China uses Taiwan as R&D lab to disrupt democracies: Analysts warn Beijing is sharpening cybertools that could sway 2020 US election

TAIPEI — A growing number of voices inside and outside Taiwan are warning that China is becoming increasingly sophisticated in its attempts to influence democracy on the island.

This has major implications for Taiwan, which will hold presidential and legislative elections in January 2020. In late November it held local elections under a cloud of accusations by the government that online disinformation produced in China had undermined voters’ confidence in President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party. Tsai stepped down as party chairwoman after the DPP lost crucial mayoral elections to the China-friendly Kuomintang.

Given its geographic, linguistic and cultural proximity, China has long used Taiwan as a testing ground for its tools of influence before rolling them out to other countries. Analysts say that recent attempts to disrupt the island’s democracy are likely a prelude to similar attacks on other democracies, especially its main rival, the U.S.

At present, China has less ability to affect American politics than Russia, but by using Taiwan as a propaganda laboratory that could soon change, said Yi-Suo Tzeng, acting director of the Cyber Warfare and Information Security division at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research.

“As they accumulate knowledge and test their algorithms, I think within two years we will probably see China having the capability to use cybertools to intervene in the U.S. election,” Tzeng told the Nikkei Asian Review. Although he described Beijing’s current approach to exercising political influence in the U.S. as “old-school,” Tzeng said Beijing is improving quickly.

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