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SPF China Observer


No.44 2023/12/12

Annexation of Remote Islands Through Selective Use of
Cognitive Warfare and Armed Force to Show the Chinese People Achievement Toward Taiwan Reunification

Rira Momma (Professor, Institute of World Studies, Takushoku University)


The accelerating reform of China’s military under the Xi Jinping regime has long been a well-known fact. One reason why the Xi regime is rushing the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the strengthening of its combat capability is that China has announced a timetable to complete the PLA’s modernization by 2035 in order to transform it into a “world-class military power” by mid-century. There has also been talk recently about the possibility of Chinese invasion to Taiwan by 2027. It is said that this is because Xi, whose successor has not been identified, may possibly be elected for his fourth term as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2027, and 2027 also marks the 100th anniversary of the PLA.

Succeeding in reunifying Taiwan will be more than sufficient achievement for Xi’s reelection as general secretary as intended, and it is reckoned that this will enable him to get reelected with no objections. However, considering the present China-Taiwan relations and international situation, it will be near impossible to achieve the CPC regime’s goal of “peaceful reunification” of Taiwan by 2027. So, will China launch an armed invasion of Taiwan? In my opinion, it is extremely unlikely that this will occur by 2027, the main reason being the U.S.’s strong support of Taiwan. Under the present situation, with the increasingly close relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan, I believe that intervention by the U.S. forces is highly possible if the PLA invades Taiwan. Since it will take a substantial number of casualties and time to eliminate U.S. military intervention and occupy Taiwan proper, making such a decision is a gamble that will come with the risk of the downfall of the regime or the collapse of the political system for the Xi Jinping regime and the CPC.

On the other hand, even though Xi has set the goal of building a “world-class military power” comparable to the U.S. forces for China to be ultimately on an equal footing with the U.S., it is practically impossible for Xi, who was born in 1953, to maintain his regime until he is nearly 100 years old. The only way for him to exceed the achievement of Deng Xiaoping, who extricated China from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, implemented the policy of reform and opening up, and built the foundation for China to become a global economic power, or match the accomplishment of Mao Zedong, who won the war of resistance against Japan and the civil war with the Kuomintang, and founded the People’s Republic of China, is the reunification of Taiwan. Xi is probably thinking of how to show the Chinese people that he has made significant progress toward reunification while avoiding as much risk as possible. That is the premise of this article.

The more time it takes to invade Taiwan, including the blockade of the main island, the more likely it is for the U.S. forces to intervene. To achieve the reunification of Taiwan as safely as possible, China will first think of making the Taiwan government capitulate before the U.S. government can decide to mobilize its military. A “decapitation operation” will be the conceivable strategy. However, this will be difficult to accomplish.[1] This is evident from the situation in the Russia-Ukraine war.[2]

The next conceivable strategy will be to seize territory under Taiwan’s effective control. Remote islands far from the main island of Taiwan will be the perfect target for such operations. A military invasion will probably be conducted to seize islands uninhabited by ordinary citizens. Another possible strategy that will preclude U.S. military intervention is a cognitive warfare to make Taiwanese living on remote islands willingly tender their allegiance to China peacefully.

Successful execution of the above will allow Xi Jinping to build up the image of a great leader who has “recovered lost territory, which even Deng Xiaoping was unable to accomplish” in subsequent internal propaganda.

This article aims to offer observations on the two strategies of seizing remote islands and cognitive warfare.

Use of Force on Islands Not Inhabited by Civilians

Remote islands of Taiwan not inhabited by civilians will be the easiest targets for the PLA if it embarks on a military invasion. There are several islands that could be possible targets.

Cost and Effect of Invasion of Remote Islands

Taiping Island (Itu Aba Island) is the largest in the Spratly Islands with a land area of 0.51 km2. It is guarded by poorly armed personnel of the Coast Guard Administration of the Ocean Affairs Council. No civilians live on the island. However, China has already constructed seven artificial islands around this area that are being used as military bases. The Taiwanese forces on Taiping Island pose no threat to these artificial islands, and the island is not an island that China would desperately want to grab.

Pengchia Islet is 56 kilometers from Keelung, a port city in northern Taiwan. No civilians live on Pengchia, with a land area of 1.14 km2, where only Coast Guard personnel are stationed. If China is able to occupy Pengchia Islet and deploy anti-ship or anti-aircraft missiles there, it will be a powerful tool for applying pressure on Taiwan proper and maintaining maritime and air superiority in the East China Sea. However, the islet is close to heavily armed northern Taiwan, and fierce resistance from the Republic of China armed forces (hereinafter, Taiwan armed forces) is expected, so this will involve great risks.

On the other hand, Tungsha Island (Pratas Island) is currently a likely target of the PLA’s invasion. This is an island in the Tungsha Islands in the northern part of the South China Sea located in a strategic position near the western tip of the Bashi Channel and the southern tip of the Taiwan Strait. Tungsha is a small island measuring 1.74 km2 that is 200 kilometers from the Chinese mainland, 330 kilometers from Hongkong, but 445 kilometers from Kaohsiung City in the south of the main island of Taiwan. It became a part of Kaohsiung in 1949 and has since been under Taiwan’s effective control. Following the example of the Kinmen (Quemoy) Islands, Retired General of the Marine Corps Chi Lin-liang, who was assigned as commander (colonel) of Tungsha Island in 1983, fortified the island’s defense systems over two years, moving them underground and building operational bases.[3] Still, bases built on an island formed as part of an atoll whose highest point is 7 meters above sea level have only limited defense capability. It is conceivable that the PLA will summon Taiwan’s defense forces (consisting only of some 200 members of the Tungsha and Nansha Branches of the Ocean Affairs Council’s Coast Guard Administration, one reinforced Marine Corps company, weather observation and air control personnel of the Air Force, and maintenance crew) to surrender at short notice or to withdraw immediately, after which the bases will be neutralized with ballistic or cruise missiles with conventional warheads. Since Tungsha Island is closer to China than Taiwan, China will be able to achieve maritime and air superiority. It is thought that it will probably take merely 2-3 days from the start of invasion to the occupation of the island. The PLA is already carrying out frequent flights to cut off the southwest portion of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). It will be easy for it to intercept naval and air reinforcements from the main island of Taiwan. The situation will be easily concluded, and as long as the Taiwan armed forces does not make its move, neither will the U.S. forces.

If the PLA comes to occupy Tungsha Island, China will probably embark on large-scale reclamation projects as in the case of the Spratly Islands. From its experience in the Spratlys and also since Tungsha is closer to China, it will be much easier to transport equipment and good quality earth and sand than in the Spratlys, enabling it to build strong military bases in a short period. With this, China will acquire the capability to control the northern part of the South China Sea, the Bashi Channel, and the Taiwan Strait in peacetime. It is possible that Tungsha can also be used as a Maritime Militia base.

Why Tungsha Island?

Why is there a possibility that China may invade Tungsha Island despite the certainty of strong criticism from the international community? Following are the reasons.

First, in the case of Tungsha, it is very unlikely that the U.S. forces will come to Taiwan’s rescue. The U.S. military’s defense of Taiwan does not cover all the territory currently under its effective control. The scope of defense under the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of China signed in 1954 and annulled in 1980 consisted only of the main island of Taiwan and the Pescadores (Penghu Islands), so basically, this idea of the scope of defense is assumed to be still valid. There is no reason for the U.S. to send its troops to an island not necessarily critical for Taiwan’s survival. The absence of U.S. military intervention will radically boost the probability of a successful PLA invasion.

Second, Xi Jinping wants achievements that surpass Deng Xiaoping’s to make him equal to Mao Zedong. So far, Xi has been successful to a certain extent in his anti-corruption campaign, which has won him the people’s support. However, this is significantly inferior to the achievements of Mao, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, and Deng, who initiated and promoted the policy of reform and opening up. By capturing Tungsha Island, which will alter the territories under China’s and Taiwan’s effective control that have remained unchanged since the mid-1950s, it will be possible to drum up publicity internally that, “Chairman Xi took a great step as concrete action to blaze a trail toward the reunification of Taiwan. Even Comrade Deng Xiaoping was not able to seize territory under Taiwan’s effective control. This great achievement is comparable to that of Chairman Mao Zedong.” Since the media in China is the CPC’s mouthpiece, this will be easy to implement. That criticism can be ignored and broadcasting, Internet contents, and SNS unfavorable to the regime can be shut down in China was evident even in the case of the sudden demise of former Premier Li Keqiang in October 2023.[4]

Third, China is a country that prioritizes domestic politics. It attaches greater importance to domestic opinions than views voiced by the international community. Therefore, even if the invasion of Tungsha Island, as discussed above, is criticized by the international community, it will not be a big problem for the Xi Jinping regime if this is regarded positively at home. This is the same logic that makes the “wolf warrior diplomacy” tenable.

Inhabited Islands’ Capitulation Without Resistance Through Cognitive Warfare

There are certain islands under Taiwan’s effective control that are relatively large and inhabited by a considerable number of civilians, such as Penghu (part of the Pescadores), Kinmen, and the Beigan and Nangan Islands in the Matsu Islands.

Table: Major Inhabited Islands of Taiwan

County Area Population Military
(Pescadore Islands)
126.9 km2 107,701 First Theater of Operation In the Taiwan Strait
(Kinmen Islands)
150.46 km2 143,964 Kinmen Defense Command About 10 km from Xiamen outer port
(Matsu Islands)
29.6 km2 14,049 Matsu Defense Command About 20 km from Fuzhou City coast

Note: Area and population data are based on Ministry of the Interior statistics (as of September 2023). Population consists only of civilians.
(Source) Created by the author.

Penghu Island is located in the middle of the southern opening of the Taiwan Strait, slightly closer to the Taiwan side. Capturing this island and gaining use of its naval and air bases will make domination of the Taiwan Strait significantly easier. Furthermore, the location of Penghu makes it a perfect site for launching attacks on Taiwan proper from north to south. However, due to the considerable civilian population, and the fact that invasion and occupation will result in numerous casualties, the PLA may face fierce criticism. Penghu is also close to the main island of Taiwan, so it will be somewhat troublesome for the PLA if reinforcement is sent quickly from the main island.

Kinmen Island and the islands of Beigan and Nangan in the Matsu Islands are very close to the China coast, so it will be very advantageous for the PLA to deploy its forces. However, Taiwan probably has defense forces there numbering several thousand, many civilians live on these islands, a robust military command has been established, and there should be a certain stockpile of weapons, ammunitions, fuel, food, and other supplies. Therefore, the PLA will need to be prepared for a certain extent of damages. Furthermore, even if Kinmen is taken after strenuous efforts, the military significance of occupying this island will be less than seizing Penghu Island if the plan is to eventually capture Taiwan proper. International criticism of China may be more severe against the invasion of a large island with a substantial Taiwanese military presence than in the case of occupying Tungsha Island, especially if civilian casualties are involved in the invasion and occupation process. There is also risk that the U.S. forces may intervene in these battles.

It is possible that China may wage a cognitive warfare on the Kinmen and Matsu Islands inhabited by civilians in order to set the course for Taiwan reunification while avoiding U.S. military intervention and mitigating international criticism as much as possible.

Kinmen, Matsu Susceptible to Cognitive Warfare

These islands have all the requirements that make it easy for China to wage a cognitive warfare. First, the islanders’ culture and disposition are close to that on the Chinese mainland. Kinmen and Matsu did not experience Japan’s colonial rule, and historically, political rule has been sustained from the Qing Dynasty to the Republic of China. In some cases, the residents have relatives living in China. Second, they are closer to the Chinese mainland than to the main island of Taiwan, so it will be easy to foster a sense of identity as one livelihood zone. Kinmen already receives water supply from China through underwater pipelines. This situation is similar to the relationship between Hongkong and China or between the Crimean Peninsula and Russia.[5]

Guiding the islanders’ thinking in a direction favorable to China will be part of this cognitive warfare. In February 2023, two submarine cables connecting the main island of Taiwan and the Matsu Islands were cut off within a week. As a result, Internet connection was disrupted on the Matsu Islands for over one month. While it is premature to conclude that what happened was the result of an intentional act on the Chinese side, it is conceivable that the PLA Strategic Support Force responsible for cyber warfare cut the submarine optic cables to assess possibilities for information manipulation and psychological operation by monitoring which websites the Matsu islanders tried to access to obtain information, what messages they sent out at that time, status of access to stock websites and financial institution sites, how unsettled the islanders became, and so forth.[6]

In October 2023, a Kuomintang member of the Legislative Yuan elected from Lienchiang County (former magistrate of Lienchiang) called for promoting the so-called “Four New Links,” i.e., building a bridge connecting Matsu and China as well as receiving supply of water, gas, and electricity from China, making a controversial remark in the legislature that, “It is not too much to call China motherland.”[7]

For now, concrete plans have not been spelled out for the “New Four Links,” but it is possible that progress may be made depending on the outcome of the presidential election in January 2024.


While Russia can hardly claim that its invasion of Ukraine starting in February 2022 has been successful, it is safe to say that its annexation and rule of the Crimean Peninsula before the war had been effective. Learning lessons from the military history of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its subsequent ruling methods, it is possible that China may wage a cognitive warfare on the government, legislature, and residents of Kinmen and Lienchiang Counties.

This cognitive warfare is meant to manipulate the Taiwan people’s thinking, and it is the most effective way to achieve “winning without fighting.” If the local government, legislature, and residents of Kinmen and Matsu agree to reunification without fighting with China, it will be difficult for Japan and the U.S. to prevent this regardless of how strong resistance from Taiwan’s central government may be. The success of this process will serve as a stepping stone for waging a cognitive warfare on Taiwan proper.

On the other hand, there is absolutely no guarantee that China will not actually use military force. While the economic sanctions imposed on Russia for invading Ukraine were thought to be “powerful,” Russia succeeded in devising loopholes with countries willing to cooperate, thus reducing the effectiveness of the sanctions substantially. It is reckoned that the invasion of uninhabited remote islands may lead only to low level sanctions, so the Xi Jinping regime may decide that such invasion is low risk. Therefore, it is necessary for Taiwan to fully build its military capability and augment its emergency stockpile. Exchange of views between Taiwan and Japan and the U.S. in peacetime and cooperation with the international community are also important. Taiwan’s homegrown submarine Hai Kun serves as a good example to demonstrate to China cooperation from Japan, the U.S., South Korea, and Europe.[8]

It is necessary for Taiwan, Japan, the U.S., Australia, and the European countries to monitor even more closely and analyze China’s efforts toward a PLA armed invasion of remote islands and the waging of a cognitive warfare on Taiwan by the PLA and other Chinese organizations.

Note: This article is a substantially revised and updated version of “China’s Operations to Capture Remote Islands Increasingly Becoming a Possibility,” CISTEC Journal, No. 194, July 2021. [in Japanese]

1 See Rira Momma, “Issues and Solutions in a Taiwan Strait Contingency,” Protection and Rescue of Overseas Japanese in a Contingency on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait, Toshindo, 2021. [in Japanese]

2 See Yu Koizumi, “Russia’s War Against Ukraine: Conventional War Under Nuclear Deterrence,” Deciphering Russia’s Mystifying and Ruthless Invasion of Ukraine – A General Overview Nippon Institute for Research Advancement, Dec. 20, 2022. [in Japanese]

3 “Secret Story of National Defense: Building ‘3D Bases’ in Tungsha, Lt. Gen. Chi Lin-liang Says Everything, Except Sand, was Transported by Ship,” Liberty Times Net, July 5, 2023. [in Chinese]

4 “NHK News Reporting Former Premier Li Keqiang’s Death Disrupted, TV Screen Shows ‘Signal Anomaly’ – Censored by the Authorities?” Yomiuri Shimbun Online, Oct. 27, 2023. [in Japanese]

5 Rira Momma, “Taiwan and Japan Need to Deal With China’s Armed Invasion and Cognitive Warfare,” The News Lens, March 3, 2023. [in Japanese]

6 Rira Momma, “Will Space and Ocean Floor be the Main Battlefield in ‘Taiwan Contingency’? – Communication Infrastructure is Top Priority Military Sphere,” The News Lens, Sept. 4, 2023. [in Japanese]

7 ”Chen Hsueh-sheng Urges Government to Discuss ‘Four New Links’: Chen Chien-jen Says There’s No Need or Urgency,” Liberty Times Net, Oct. 7, 2023. [in Chinese]

8 Masumi Kawasaki, “Can the ‘Jinx of Eight-Year Life Span of the Administration’ be Broken?” Seiron, December 2023, p. 72. [in Japanese]

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