As Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday fulfills a historic meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the specter of strained Sino-U.S. relations is gripping security experts in a way that might not seem immediately obvious.
For context, when former U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Tsai in Taipei last year, the visit spawned a series of war games. Chinese armed forces conducted live fire drills a mere 80 miles from the island, while Communist leadership – which has claimed Taiwan as its own since Nationalist armies fled there in 1949 – decried Pelosi’s visit as a “major political provocation.”
Tensions ratcheted up, then cooled, only to surface again amid spy balloon fiascos, accusations of encirclement, trips to the Kremlin, and Tsai’s Wednesday meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
That meeting, by most accounts, is intended to shore up Taiwan’s most important ally and its commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, something U.S. President Joe Biden explicitly promised during a 60 Minutes interview last year. As expected, Tsai’s trip drew sharp warnings from Beijing and promises of a robust, though unspecified, response. Scheduled to return to Taipei on Thursday, Tsai – who has said that “the best way to avoid war is to make ourselves stronger” – is facing a growing Chinese threat which U.S. Rear Adm. Michael Studeman described in January as a “build-up in every warfare area.”
Just last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for “more quickly elevating [China’s] armed forces to world-class standards,” a critical component of Beijing’s 2027 goals, which observers often identify as the date to which China intends to be militarily capable of taking Taiwan.
And yet for all the saber rattling, historical thinking has often suggested that if a conflict over Taiwan took place, it would likely involve incursions using jets and missiles, coupled with cyber strikes in a devastating, albeit regionally restricted way.
That sort of thinking seems to be ending.
“In Taiwan, the target’s not Taiwan only, it’s the United States and their intent is to keep us out of the war,” said General (Ret.) Keith Alexander, Cipher Brief Expert and former Director of the National Security Agency during last week’s Cyber Initiatives Group Spring Summit.
Alexander, who also oversaw U.S. Cyber Command, discussed the prospect of a much wider conflict, including cyber strikes against U.S. command and control systems, defense suppliers, and critical infrastructure inside U.S. borders, should a conflict over Taiwan come to fruition — a notion that could bring the effects of war home in a way Americans have not experienced in a generation.
“[Chinese forces] would go after not only the defense industrial base, our logistics system, but also critical infrastructure, energy, and other things,” he said. “That’s something that they will constantly work to get better at.”
Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly also discussed the threat at a Carnegie Mellon University event in Pittsburgh in February, saying that such attacks are “designed to incite chaos and panic across our country and deter our ability to marshal military might and citizen will.”
“In the event that [China goes] after Taiwan,” she added, “they’re going to want to make sure that they affect the unity that has been forged between the U.S. and our international partners.”
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Meanwhile, as the war in Ukraine rages, China seems to be taking note. The conflict has served as a kind of “proving ground” for a comparative conflict over Taiwan, experts say, allowing Chinese researchers to evaluate not only Western resolve, but also the relative successes and failures of hybrid warfare, which blends military strategy with a wide array of cyber-attacks. Disinformation campaigns, hypersonic missiles, as well as the use of Starlink satellites have all come into greater focus as of late, they add, as a result of the Ukraine conflict.
“I think the Chinese are learning from that [war],” added Gen. Alexander, who later warned during that same summit that America has “a lot more infrastructure that is susceptible to these types of [cyber] attacks.”
And yet in some ways, the strikes are already happening.
In the past year, Mandiant announced that it had uncovered a bevy of state-sponsored hackers from China that covertly dug into U.S. government and business networks. Those tactics were later determined to be so secretive that Charles Carmakal, Mandiant’s chief technology officer, acknowledged that the scope of Chinese infiltration of U.S. targets is likely more expansive than is currently recognized.
His team, he added, has struggled to identify the full scope of those threats.
“Even with our hunting techniques, it’s hard for them to find it,” he said. U.S. intelligence officials’ annual threat assessment expanded upon those concerns, noting that China “represents the broadest, most active, and persistent cyber espionage threat to U.S. government and private-sector networks.”
In that report, officials note that “if Beijing feared that a major conflict with the United States were imminent, it almost certainly would consider undertaking aggressive cyber operations against U.S. homeland critical infrastructure and military assets worldwide.” The report further described how the attacks would likely focus on “impeding U.S. decision making, inducing societal panic, and interfering with the deployment of U.S. forces,” while also attempting to “disrupt critical infrastructure services within the United States, including against oil and gas pipelines, and rail systems.”
And yet, summit security experts noted there may indeed be a silver-lining.
Just as an attack against Taiwan would likely be preceded by cyber-strikes against U.S. mainland targets, a successful repelling of those strikes could also potentially prevent a broader war, effectively making Beijing think twice about continuing on toward Taiwan.
“It would be even better if [China] came at us and we knocked it down and said, ‘Don’t try that and don’t go after Taiwan,’” noted Gen. Alexander.
“We could stop the attack by winning the cyber phase.”
by David Ariosto, Cipher Brief Deputy Managing Editor
Cipher Brief Writer Ethan Masucol and Ainsley Brown contributed to this report
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