HENGCHUN, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said Tuesday that China is conducting “cognitive warfare” by spreading misinformation in addition to its regular military incursions into nearby waters and airspace intended to intimidate the self-governing island.
Experts have warned that China has made substantial inroads within Taiwanese mass media and could plant false narratives in social media and elsewhere to erode military morale and public confidence in the event it makes good on its threat to use force to take control of the island it claims as its own territory.
“The situation around the Taiwan Strait continues to be tense, and the threat has never ceased," Tsai said in a speech during a visit to an air defense and missile battalion in the eastern country of Hualien.
“In addition to frequent intrusions by China’s aircraft and ships, China also conducted cognitive warfare, using false information to create disturbance in minds of people," the president said.
Tsai also referenced China's use of drones “to increase pressure on Taiwan’s military,” following incidents in which Taiwanese troops based on islands just off the Chinese coast warned off, and in once case shot down unmanned aerial vehicles that had been hovering over their positions.
Anti-drone defenses are included in a 12.9% increase in Taiwan's defense budget for next year. The rise will increase total spending to $13.8 billion, or roughly 2.4% of GDP.
Taiwan on Tuesday also launched military exercises on the Hengchun Peninsula in the far south of the island, simulating ground warfare against an invading enemy aided by Apache attack helicopters.
“We will continue to hold the attitude of being prepared for war," Lt. Col. Jing Feng-huang told reporters at the site of the drills. “We will not shy away from war but will not seek it out."
The exercises began with snipers firing at targets, followed by two Apaches blasting away at hillside targets. Troops also fired rounds from M109 howitzers and 105mm armored vehicle assault guns, as well as Javelin anti-tank weapons that have proven highly effective against Russian armor in the Ukraine conflict, which some have likened to a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan.
The exercises will also feature joint drills with Taiwan’s air force on Wednesday. While the exercises are routine and conducted multiple times a year, media were given an unusual degree of access, possibly in response to the current tensions.
Alongside promoting Taiwan's high-tech economy, Tsai has made strengthening the island's defenses a key feature of her second and last four-year term in office. That includes bulking up the domestic defense industry as well as procuring more weaponry from the U.S., including fighter jets and missiles, to resist a potential Chinese attack or attempted blockade.
On Friday, the Biden administration announced a $1.09 billion sale, including $355 million for Harpoon air-to-sea missiles and $85 million for Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, the State Department said.
The largest portion of the sale, however, is a $655 million logistics support package for Taiwan’s surveillance radar program, which provides air defense warnings. Early warning air defense systems have become more important as China has stepped up military drills near Taiwan.
Tensions have been running high ever since Tsai's initial 2016 election and spiked last month when U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei. China fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait and over the island into the Pacific and sent ships and planes across the midline of the strait that had long been a buffer against outright conflict.
Since Pelosi’s trip to Taipei, there have been at least two other congressional visits and several by governors of U.S. states, all of which China has condemned. The U.S. also sent a pair of guided missile cruisers through the strait in defiance of China's claims that the waterway, one of the busiest in the world, belongs to it entirely.
Responding Tuesday to the U.S. arms sale, China's Defense Ministry accused Washington of “making trouble," adding, “We demand that the U.S. side immediately withdraw the above-mentioned arms sales plan to Taiwan and immediately cease military ties between the U.S. and Taiwan."
“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army continues to train and prepare for war, and will resolutely thwart any interference by an external force and separatist ‘Taiwan independence' plots," the ministry said in a statement on its website.
Associated Press video journalist Johnson Lai contributed to this report.