Beijing Tries to Capitalize on Taiwan’s Controversial Rocket Alert
On January 9, just days before the election, Taiwanese received an unusual surprise. At 3:04 p.m. local time, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) issued a warning about the flyover of a rocket carrying a newly launched People’s Republic of China (PRC) satellite. The alert went out to every person’s cell phone. It was the first such alert issued for a rocket flying over Taiwan.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) said the alert was a necessary move, whereas the leading opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) claimed that the Taiwanese government was trying to “mislead the public by issuing such an alert” and that it is “all part of the campaign.” Adding to the controversy, the English version of the message mistakenly said a “missile” (rather than a satellite) had been launched from China.
Amid the debate over the recent satellite alert, Beijing is strategically spinning its own narrative. China’s state-affiliated media orchestrated a disinformation campaign which dismisses the seriousness of the overflight and derides Taiwan’s national warning system, via echoing criticisms within the island. The framing, however, serves a broader strategic agenda – to downplay Beijing’s aggressive actions against Taiwan whilst diminishing Taiwanese vigilance and attempting to influence the upcoming election.
While public opinion in Taiwan on the recent alert diverge, China’s narrative is clear. First, Chinese state-affiliated media stressed that the projectile was “just” a satellite, then argued that the DPP attempted to spread panic and create an illusion of “national subjugation” to attract support in the upcoming election. Haixia Daobao (海峡导报), owned by Fujian Daily Newspaper Press Group and controlled by the Fujian Provincial Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), for instance, published multiple Douyin videos deriding Taipei’s use of the national warning system for a satellite launch. The videos cited Taiwan commentator’s criticism on the alert on January 9.
While most of this information campaign appears be on Chinese-origin social media platforms such as Weibo, Weixin/WeChat and Douyin/TikTok – which are not commonly used by Taiwanese – there are indications that Beijing’s narrative has spread to U.S.-based platforms like Facebook, which has a more active Taiwanese user base. For example, Tongchuanmei, a Facebook page managed by the Hong Kong China News Agency, the local office of the state media China News Service (CNS), published the same Douyin video and description on the same day.
This narrative that the satellite launch was no big deal echoed China’s framing of the spy balloon incident in January-February last year. China claimed that the surveillance balloon discovered over the U.S. mainland was a civilian weather balloon that had blown off course. Chinese officials derided the United States for eventually shooting down the balloon, accusing Washington of overreacting and deliberately hyping the event. For instance, diplomat Zhang Heqing posted a memes on X (formerly known as Twitter) sarcastically stating that “a wandering, civilian balloon is enough to make a superpower so paranoid to the point of abusing its military might.” The cartoon and the tweet content originated from China’s state news agency, Xinhua.
The agenda is evident in the intense effort to make the satellite launch seem insignificant, downplaying the situation and thereby convincing Taiwanese to drop their guard.
By diverting attention to the debate over the necessity of the public warning and the incorrect English translation of the satellite as a “missile” – and claiming both were the result of the DPP’s intentions to influence the election result – Beijing downplayed its responsibility for launching a rocket that overflew Taiwan, risking potential harm to the island. While China attempted to criticize the DPP’s electoral calculations, it was in fact Beijing’s choice to carry out a satellite launch that would follow that particular flight path just days before Taiwan’s election. The entire incident is a result of China’s ambition toward Taiwan.
The debris from the rocket booster could have fallen on Taiwanese soil, which the major reason that the alert was triggered. (In the end, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) said no debris landed within Taiwan, despite some rumors to the contrary.) China did not announce the satellite launch in advance, nor did it offer any details on its flight plan. The launch without notice was an irresponsible action that could have resulted in casualties. Taiwan’s MND cited the unannounced and “abnormal trajectory” of the rocket as its rationale for issuing the alert in the first place.
The launch should be viewed as part of China’s aggressive bid to “reunify” Taiwan via coercive measures and intimidation tactics, despite Beijing’s current attempts to shift public attention (and blame) through its information manipulation tactics. As Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu noted, the launch was a part of a pattern of harassment toward Taiwan, like the recent cases of Chinese balloons spotted over the island.
In the past 14 days alone, Beijing has sent fighter jets, balloons, and now a Long March rocket carrying a satellite near and/or across Taiwan, as well as Xi Jinping’s headline-making assertion that “China will surely be reunified” in his New Year’s speech previewing 2024.
China’s aggression toward Taiwan is not subtle, despite its cognitive warfare tactics.