In a Crisis, Could China Coerce Taiwan Through Cyberspace?

Beijing is likely to increasingly favor OCOs against Taiwan for three reasons. First, cyberattacks have the ability to bypass militaries and target civilians directly, making them a powerful option for punishment should Beijing perceive the island as moving toward de jure independence. Second, a major cyberattack that punishes civilians could put new pressure on Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which Chinese influence operations failed to unseat in the January 2024 presidential election.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, China has every major advantage over Taiwan’s cyber defenders. Taiwan’s military cyber force, the Information Communication Electronic Force Command (ICEF), is still struggling to stand on its own. Several of the Western firms supporting Ukraine’s cyber resilience may be more hesitant to support Taiwan’s cyber defenses for fear of losing access to the Chinese market. 

Most concerningly, the most labor-intensive steps of an offensive cyber campaign – exploitation and maintaining persistence in enemy systems – are already complete in Taiwan. China is a preeminent force in cyber espionage, and likely has access to many major Taiwanese networks. Drawing on China’s considerable human intelligence assets in Taiwan, the Ministry of State Security or the PLA Strategic Support Force could position a debilitating attack on a critical network while allowing Beijing to hide behind the plausible deniability endemic to attacks in cyberspace.

A major attack on critical infrastructure could punish civilians and erode confidence in Taiwan’s government and military in a way PLA exercises and sanctions cannot. However, even after decades of searching for leverage in cyberspace, it is still unknown if China’s OCO capabilities have the ability to help further Beijing’s coercive efforts in a crisis.

It must be noted, however, that Chinese cyber espionage and cyber-enabled influence operations lie outside the scope of traditional coercion literature, meaning that both have the potential to facilitate Chinese cyber coercion of Taiwan. Both will demand increasing attention from Taipei in the years to come, but while network intrusions are addressed in the portfolio of Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs, influence operations are not.

Policymakers should approach Taiwan’s cybersecurity with the goal of denying China the leverage it seeks during crises, in addition to the traditional goals of protecting data and developing wartime resilience. While China is unlikely to successfully coerce Taipei through cyberspace in the next Taiwan Strait crisis, it is incumbent on policymakers to ensure that this remains the case. If Chinese cyber force maturation continues to outstrip Taiwanese defensive efforts, Taiwan may yet find itself increasingly vulnerable to a major attack that changes the course of its political future.

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