary Xi Jinping's all-encompassing rule. This ideologically retrograde path has resulted in considerable tensions within Chinese society. As China continues to emerge as a globally-interconnected power, questions have arisen regarding the trajectory of its political system. While much discussion in Washington has focused on the future of U.S.-PRC relations, it is imperative to assess the resiliency of China's party-state apparatus, and to examine its implications for U.S. interests in the future.

Conference on the Resiliency of the CCP

On October 12, 2017, the Project 2049 Institute hosted a conference that brought together a distinguished group of experts to address the potentially tenuous nature of the CCP's hold on power, and what that could mean for the future of the regime, the United States, and Asia. The first panel discussed the resiliency of the Party today, and its efforts to thwart any attempts at subversion. The second panel evaluated a potential future collapse scenario of the Chinese Communist Party, and what it might mean for the United States, and for our allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific.

(Left to Right: Richard McGregor, Nadège Rolland, Rachael Burton, David Gitter, and Yang Jianli Source: The Project 2049 Institute)

The CCP and Its Standing Today

In assessing the strength of the Party, it is clear that the PRC, with Chairman Xi Jinping at the helm, is under the control of a resilient, authoritarian communist party. Xi Jinping’s authority can be characterized as strongman leadership, distinguished by five major trends. First, Xi is the "Chairman of everything" from national security to economic policy. Second, Xi has created a new national security system within the Party apparatus rather than the government. Third, the State Council, which is crucial to the execution of policies, is the weakest it has been in generations. Fourth, there has been a massive purge and re-organization of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). And fifth, Xi has directed a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that has largely been utilized to remove Xi's personal political opponents.

With Xi Jinping’s legacy cemented as "the core" leader of the Party, he has used his position to strengthen the party-state's role in the economy. Given that an autocratic style does not lend itself to economic liberalization, the Party functions of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) under Xi’s leadership are more open and explicit. This has lead to economic and corporate structures that have created a distinct hybrid model of capitalism. As the private sector remains a crucial driver of economic growth and job creation, the CCP has co-opted the private sector to ensure that the entrepreneurial class does not become a rival to the CCP.

The overall course emerging from Xi's China is a more public role for the Party, and a bolstered relationship between the Party, the government, and the private sector. On the whole, it is clear that the Party is extremely resilient at this current point in time. 

The CCP's Propaganda Apparatus

The CCP's propaganda apparatus plays an important role in promoting CCP resiliency, whose role divides into three tasks: transmitting the Party's guiding ideology, transmitting the CCP's line and policies, and educating the public in patriotism, collectivism, and socialism.  In a likely effort to stave off the risk of fragmentation, Xi unveiled a new set of policy guidelines to ensure the media reflects the Party’s will, and safeguards the Party’s authority and unity.

At the center of the propaganda apparatus is the socialist core value system that emphasizes principles such as prosperity, democracy, civility, freedom, rule of law, and patriotism, as defined by the Party. Xi has emphasized the integration of core socialist values into every aspect of Chinese society as an important element of "cultural soft power." However, a challenge the CCP faces is the impetus behind Party membership. Currently, most Party members join to improve their own status and self interest, rather than out of ideological adherence or Party loyalty, which exposes an ideological vacuum in Chinese society and in the Party itself. Whether or not Party members will be willing to weather a crisis or a democratic uprising will play a part in determining the Party's future. As for now, the propaganda apparatus continues to target domestic and foreign audiences to reinforce the role of the Party in this "new era."  

CCP Global Influence 

China's “One Belt, One Road" Initiative (OBOR) is a political and national strategy of the CCP that provides solutions to many of the challenges that China faces as a one-Party state. Since China no longer enjoys the double-digit economic growth that formerly buttressed CCP legitimacy, OBOR presents  a “new normal” that satisfies the Party’s need for socio-economic stability, nationalist goals, and a solution to address overall strategic objectives.

Economically, OBOR allows the CCP to maintain state control over the economy, and to sustain its manufacturing and production industries, therefore providing the continual economic growth necessary to sustain CCP resiliency. Strategically, OBOR is a foreign policy tool that helps to secure trade routes, and carves areas for potential political influence through infrastructure projects (dams, fiber optics, highways, etc.). Domestically, it works to reduce development gaps and provincial disparities, diminish social unrest, and discourage radicalization and terrorism. Internationally, OBOR limits democratic institutions along China’s borders, and reduces the risk of democratic contagion, and the CCP's branding and messaging of OBOR works to raise China’s status as a great power and provider of public goods. It also allows China to take the lead on global initiatives that are widely recognized as having the potential for far-reaching global impact. However, diverted wealth, economic overstretch, and conflicts in recipient countries are just a few potential challenges impeding the success of China’s OBOR strategy. Additionally, the success of OBOR will largely rest on recipient countries' perception of China’s plans.

Chinese Democracy Movement vs. the CCP

While much media coverage is spent forecasting the trajectory of “China’s rise,” the state of citizen’s rights in China have continued to deteriorate under the CCP with crackdowns on media, religious groups, and civil society. Under the current political climate, monitoring how the CCP responds to domestic tension deserves attention. Drawing from China’s 1989 democracy movement, there are four conditions integral to affect real democratic change in China: 1) a general and robust discontent from the people, 2) a viable democratic opposition, 3) a split in the CCP leadership, and 4) international recognition and support when a movement materializes.

While not successful, the Tiananmen democracy movement ultimately created fear among the top echelon of Party officials because it called into question the legitimacy of the regime. As such, the Movement forced the CCP to recognize that the Party's staying power in the 90s had nothing to do with communist ideals; instead, economic growth and nationalism became the dominant sources of CCP legitimacy. Later in 2008, Liu Xiaobo and 300 other Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists authored the Charter 08 document, which called for a "modernization" of Chinese society built on a new constitution, separation of powers, legislative democracy, and the freedom to assemble (to name a few). The Charter was deemed a "subversion of state power." Now, with Xi Jinping as Chairman, there has been a significant shift in leadership style; the Party’s role in Chinese society has been repurposed, and has had three major effects on China: 1) the CCP is more ideological and authoritarian, 2) the country's elites are potentially alienated due to the restructuring of “crony capitalism,” and 3) no one social strata provides Xi with vehement public support. So, while there are definite cracks in the Party's resiliency, the potential for the emergence of a contemporary democratic movement does not pose an immediate threat to the CCP.  

Future Scenario: An Asia without the CCP?

(Left to Right: Kuniko Ashizawa, Emily David, Mark Stokes, and Peter Mattis. Source: The Project 2049 Institute)

The CCP's Security Apparatus

At its foundation, the CCP is a security organization aimed at shaping itself and the outside world. China's security organizations serve the top-level leaders, and, therefore, are the instruments through which power is exercised and competed for. Given that security, according to the CCP, ultimately hinges on social order and Party management, it is advantageous for the CCP to incorporate entities such as the Propaganda Department, the Organization Department, the Political Legal Commission, and the People's Liberation Army (PLA), etc. into the core of the state security apparatus structure. Although the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and the Ministry of State Security (MSS) are State Council organizations, they are also meant to serve the Party. Together, China's security organizations serve primarily as a tool of the Party against outsiders. For its part, the PLA is the armed wing of the CCP that oversees the armed forces and the paramilitary People's Armed Police (PAP), which both have propaganda and political warfare missions. As such, since the PLA is the final arbiter, the key question in the rise or fall of the CCP is based upon the PLA's disposition to defend the Party against the people. However, the additional entities in China's security apparatus exist to ensure that the PLA never has to make that choice. They serve as a buffer between the PLA and the Party, to guarantee that a viable opposition never comes to fruition. Taken together, the future of China largely depends on the loyalty and effectiveness of the CCP’s collective security apparatus.

Regional Implications: Addressing a China in Political Transition  

In the case of a collapse of the Chinese Communist Party, what would a regional response entail?

Taiwan could play five potential roles including that of a model or influencer, scapegoat, stakeholder, and stabilizer. First, Taiwan plays a unique role in serving as both a model and influencer for China. The CCP often perpetuates the narrative that Chinese culture is inconsistent with democracy, but Taiwan, as a different yet fundamentally Chinese society, directly belies this fact. Taiwan has made the sensitive transition to a democratic state, and can serve as an example for political transition in China. Second, Taiwan can serve as an economic stabilizer for the country and region. A significant portion of China's GDP can be attributed to Taiwanese enterprises, and, as such, Taiwan can be one of the most significant outside players to ensure China's sustained economic growth in the event of regime instability. Third, the CCP can use Taiwan as a scapegoat to divert attention from domestic instability or criticism of the Party. Fourth, Taiwan could act as a stakeholder. Taiwan's substantial investments in China, along with over one million Taiwanese living in China, gives Taiwan's government significant motivation to play an active role in an international response to the collapse of the CCP, were it to occur. And, fifth, Taiwan could take the role of stabilizer. Another major consideration in a CCP collapse scenario should be the control of fissile material and nuclear warheads. Due to historical and cultural ties to the PRC, Taiwan is best suited to work with parties and organizations inside China to secure these materials.

In terms of a regional response to the potential collapse of the CCP, the role of the world's third largest economy would be difficult to ignore. Japan has historically been a stakeholder in the event of a collapsed Chinese state (fall of the Qing Dynasty), but its physical, political, economic, and military expansion into China came at great consequence to the people in the region. However, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen democracy movement, when the CCP appeared most vulnerable, Japan was the first of the G7 countries to lift economic sanctions and resume diplomatic channels. Taking history into account, in a future collapse scenario, Japan could offer limited diplomatic or economic engagement in selective regions in China. This new initiative could act as a network―with an emphasis to support Chinese citizenry, civil society, and private industry― linking the coastal cities of China to Japan, and to other states in the Asia-Pacific.


The Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping is broadly resilient, determined, and strong. Through the use of reforms within the propaganda and security apparatus, China is experiencing widespread state control over society. Internationally, OBOR serves to offset many of the Party's existing challenges, and appears to amplify its position on the world stage. Yet, despite all of this, an authoritarian power that denies its people basic rights of free expression, religion, and assembly is never exempt from possible dissolution, and there are many cracks within the Party's current façade. In the event that China's one-party rule is dismantled, Taiwan, and other regional stakeholders such as Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN, all have a role to play in stabilizing the region through China's political transition. In this regard, the resiliency of the CCP is therefore a priority for Xi Jinping. Under his leadership, the strengthened position of the CCP's propaganda and security apparatus ensure the continued "fighting spirit" necessary to exercise strict governance over the People's Republic of China.  
Emily David is a Research Associate at the Project 2049 Institute where her research focuses on the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese influence operations, and U.S.-Taiwan relations. She recently completed her Master's degree in Chinese Politics, Foreign Policy, and International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.
Gary Wang was an intern at the Project 2049 Institute where his research focused on cross-Strait relations and U.S.-Taiwan relations. He is currently pursing his BA at George Washington University.

Under the Radar: China's Coercive Air Power in the Taiwan Strait

Posted on Friday, March 9, 2018 by Project2049Institute

(Source: Congressional Research Service | Central News Agency)
Watch a video of the conference here.

By: Colby Ferland

On January 4, 2018, the People’s Republic of China (PRC, China) unilaterally modified an aviation route near the centerline of the Taiwan Strait. The northbound routes on this M503 flight path violate the existing cross-Strait civil aviation agreements between each side’s respective authorities. Taiwan, and many members of the international community, view this as a coercion tactic by Beijing to limit Taiwan’s ability to operate effectively near its borders on matters of national security. Further complicating the matter is Taiwan’s exclusion from international organizations, such as the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO), which limits Taipei’s ability to voice its concerns without the assistance of informal allies. The move is part of Beijing’s long-term plan of forcing Taipei to the negotiation table on unfavorable terms. More alarming, however, are the implications for the future of airspace security in Taiwan, as well as America’s ability to exercise freedom of navigation around the island. In response to this occurrence, the Project 2049 Institute brought together a distinguished panel of security experts to flesh out the PRC’s coercive airspace management, Taiwan’s security, and implications for U.S. interests.

Is China's Taiwan Strategy Failing?

It is likely that China's decision to adjust air routes in the Taiwan Strait was a military stratagem made with the specific objective of encroaching on Taiwanese airspace. Beijing’s unilateral authorization of northbound flights on the M503 route is not, as China’s State Air Traffic Control Commission (SATCC) claims, a civilian measure taken to relieve air traffic congestion. This is evident by the fact that the SATCC resides under the jurisdiction of the Central Military Commission (CMC), led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This is a textbook example of Chinese influence operations aimed at coercing and limiting Taipei's political leverage vis-à-vis Beijing. The M503 route is Beijing’s latest endeavor to coerce President Tsai Ing-wen  蔡英文 of Taiwan (Republic of China, ROC) to adhere to the 1992 Consensus, and, thus, the one-China principle, as defined by Beijing. This, however, would be a major move of concession for Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and Beijing’s pressure is unlikely to yield this result.

To emphasize the uptick of political pressure on Taipei, the panelists discussed China’s failing Taiwan strategy. Beijing's plan for eventual re-unification utilizes a "carrot and stick" approach backed by China's strengthened military and economic capabilities, while simultaneously isolating Taiwan from the international community. The end goal would be to convince Taiwan and its citizens to seek benefits from China's so-called "great rejuvenation" and opt to negotiate with Beijing.  This would effectively return Taiwan to Beijing’s jurisdiction under an agreement similar to Hong Kong's “one country, two systems” model.  However, Beijing's attempts to capture the "hearts and minds" of the Taiwanese people have largely failed due to (though not limited to) the following factors: Taiwan has never been under CCP rule; the ever-dimming outlook for democracy and political freedom in Hong Kong; and the occurrence of a prominent Taiwanese identity revolution. With a majority DPP government in Taiwan, Beijing has handicapped their agenda through attempts to manipulate Taiwanese domestic politics. Beijing's “United Front” activities, which target and engage specific interest groups, unveil a deliberate attempt to weaken Taiwan's democratic processes.

Rather than attempting to improve upon relations set under the KMT administration, Beijing’s reaction to President Tsai's inauguration was to double down on political pressure and aggressive coercion tactics. This reflects Xi’s overall political ideology; in Xi’s view, Hong Kong and Taiwan are the last remaining holdouts needing to be converted to tightly controlled “police states” such as Xinjiang and Tibet. Political subversion, ethnic riots, and a slowing economy are Xi's nightmares, as they are obstacles to his “great rejuvenation,” which is fast replacing economic growth as the new foundation for CCP legitimacy. The addition of the M503 route in the Taiwan Strait exemplifies Beijing’s inability to mend its failing Taiwan strategy, and displays its unsettling tendency to resort to confrontational tactics to achieve its political goals.

The PLA and Aviation Routes as a Coercive Tool

It has become clear that Beijing seeks to leverage its military influence to achieve two goals: 1) to consolidate China’s sphere of influence in East Asia; and 2) to decrease the presence of U.S. forces in the region. With the M503 northbound air route, the PRC is now taking steps to “weaponize civilians” in its pressure tactics against Taiwan. Flying commercial airlines over open ocean in the Taiwan Strait, as opposed to more secure routes that hug the shoreline, is a new step taken by China that is intended to heavily tax Taiwan’s air patrols in the region. What's more, it increases the chance of a civilian or military aviation accident, a tragedy likely to trigger a diplomatic crisis.

As China’s military technology improves, so does its ability to engage in coercive campaigns against U.S. allies and partners. For example, the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) consistently flies routes over the Miyako Strait, off the east coast of Taiwan in the Philippine Sea, and over the Bashi Channel, all of which are of strategic importance to Taiwan's security. To Taiwan these waterways serve as critical conduits for trade and military patrols, and act as Taiwan’s geographical connection to the outside world. It is vital for Taiwan’s security that both their military and civilian aircraft and watercraft can depart from the island without having to report to PRC authorities, which would be the case if these waterways were declared part of the PRC's Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The Bashi Channel is particularly pivotal, as it marks the rim of the “first island chain,” a term used to demarcate the archipelago of states located on the rim of the East and South China Seas where the PLA seeks to establish exclusive dominion. For Beijing, it is paramount that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) can operate--at will--across the channel. Another security matter is the location of submarine cables (specifically the APCN 2) in the Bashi Channel which support much of Taiwan’s Internet connectivity and usage of the World Wide Web. It is a matter of national security that Taiwan be able to maintain and secure its Internet connection.

Parallel to their physical presence, the PLAAF has learned to utilize social media to magnify their coercive operations. The PLA Daily, the PLA’s microblogging site, and the official PLA Twitter account regularly report PLA operations around Taiwan in a tactic of psychological warfare. For its part, Taiwan’s state and media outlets must be careful not to help accomplish Beijing’s agenda. It is in the interest of Taiwan and American allies in the region to develop more robust information sharing capabilities to monitor and track PLA activities; likewise, it would be advantageous for Taiwan and U.S. allies to avoid amplifying Beijing’s preferred perception of having an indomitable and pervasive military presence around Taiwan.

In accordance with this narrative, Xi has placed an emphasis on building a strong military capable of winning wars. To make up for a lack of combat experience, the People's Liberation Army has conducted at least 45 military exercises per year, for the last two years. In addition, the PLA has made efforts to conduct rigorous land, air and naval training exercises close to India, Russia, Japan, Taiwan, and in the South China Sea. China has also enhanced its combat readiness by training with other countries in the U.S. Navy-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) exercises, and other multinational drills with China's neighbors to the west. While the Chinese prepare their military for an active and permanent role in the region, coercive actions such as the M503 route help to deteriorate established norms, allowing the Chinese to displace the activities of other powers in favor of a continuous PLA presence.

U.S. and Taiwan Roles

Given China's economic production capacity, effective control of information, and military capabilities, the PRC can interfere with America’s diplomatic and economic relationships on many fronts. Therefore, Taipei and Washington’s path forward must be to counter Beijing's political efforts through a robust public diplomacy campaign that emphasizes freedom of navigation (FON), information flows, and the rule of law. The U.S. must make clear that America, Taiwan, and all members of the international community can fly, sail, and operate wherever international laws allow. Regarding the first island chain, the U.S. has an interest in ensuring that China respects international waters and sovereign territory. A free and open Asia-Pacific is indispensable for regional diplomatic stability and healthy trade relations. If China operates in a designated security zone, or territorial waters or airspace of another country, it must be internationally admonished by the U.S. and Taiwanese administrations.

Perhaps the most obvious role of the U.S. government vis-à-vis Taiwan is to increase arms sales to the island so that it may adequately maintain its defense. Coercive airpower operations by the Chinese provide justification for U.S. assistance in upgrading Taiwan’s air force. Taiwan has been trying to rejuvenate their air force for over a decade, as in evident in their interest in purchasing F-35s, and recent upgrades to F-16Vs. The PLAAF exercises, and, now, civilian air routes, require the ROC air force to be on heightened alert around the island--a prerogative that could wear down the aircraft and exhaust the crew currently in use. For example, in 2016 alone, the Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) had to scramble their fighter jets 851 times in response to Chinese aircraft activity in Japan’s territorial waters. For Taiwan’s aging air fleet, that amount of activity would be challenging to sustain.

In addition to arms sales, encouraging high-level visits and dialogue between U.S. and Taiwanese officials would be strategic in countering coercive PLA activities. The Taiwan Travel Act, currently awaiting President Trump’s signature, is a model example of progress. During the Project 2049 Institute's event, Congressman Ted Yoho (R-FL), Chairman of the United States House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, gave strong statements of support for Washington’s need to work with Taiwan to strategically balance against China’s coercive activities. According to Congressman Yoho, the M503 route authorization is “yet another example of China’s territorial aggression in [Taiwan’s] near waters.” The Congressman stated it was the role of the United States to “defend Taiwan’s international presence and our bilateral ties.” Congressman Yoho is sharply aware that Xi Jinping is committed to replacing the existing world order with his own narrative, and that this is something the U.S. has a responsibility to counteract.

“China has ramped up a full-court press against Taiwan via domestic media infiltration, military air power coercion [and by] revoking their participation in even the most benign international organizations…. if we do not stand up [to China] now, it will be that much more difficult, more costly, and more dangerous to Taiwan.”

With more than just a rhetorical commitment to Taiwan on the world stage, Congressman Yoho recently sponsored the bipartisan bill H.R. 3320, which passed the House of Representatives on January 9th, 2018. The bill guarantees Taiwan’s status as an “observer” in the World Health Organization (WHO). He also co-signed a letter in January to Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai, admonishing Beijing’s activities in the Strait. These are the type of deliverables needed to establish a clear message to Beijing that Washington does not kowtow to the interests of a foreign power. The U.S. has a responsibility to defend the free world (or “promote a free and open Indo-Pacific”).  China’s unilateral effort to disrupt the status quo of aviation routes in the Taiwan Strait requires a firm repudiation from the United States and its allies and partners.


· China has a proven history of fait accompli methods of operation, such as military base construction in the South China Sea, "Nine-Dash Line" territorial claims, and the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The unilateral M503 route implementation is cause for concern.

· Allowing Beijing to adulterate security norms in the Taiwan Strait vis-à-vis the M503 northbound flight routes may give way to the PRC's declaration of dominion over the entire waterway, perhaps culminating in the declaration of an ADIZ over the island of Taiwan.

· The goal of Chinese media is to establish the narrative of an opportunity-filled and prosperous Chinese future, led by the CCP, and backed by an unassailable PLA. The media outlets of the U.S. and its allies have a responsibility to refute this narrative, as it is far from the truth.

· Evident by the election of the DPP, and the likely prospect of China’s coercive tactics leading to further U.S. arms sales in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act, it is apparent that the CCP’s policies can be counterproductive to its own agenda. The U.S. and its allies in the Asia Pacific need to capitalize on these oversights by employing a concise media narrative against coercive operations, establishing clear channels of high-level communication, and encouraging Taiwan’s participation on the international stage.

· Taiwan has a role in refuting Beijing’s narrative of inevitable unification. Taiwan needs to be unified and clear on its direction with China, and remain committed to the fortification of its defense capabilities.


Colby Ferland was an intern at the Project 2049 Institute where he focused on cross-Strait relations and U.S. security issues in the Asia Pacific. He received his B.A. in International Relations and Political Science from The George Washington University, with a year abroad at the London School of Economics. 

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