Taiwan’s military faces a new threat from China: trolls with drones

Dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts, shorts and sandals, and hunched over controllers and screens happily chatting away in Mandarin, it’s hard to believe they could be capable of anything dark, until one of them excitedly shouts: A tank!”

But these men are not playing a computer game. The drones are flying over a military base on a nearby island controlled by Taiwan.

The 15-second video clip is among a series of videos that have surfaced recently on the Chinese social network Weibo, showing what appear to be drones trolling civilians by the Taiwanese military. The island’s military later confirmed that these mysterious threats are civilian drones from mainland China.

A video captures the moment four Taiwanese soldiers notice that they are being watched in the sky by a drone above the guard post. Caught off guard, they respond by throwing rocks at the intruding drone, which is so close you can see the faces of individual soldiers.

Videos of these strange encounters have gone viral on Chinese social media and are attracting hundreds of comments mocking Taiwan’s military. The clips appear to reveal a surprising vulnerability: the ability of Chinese drones to photograph restricted military sites in Taiwan at any time.

‘Grey zone’ war

Analysts say the footage being streamed across the Internet — showing military sites and personnel in fine detail for the world to see — is at best embarrassing for Taiwan and at worst, downright dangerous.

The drone incursions come amid heightened tensions following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, an autonomous democracy of nearly 24 million people, in August.

The trip angered China’s ruling Communist Party — which sees Taiwan as part of its territory, even though it has never ruled — and responded by launching unprecedented military drills around the island, sending warplanes across the Taiwan Strait and firing missiles over the main island. .

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has declared the drone incursions to be the latest escalation of this pressure; a new front in China’s “grey zone” war tactics to intimidate the island. On September 1, Taiwan shot down a drone for the first time after warning that it would exercise its rights of self-defense.
China has the power to take over Taiwan, but it would cost a very bloody price

But, although the footage is provocative, it is difficult to be sure who is behind the drone incursions.

Beijing has dismissed drone incursions as “no big deal”. When asked about civilian-level drones flying in the Kinmen area, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently replied: “Chinese drones are flying over Chinese territory, why should we be surprised?”

Arousing suspicions, China has not removed videos from the otherwise heavily censored internet or prevented drones from traveling through its highly controlled airspace.

Beijing also has no interest in trying to punish those behind the footage; Flying drones over military home zones is punishable by jail time.

Drone footage shows a Taiwanese military base in the Kinmen Islands.

‘Deniable harassment’

Isabel Hilton, an international journalist and long-time China watcher, said it was impossible to know who was flying the drones, which was precisely what made them so suitable for “deniable harassment”.

The machines appear to be civilian models, but “anyone can operate them, including the military,” said Hilton, founder of China Dialogue, suggesting that “government agencies masquerading as a people’s movement” may be behind the controls.

Hilton echoed incidents in the South China Sea, where China has been accused of using a naval militia to enforce its territorial claims, swarming disputed areas with hundreds of ostensibly civilian fishing boats.

Western experts say the militia — sometimes called China’s “Little Blue Men” — is funded and controlled by the People’s Liberation Army. China does not recognize their existence and when questioned, refers to them as “so-called maritime militia”.
Beijing has an army it doesn't even admit exists, experts say.  And it includes parts of the South China Sea

In both areas, the ideal outcome for China is to gain an advantage “without appearing militarily involved,” Hilton said.

“Whether you’re using fishing boats or civilian drones, it doesn’t appear to be official policy. It doesn’t appear to be direct military harassment in the way that the intrusion of a warplane does. And so it’s a deniable provocation. .”

Hilton said that in addition to reconnaissance purposes — “flying very low over military installations or taking very clear pictures of individually identifiable soldiers” — drones can also have a psychological effect on soldiers because they “find faces.” placed very prominently on Chinese social media, where they can be insulted and where people can call for them to be killed.” Taiwanese media have reported that such exposure could harm the morale of the island’s soldiers.

“This is all very demoralizing for the Taiwanese, and it is being maintained at a level designed to prevent Taiwan from relaxing,” Hilton said.

“It’s designed to remind us that there’s no escape from Chinese pressure, and that eventually China will take over. That’s the goal.”

A prominent point in Taiwan on a map showing recent drone strikes.

Trolls with drones

But not everyone suspects the invisible hand of the Chinese military.

Paul Huang, a researcher at the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, a non-profit non-governmental think tank, believes the drones are being used by private civilians who want to provoke Taiwan “perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps out of nationalism.”

“Flying near a military guard post in Taiwan and drawing their attention … That’s not really the way any military would deploy or use their drones. And frankly, I don’t see any good reason for (the People’s Liberation Army) to try something like that,” he said. said Huang.

However, he and Hilton agree that Beijing could stop the drone incursions if it wanted to, but it doesn’t because it sees an advantage in ceasing to pursue them.

“Beijing sees (the incursions) as an attempt by its own population to troll Taiwan, to provoke Taiwan, to make fun of Taiwan’s incompetence. They treat it as a propaganda victory,” Huang said.

China Dialogue’s Hilton said Beijing is “playing a double game here.”

“Beijing, as we know, controls its domestic internet, it controls its domestic airspace. If that’s happening, it’s because the government wants it to.”

Taiwanese soldiers fire flares to warn drones flying near Taiwan's islands.

A changing threat

Taiwan has faced the threat of invasion since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Nationalists fled there to form a new government that drove Mao Zedong’s Communist Party from the mainland.

More than 70 years later, the Communist Party continues to see the province as something of a runaway province that must be “reunited” with the mainland at all costs, and has made it clear that it is prepared to use force, if necessary, to achieve that goal.

If China were to invade, the Kinmen Islands — most of which have been controlled by Taiwan since the end of the war — would be a tempting first target. Located just a few kilometers from mainland China’s Xiamen, and hundreds of kilometers from Taiwan’s capital Taipei, they are extremely vulnerable.

The anti-landing spikes are located off the coast of Taiwan's Kinmen Islands, just off the coast of China.

Because of this, for the past seven decades the beaches of Kinmen have been littered with numerous iron windbreaks designed to make amphibious assaults as costly as possible to an invader.

For Taiwan, the problem is that the nature of this invading force is changing.

Kinmen Island’s proximity to the mainland puts it within range of commercially available drones, which are cheap and plentiful in China, home to the world’s second-largest market for the drones and no shortage of potential operators among its 1.4 billion people.

And while iron spikes might come in handy in a beach invasion, they won’t do much against a drone operator ravaging Taiwan’s military from the safety of a Xiamen park.

Fighting back

However, Huang said Beijing will regret not respecting the trolls, regardless.

He said Taiwan could ask DJI, the China-based manufacturer whose logo appears in some trolling videos, to make Kinmen Island a restricted area in its database, a move that would prevent operators from being able to fly drones there. .

If DJI refuses to comply, Taiwan could be shut out of its market, dealing a further blow to a company that has already been blacklisted for US investment due to its ties to the Chinese state. DJI, the world’s leading drone maker, declined to comment to CNN for this article.

And Beijing’s “propaganda victory” may come with other unintended — and unintended — consequences.

After the series of drone incursions, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense announced that the island would deploy a new anti-drone system at military bases starting next year. He also announced plans to increase the overall defense budget to $19.4 billion, a 13.9% increase over 2022.

“(China) still doesn’t see a problem, and I think they should, because that could lead to an escalation they didn’t want. If they want to have control, they better control these civilian drone operators first,” Huang said.

Taiwan displays an anti-drone weapon in this photo released by its Ministry of Defense.

Taiwan, on the other hand, seems to have realized that ignoring drones and their mysterious operators is not an option. A few days after he shot down his first drone, he released a series of photos to the media showing the shiny anti-drone weapons. He seemed to be sending his own propaganda message: the next time the drones come calling, he’ll be ready.