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Taiwan emerges as a ‘pre-eminent issue’ for CIA’s new China directorate

Taiwanese troops. (Taiwan Ministry of National Defense, Twitter/Released)
November 07, 2021

A possible Chinese takeover of Taiwan is “one of the No. 1 issues” occupying the new China Mission Center, CIA deputy director David Cohen said on Sunday at an intelligence community conference in Georgia.

In March, then-INDOPACOM commander Adm. Philip Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Chinese threat toward Taiwan could “manifest…in the next six years.” Davidson has since left the command but other senior military officials have since reiterated that estimate Defense One on background.

Cohen, who appeared virtually at the Cipher Brief conference here, declined to comment specifically on Davidson’s six-year figure but did say that Taiwan has emerged “as one of the pre-eminent issues in our kind of analysis, trying to understand precisely how [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping is thinking about Taiwan, how is he thinking about it in relation to the [20th Chinese Communist Party Congress] that’s coming up [in 2022], extended in relation to that comparative strength of Chinese military and U.S. military.”

The new center is focused on providing the policy community with “indicators” that reveal Chinese military intentions related to Taiwan and other factors that might drive Xi’s thinking on the subject, Cohen said, so “the policy community can figure out which levers they want to pull here.”

“Taiwan is going to be the test” of U.S. resolve and credibility, said Norman Roule, a former National Intelligence Manager for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Roule said the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has made it harder to credibly threaten China with retaliation should it invade Taiwan.

“Historically, people have forgotten where we talked about using nuclear weapons against China [over military action against] Taiwan. And, no, we’re not in that role right now, but our resolve on China on Taiwan shouldn’t be in question. People shouldn’t say, ‘If you didn’t stand for Afghanistan will you do staff work for other countries?'”

Mark Kelton, a former CIA deputy director, said that the Chinese play for Taiwan will likely resemble the hybrid and non-overt warfare tactics that Russia used as part of its illegal annexation of Crimea and assault on Ukraine in 2014, a kind of creeping takeover occurring, at first, beyond the parameters of regular war as opposed to a large and obvious military assault that might instigate a coordinated multi-nation response.

Kelton cast the likelihood of a Chinese move on Taiwan as a near certainty and Russia would likely help. He said Xi has “undoubtedly concluded that it will be to his advantage, when he decides to move on Taiwa,n to coordinate that activity with the Russians to complicate the United States problem of dealing with [multiple] crises.”

One of the key features of Russia’s continued aggression toward Ukraine is cyber operations against civilian and military targets.

Intelligence and military officials often refer to China as a key cyber threat actor. Rob Joyce, who leads the National Security Agency’s cybersecurity directorate, said China is becoming more aggressive and even overt in its effort to develop vulnerabilities in government and consumer devices and software. He pointed to a June cybersecurity contest in China, the Tianfu Cup, which paid cash prizes for hackers who found vulnerabilities in deployed software. Such “bug bounties” have become increasingly common sponsored events to find and fix vulnerabilities in their software. But such a contest takes on a malicious tone when undertaken by the Chinese government.

“They created an effort for their actors, vulnerability analysts, their researchers to go in and try and find holes in the latest hardware, [operating systems], Windows 10, Chrome, Safari, find hacks in iPhone, Bluetooth, Linux operating systems,” Joyce said. “all of these things that are just Western commercial market guiding capabilities. They found exploits for all of them. Every single one. That tells me…China is investing in that to develop that as a capability.”

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