Wearing casual jeans and t-shirts, shorts and sandals, hunched over in front of controllers and screens, chatting happily in Mandarin, it’s hard to believe they can do anything shady – until one of them exclaims, “I Got it thank you!”
But these people are not playing computer games. They were flying drones over a military base on a nearby island controlled by Taiwan.
The 15-second clip is one of several that have recently surfaced on Chinese social media site Weibo, showing what appears to be a civilian-grade drone towing Taiwanese troops. The island’s military later confirmed that the mysterious threats were indeed civilian drones from mainland China.
A video captured the moment four Taiwanese soldiers realized they were being watched by a drone hovering in the sky above their outpost. Unprepared, they responded by throwing rocks at the intruding drone, which zoomed in so close that the faces of individual soldiers could be made out.
Video clips of the bizarre encounters went viral on Chinese social media and attracted hundreds of comments mocking Taiwan’s military. The clips appear to expose a staggering weakness: the ability of Chinese drones to photograph restricted military locations in Taiwan at any time.
“Gray Zone” War
Analysts say the videos spread over the internet — showing the world details about military locations and personnel — embarrass Taiwan at best and downright dangerous at worst.
That visit angered China’s ruling Communist Party — which counts Taiwan as part of its territory despite never ruling it — and responded by launching unprecedented military exercises in the island, sending warplanes across the Taiwan Strait and in hostilities. Missiles are launched over the island.
But as provocative as the footage is, it’s difficult to pinpoint who was behind the drone incursion.
Beijing has dismissed drone intrusions as “no big deal”. In response to the question of civilian-grade drones flying in the Kinmen area, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently responded: “Chinese drones fly over Chinese territory — what’s so surprising?”
Adding to the suspicion, China did not remove the videos from its highly censored internet or prevent drones from traversing its highly controlled airspace.
Beijing also doesn’t seem interested in punishing those behind the scenes. Flying drones over domestic military sites is punishable by jail time.
Isabel Hilton, an international journalist and longtime China watcher, said it was impossible to know who was flying the drones — which is why they were perfect for “undeniable harassment”.
Hilton, the founder of chinadialogue, said the machines appeared to be civilian models but “could be operated by anyone, including the military,” suggesting “a government agency in the guise of a popular movement” might be behind control.
Hilton compared it to the South China Sea incident, in which China is accused of using maritime militias to enforce its territorial claims by swarming through the disputed area with hundreds of ostensibly civilian fishing boats.
In both areas, the ideal outcome for China would be to gain an advantage “without the involvement of the military,” Hilton said.
“Whether you’re using fishing boats or civilian drones, it doesn’t look like official policy. It doesn’t look like a direct military harassment like a warplane invasion. So it’s an undeniable provocation.”
These drones aren’t just used for reconnaissance purposes — “they fly very low over military installations, or take very clear pictures of identifiable soldiers” — they can also have a psychological effect on soldiers, making them ” Find your own face” on Chinese social media shows very clearly on Chinese social media where they are vulnerable to insults and where people might demand to be killed. Taiwanese media reports said the exposure could hit the morale of soldiers on the island.
“It’s very frustrating for the Taiwanese, and it’s been kept at a level that doesn’t let Taiwan relax, doesn’t let Taiwan forget the threat,” Hilton said.
“(It) is designed to remind Taiwan that there is no escape from Chinese pressure and that eventually China will take over. That’s the purpose.”
troll with drone
But not everyone doubts the invisible hand of the Chinese military.
Paul Huang, a researcher at the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, a non-profit, non-government think tank, believes the drones are being operated by private civilians who want to provoke Taiwan “perhaps out of curiosity, maybe out of nationalism.”
“Flying so close to a Taiwanese military post and getting their attention…it’s not really how any army deploys or uses drones. Frankly, I don’t think (the People’s Liberation Army) even has any good reason to try. Try something like this,” Huang said.
Still, he and Hilton agreed that Beijing could stop the drone intrusion if it wanted to — but it didn’t because it saw an advantage in letting it continue.
“Beijing (believed the invasion) was an attempt by their own people to provoke Taiwan, to provoke Taiwan, to make fun of Taiwan’s incompetence. They saw it as a propaganda victory,” Huang said.
chinadialogue’s Hilton said Beijing was “definitely playing a double game here”.
“Beijing controls its own domestic internet, as we know it, controls its own airspace. If this happens, it’s because the government wants it to happen.”
Taiwan has faced the threat of invasion since the end of China’s civil war in 1949, when the Nationalists defeated by Chiang Kai-shek fled there to establish a new government and were driven from the mainland by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.
More than 70 years later, the Communist Party continues to view Taiwan as a divided province that must be “unified” with the mainland at all costs — and has made it clear that it is prepared to use force if necessary to achieve that goal.
If China were to invade, the Kinmen Islands—most of which have been controlled by Taiwan since the end of the war—would be a tempting first target. They’re just a few miles from the mainland Chinese city of Xiamen — hundreds of miles from Taiwan’s capital, Taipei — and they’re very vulnerable.
It is for this reason that, over the past seven decades, the beaches of Golden Gate have been strewn with countless spikes designed to make any amphibious assault as costly to invading forces as possible.
For Taiwan, the problem is that the nature of the invading force is changing.
Kinmen’s proximity to the mainland puts it within reach of commercial drones, which are cheap and abundant in China and home to the world’s second-largest machine market, with no shortage of potential operators among its 1.4 billion people.
While the spikes may be useful in beach invasions, they don’t do much for drone operators towing Taiwanese troops from the safety of Xiamen Park.
Still, Huang said Beijing may regret failing to rein in the trolls, whoever they may be.
He said Taiwan could ask DJI, the Chinese manufacturer whose logo appears in some trolling videos, to list the Kinmen Islands as a no-go zone in its database — a move that would prevent operators from flying drones there. .
Beijing’s “propaganda victory” could have other unintended — and unwanted — consequences.
Shortly after a series of drone incursions, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense announced that Taiwan would begin deploying new anti-drone systems at military bases next year. It also announced plans to increase its overall defense budget to a record $19.4 billion, up 13.9 percent from 2022.
“(China) hasn’t really seen the problem yet, and I think they should, because it could lead to an escalation they don’t want. If they want to control, they’d better control these civilian drone operators first,” Huang said.
Meanwhile, Taiwan seems to have realized that ignoring drones and their mysterious operators is not an option. In the days after it shot down its first drone, it released a series of photos to the media showing its shiny new anti-drone weapon. It seems to be sending out its own promotional message: The next time the drone calls, it’s ready.