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Freedom of Navigation in the Taiwan Strait: Beware Information Warfare

Freedom of Navigation in the Taiwan Strait: Beware Information Warfare
 Mathieu Duchâtel
Resident Senior Fellow and Director of International Studies
 Marlène Meunier
Former Project Manager - Defense Policies

Recent incidents ranging from the use of water cannons against the Philippines Navy to risky shadow surveillance in the Taiwan Strait showcase China’s aggressive posture in East Asian waters. In the Taiwan Strait, when states do not communicate clearly about their naval transits, they create opportunities for Chinese information warfare that seek to distort facts and create the impression that China is successfully building a specific navigation regime in those waters. As Europeans navies plan their future deployments to the region, Dr. Mathieu Duchâtel and Marlène Meunier plead for careful consideration of strategic communication surrounding such deployments, to preempt disinformation tactics.

The timing of the information released suggested that it was intended to balance President Macron's comments qualifying Taiwan as a part of "crises that are not ours" on his way back from a state visit to China. First reported by French media Challenges, the French Navy frigate Prairial had in fact been sailing through the Taiwan Strait at the exact time of the state visit. Immediately after the information surfaced, reports emerged in Chinese language relaying that the frigate had sailed on the Western side of the median line of the strait. A simple Google search with the keywords "法国军舰"海峡中线"以西航行" shows dozens of online publications have propagated this information. They claimed that "sailing west of the median line was a military declaration, which signaled closer Sino-French relations" and that a lack of Chinese shadow surveillance indicated "consent was obtained."

Information warfare at sea

This, however, was disinformation. More reliable sources indicate that the French transit through the Taiwan Strait occurred without prior authorization, just as it should and in full conformity with freedom of navigation as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Operationally, this transit was a source of tensions with the Chinese military, just as other French transits in the Strait and the South China Sea have been since at least 2019. The former Chief of Staff of the French Navy Admiral Vandier described this as a "change of attitude [on the part of the Chinese]. Our vessels are systematically shadowed, sometimes forced to maneuver in front of Chinese ships to avoid a collision, in violation of the rules of freedom of navigation that we defend". Here, it is pertinent to note that the Prairial transit coincided with "Joint Sword", a large-scale Chinese military exercise practicing the gain of an "extremely advantageous position at the outset" of a conflict over Taiwan. Had President Macron's remarks not been balanced by the Navy's signaling, they would have been interpreted as an endorsement of China's coercive tactics vis-à-vis Taiwan. This would have gone far beyond both the interpretation of his remarks to POLITICO as seeking to decelerate the collision course between the US and China over Taiwan, and his repetition of Chinese official talking points regarding the US being the source of current cross-strait tensions. Still, skillful disinformation originating in China successfully is more likely to convince observers that the French Navy had sought prior authorization from Beijing if there is no authoritative information pushback from French official sources. 

This raises an important political question that goes beyond French naval operations. France and China keep their disagreements and stark differences in interpretations of maritime law and East Asian security low key. Rather than through spokespersons, public statements or opinion pieces, these are addressed through military-to-military channels, behind closed doors. Innocent passage, for example, has long been an irritant in France-China naval relations - it was already an issue in the early 2010s. The Chinese Navy’s insistence on escorting French vessels within China’s territorial waters has been considered a breach of article 24 of UNCLOS, which states that the coastal state shall not "impose requirements on foreign ships which have the practical effect of denying or impairing the right of innocent passage". Yet, this issue has never been politicized by either side, and has remained a matter of covert mil-to-mil diplomacy. 

Chinese actions that undermine freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait are more dangerous than the low-level irritant surrounding innocent passage. Prudent management has its merits, and transparency is not necessarily beneficial to the management of military affairs. Nonetheless, if silence creates space for disinformation, isn’t it time to revisit communication strategies?

Naval operations are particularly vulnerable to information warfare.

Indeed, naval operations are particularly vulnerable to information warfare. The precise itinerary is never shared, and releasing footage of tense encounters is rare. On the one hand, there is no live streaming on social media of activities/navigation at sea, making fact-checking by objective observers difficult, while on the other hand, states tend to constrain themselves in what they communicate to the public. 

Room for maneuver exists. The Canadian Navy's choice to open the deck of HMCS Ottawa frigate to grant newspaper CBC’s team onboard access last week produced video coverage showcasing and analyzing the flanking of Chinese Navy destroyer Luyang in the East China Sea. The Philippines Coast Guard took three different media crews, including AFP and  Al Jazeera, on board for a resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal) in the South China Sea, which was able to film the disproportionate Chinese naval deployment to interdict the mission inside the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines. Third party media coverage adds credibility to reports of the riskiness of destabilizing maneuvers and creates awareness amongst a non-expert public while maintaining nuances as frigate Commander Samuel Patchell notes "they're as curious about our behavior as we are of theirs."

Freedom of navigation in the Taiwan Strait

China and the United States have chosen to shift to politicize foreign naval transits in the Taiwan Strait and France was central to this sudden change in approach. In March 2019, a tense encounter occurred between the French and the Chinese Navy in the Taiwan Strait, which resulted in the disinvitation of the French Vendémiaire frigate from the Qingdao naval parade organized to celebrate the platinum jubilee of the foundation of the PLA Navy. While neither side communicated about the episode, it was leaked to Reuters by US officers.

Around the time of this episode, China started to emphasize new language regarding navigation in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing maintains that the lawful passage of US and other naval powers in the Taiwan Strait violates its "sovereign rights". Beijing's denial of lawful passage of US and European navy vessels in the Taiwan Strait is not directly framed in the language of China's sovereignty claim over Taiwan, but it is a maximalist conception of such rights which is instrumentalized as part of China’s cross-strait policy. 

An expert elaboration of China's position regarding navigation in the Taiwan Strait demonstrates that the Chinese government rejects the notion that the Strait should be "used for international navigation", as defined by UNCLOS' article 37. Instead, China qualifies it as too narrow for high seas and considers waters of the Strait as constituting territorial sea, contiguous zone and EEZ. What remains unspoken is China's denial of the existence of a Taiwanese territorial sea, contiguous zone and EEZ. Still, recent patterns of Chinese military exercises targeting Taiwan have never violated Taiwan's declared 12 nautical miles zone - a tacit recognition of its de facto existence.

The Chinese government rejects the notion that the Strait should be "used for international navigation".

Harassing naval ships exercising their freedom of navigation in an EEZ inside the Strait pursues a simple goal: forcing all navies to consider that a Chinese maximalist EEZ regime applies to waters inside the Taiwan Strait. This is where the issue becomes tricky. Beyond China’s lack of clarification on its claimed EEZ in that waterway, it conflates together two sub-issues to observers: the problem surrounding restrictions China seeks to impose on foreign naval vessels within its EEZ, and its Taiwan policy. The latter seeks to deny the reality of Taiwan’s effective exercise of sovereign rights in the territories it administers and to erase the effectiveness of Taiwan’s sovereign administration of its own EEZ.

The emphasis on "prior consent" in the case of this Prairial disinformation episode echoes China's maximalist diplomatic position towards the South China Sea. In the single draft of the yet-to-be-finalised South China Sea Code of Conduct, released by China and ASEAN in 2018, China inserted language stating that "the Parties shall establish a notification mechanism on military activities, and to notify each other of major military activities if deemed necessary. The Parties shall not hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection." This proposition is not only obviously unacceptable to rival claimant states in the South China Sea - and also to Singapore - but reveals China’s vision for the creation of a law of the sea exemption regime within the first island chain. If this vision came true in East Asia, the whole international maritime security architecture would collapse.

Communicate clearly

This context explains Germany's counterproductive miscommunication surrounding its decision to avoid the Taiwan Strait during its Bayern frigate deployment. The public communication’s timing, namely prior to the mission’s start, showcases how an intention to support freedom of navigation under UNCLOS can easily be twisted into representing a sign of weakness. The Bayern's journey was characterized by Xinhua News Agency as having followed a "rather meaningful route", an "all round low profile performance", an attempt to "seek a balance between China and the US without excessively offending China". Other commentaries pointed to "a symbolic gesture to please Washington", as Germany was pressured to deploy to the region. On the naval operation itself, and the choice to avoid the Taiwan Strait, Chinese media suggest that the PLA's strong deterrence posture convinced the British Navy to avoid having the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier group sail through the Taiwan Strait during its maiden voyage in the summer 2021, which indirectly deterred the German Navy as well. 

European naval deployments in East Asian waters will continue.

Looking ahead, European naval deployments in East Asian waters will continue. Germany, the UK and the Netherlands have all made announcements regarding missions in 2024. UK aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will be deployed again in the Indo-Pacific in 2025. It is not yet known whether those deployments will include a transit through the Taiwan Strait.

A first Franco-German joint exercise has been announced in the Indo-Pacific, although it may take place in the Indian Ocean. The French Navy will continue its strategic signaling in support of UNCLOS. While China's attempt to create a prior authorization regime for foreign vessels transit in the Taiwan Strait is not yet an articulated policy, the PLA Navy’s response to those transits, and China's Code of Conduct diplomacy towards ASEAN, strongly suggest that this is China’s ultimate goal. This denial of lawful international navigation in the Taiwan Strait contributes to a strategy of erosion of Taiwan's effective exercise of sovereignty. Such actions in the Taiwan Strait could grow in intensity in the years ahead, including through the deployment of Chinese Coast Guards, which would signal that China "administers" the Strait, depending on the trajectory of cross-strait relations after Taiwan's 2024 elections. 

How should European military authorities address the risk of naval operations being exploited for communication gains? China is extremely skilled at cognitive operations and information warfare. It has shrewdly transformed naval signaling aimed at supporting freedom of navigation into false evidence that the specific navigation regime it seeks to create within the first island chain is actually taking shape. European navies currently find comfort in military professionals' ability, in allied countries but also in China, to understand the proper intentions and the actual conduct of those naval operations. Nevertheless, the wider public should also be targeted, as it already is by Beijing. Regarding the Taiwan Strait, sailing through does not mean taking a stance in the sovereignty conflict between Taiwan and Mainland China - full freedom of navigation applies in EEZ, beyond territorial waters and contiguous zone areas. Therefore, clear statements regarding freedom of navigation in the Taiwan Strait and the strategic release of information regarding the obstacles opposed to those legal rights, can serve to counteract disinformation attempts and to prevent counterproductive miscommunication. In the case of France, this would be consistent with the introduction of "influence" as a strategic function in the latest National Strategic Review (2022). 


Copyright Image: Ted ALJIBE / AFP

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