China-Taiwan Weekly Update, March 28, 2024

China-Taiwan Weekly Update, March 28, 2024

Authors: Nils Peterson, Matthew Sperzel, and Daniel Shats of the Institute for the Study of War

Editors: Dan Blumenthal and Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute

Data Cutoff: March 26 at 5 pm ET

The China–Taiwan Weekly Update is a joint product from the Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute. The update supports the ISW–AEI Coalition Defense of Taiwan project, which assesses Chinese campaigns against Taiwan, examines alternative strategies for the United States and its allies to deter the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) aggression, and—if necessary—defeat the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The update focuses on the Chinese Communist Party’s paths to controlling Taiwan and cross–Taiwan Strait developments.

Key Takeaways

  • Taiwanese media reported that former ROC President Ma Ying-jeou will meet CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping during a “private” visit to the PRC in April. The CCP may use the meeting to advance its preferred vision of cross-strait relations and legitimize the KMT as a negotiating partner on behalf of Taiwan.
  • The Chinese Coast Guard has normalized patrols around Kinmen since February 14. Normalizing operations around Taiwan’s waters sets conditions for the PRC to apply further pressure on Taiwan in the future.
  • ROC President Tsai Ing-wen declined to visit Taiwan-controlled Itu Aba in the South China Sea before her term ends. The Tsai administration has cited regional and personal security concerns in explaining Tsai’s decision to not visit Itu Aba.
  • The United States, United Kingdom, and New Zealand accused PRC-state-sponsored cyber threat actors of conducting malicious cyber operations against democratic institutions.
  • The Chinese Coast Guard is driving heightened tensions in the South China Sea while the PRC blames the Philippines and the United States for the crises.


Cross-Strait Relations

Taiwanese media reported that former ROC President Ma Ying-jeou will meet CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping during a planned “private” visit to the PRC in April. CEO of the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation and former Ma aide Hsiao Hsu-tsen announced on March 25 that Ma will lead a delegation of students to the PRC on April 1-11 to visit sites in Guangdong, Shaanxi, and Beijing. When asked if Ma would meet with Xi, Hsiao did not confirm the meeting but hinted that Ma was hopeful to meet “an old friend” if PRC arrangements permit it.[1] PRC Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Spokesperson Chen Binhua said that the PRC welcomed Ma to participate in cultural activities but did not mention any meetings with Xi or other CCP officials.[2] Taiwan’s Storm Media reported on March 26 that former ROC President Ma Ying-jeou will meet with CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping on April 8 during his visit, however.[3]

Ma last met Xi in Singapore in 2015, when Ma was ROC president. This was the first meeting between the leaders of the PRC and Taiwan. In March 2023, Ma became the first former Taiwanese president to visit the PRC, in a visit that overlapped with sitting president Tsai Ing-wen’s trip to the United States. Ma did not meet Xi on that visit, however.

Ma is a member of the Kuomintang (KMT) political party and is known for his PRC-friendly views and controversial statements on Taiwan-PRC and Taiwan-US relations, especially after leaving office. Ma said in a January interview that Deutsche Welle posted several days before the ROC’s 2024 presidential election that Taiwan must trust Xi Jinping when it comes to cross-strait relations.[4] The comment drew condemnation from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and prompted KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih to politically distance himself from Ma, saying his views were “somewhat different.”[5] In a speech at New York University in October 2023, Ma said that the United States and other Taiwan-friendly Western countries should encourage Taiwanese leaders to engage in dialogue with the PRC rather than encouraging them “to move toward Taiwanese independence or even transforming Taiwan into a second Ukraine.”[6] Ma’s allegation that the United States is pushing Taiwan toward independence and risking war with the PRC aligns with CCP rhetoric on the US-Taiwan relationship.

The CCP may use a Xi-Ma meeting to advance its preferred vision of cross-strait relations and legitimize the KMT as a negotiating partner on behalf of Taiwan in contrast to the DPP. TAO spokesperson Chen Binhua said on March 14 that Taiwan would be able to alleviate tensions and “sleep soundly” if it could relive the “peaceful development period across the Taiwan Strait from 2008-2016.” Chen’s statement refers to the years of Ma’s presidency.[7] A meeting between Xi and Ma would also be consistent with the CCP’s effort to legitimize the KMT as a negotiating partner while not directly interacting with Taiwan's DPP-led government. The PRC cut off official exchanges with Taiwan after Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP became president of Taiwan in 2016. CCP officials have repeatedly met with KMT officials during this time. The CCP insists that all cross-strait negotiations must be on the mutual basis of the “1992 consensus,” which Ma and the KMT recognize but Tsai and the DPP do not. The 1992 Consensus is an alleged verbal agreement between semi-official representatives of the PRC and the then KMT-ruled ROC following negotiations in 1992. It states that both sides agree there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The CCP interprets this “one China” to be the People’s Republic of China, however, while the KMT interprets it to be the Republic of China. Although Ma no longer holds an official position in the KMT, KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia said the KMT would be glad if Ma meets Xi and hopes his trip can help stabilize cross-strait relations.[8]

The Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) has normalized patrols around Kinmen since February 14. A PRC fishing boat in Taiwan’s prohibited waters near Kinmen capsized while fleeing from a legal Taiwanese Coast Guard pursuit on February 14. The capsizing resulted in the deaths of two of the four fishermen onboard. The CCG pledged on February 18 to strengthen law enforcement activities around Kinmen. The CCG has maintained a consistent presence around Kinmen and repeatedly violated Taiwan’s maritime boundaries since then. The CCG boarded a Taiwanese sightseeing ship on February 19, marking the first time a CCG ship conducted inspections in Taiwanese waters.[9] Five CCG marine surveillance ships entered Taiwan’s contiguous zone around Kinmen on February 26, including one that crossed into territorial waters.[10] The total number of CCG ships around Kinmen reached 11 on February 27, including two that entered Taiwan’s contiguous zone. Four CCG ships operated in Taiwan’s territorial waters around Kinmen Island for two consecutive days for the first time on March 15 and 16.[11] One of the ships was a converted naval corvette that conducted the passage with its gun covers removed.[12] The CCG’s removal of its gun covers during its passage through Taiwan’s waters illustrates its offensive posturing, indicating its actions are intended to intimidate the Taiwanese Coast Guard rather than uphold a safe maritime environment. CCG ships have previously used this tactic to intimidate rival law enforcement in contested waters, including the Philippines Coast Guard around Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.[13]

Normalizing operations around Taiwan’s waters sets conditions for the PRC to apply further pressure on Taiwan in the future. It provides the precedent for the PRC to justify future CCG around other offshore ROC islands, such as Matsu. The patrols near the offshore islands create domestic political pressure on the ROC government to negotiate with the PRC from a position of weakness to mitigate the frequency of patrols and defend ROC sovereignty.

The CCP has normalized the patrols around Kinmen while keeping the Kinmen incident and subsequent CCG incursions from escalating into a crisis. The use of the CCG rather than the PLA Navy is one way the CCP employs force to change the status quo without eliciting a foreign response because the former is not a military vessel. This activity is part of a trend of coercive actions that change the status quo in the PRC’s favor and do not reach the threshold of a ROC or third-party military response. The lower levels of PLA Air Force violations of Taiwan’s ADIZ in 2024 compared to 2023 demonstrate that the party has avoided pursuing opportunities to escalate tensions to the point of inciting a military response. Every month from January to November 2023 averaged over 100 ADIZ violations. No month in 2024 has yet reached 100 ADIZ violations.[14] This aligns with two unspecified Taiwanese security officials’ comments to Bloomberg on March 18 that the PLA activity around Taiwan has not increased in intensity since the January presidential election.[15]


The Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) delayed the release of a Taiwanese fisherman that it rescued near Kinmen for over a week on suspicion that he is a ROC soldier. The CCG rescued two Taiwanese fishermen early in the morning of March 18 after their boat ran out of fuel and drifted out of Taiwanese waters around Kinmen. It held the fishermen in Quanzhou, a PRC coastal city a short distance from Kinmen. The PRC planned to hand the fishermen over to Taiwanese authorities on March 19 but delayed the handover after claiming one of the fishermen tried to hide that he was an active member of the Taiwan military.[16] Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense confirmed on March 23 that the fisherman is part of the Kinmen garrison brigade.[17] The CCG finally released one of the fishermen and his boat on March 23 but continues to hold the soldier in custody.[18] The ROC Coast Guard, Kinmen County government, and KMT legislator Jessica Chen of Kinmen maintained communication with PRC authorities to secure the release of the fishermen and allow their families to visit them. Chen denied that the PRC was engaging in “hostage diplomacy.”[19]



ROC President Tsai Ing-wen declined to visit Taiwan-controlled Itu Aba in the South China Sea before her term ends. Itu Aba is the largest island in the Spratly archipelago and the only one that Taiwan controls. The PRC, the Philippines, and Vietnam also claim Itu Aba as their territory. The KMT has called on Tsai to visit Itu Aba, known in Chinese as Taiping Island, in the South China Sea to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty there before the end of her presidency on May 20.[20] Tsai’s predecessors Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT and Chen Shui-bian of the DPP both visited the island before leaving office.[21] KMT politicians criticized Tsai for not attending the inauguration ceremony for a newly renovated pier on Taiping Island on March 26.[22]

The Tsai administration has cited regional and personal security concerns in explaining Tsai’s decision to not visit Itu Aba. Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and National Security Bureau (NSB) director Tsai Ming-yen advised President Tsai not to travel to Itu Aba due to high regional tensions and militarization of the South China Sea. Wu said the PRC has built “enormous” military bases on three islands surrounding Itu Aba – Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef – and has 20 warships patrolling the South China Sea daily. He also noted escalating tensions in the region between the Philippines and the PRC and said Taiwan should consider “peaceful means” to avoid aggravating the situation.[23] NSB Director Tsai said there were security risks to President Tsai’s flight if she visits the island. He said PRC forces have harassed aircraft and ships replenishing Taiwan’s base on Itu Aba.[24]

The KMT criticized Tsai for not visiting Itu Aba and organized a legislative delegation to visit the island on May 16 to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty. Ma Wen-chun, who is the co-chair of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee in the Legislative Yuan, said that her delegation would go to the island regardless of whether President Tsai went.[25] Ten KMT legislators including Ma, three TPP legislators, and one DPP legislator also have signed up for the trip. These include LY Deputy Speaker Johnny Chiang Chi-chen of the KMT, who is a member of the committee. LY Speaker Han Kuo-yu of the KMT, who is also on the committee, said he would not go due to political considerations, however.[26]

KMT Chairman Eric Chu dismissed the Tsai administration’s concerns about Tsai visiting Itu Aba as an “excuse,” noting that Taiwan has its own coast guard and military personnel on the island to protect the president’s flight and that past presidents visited despite similar concerns.[27] Former president Ma urged Tsai to visit the island to “safeguard national interests.”[28] Some KMT legislators alleged that the true reason for Tsai Ing-wen’s unwillingness to visit Itu Aba is related to her unwillingness to upset the United States.[29] This framing from the KMT implicitly criticizes US influence over Taiwan and frames Tsai as subordinate to US interests at the expense of Taiwanese sovereignty. The American Institute for Taiwan, the de-facto US embassy in Taiwan, said it was “disappointed” when Ma Ying-jeou announced plans to visit the island in 2016 because the trip could exacerbate tensions.[30]


The United States, United Kingdom, and New Zealand accused PRC-state-sponsored cyber threat actors of conducting malicious cyber operations against democratic institutions. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Justice (DOJ) charged seven PRC nationals with cybercrimes on March 25. The cybercrimes were espionage and transnational repression in a far-reaching campaign that the PRC’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) directed.[31] The indictment accused the MSS-backed group, referred to as Advanced Persistent Threat 31 (APT 31), of malicious cyber activities focused on infiltrating government networks globally to collect sensitive data from public officials who criticized the PRC. The indictment alleges that APT31 embedded malware in over 10,000 emails that collected data on target recipients, including political candidates and campaign personnel. APT31 used the data to enable direct hacking operations against targets, including infiltrating home routers. The US indictment corresponds to earlier reports from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) that revealed PRC cyber actor attempts to interfere with federal election infrastructure networks in 2020 and 2022.[32]

APT31’s hacking campaign has been going on for the past 14 years.[33] APT31 and its members have perpetrated numerous other malicious cyber campaigns in recent years, including spear-phishing operations targeting the United States Naval Academy, the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, and Hong Kong legislators and democracy advocates.[34]

The US charges coincide with similar accusations against the PRC from the United Kingdom and New Zealand. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) assessed with high confidence on March 25 that APT31 conducted extensive cyber espionage on UK parliamentarians in 2021.[35] NCSC also officially attributed the compromise of Electoral Commission networks in 2021 to the PRC, which exfiltrated the data of over 40 million people from electoral registers.[36] The head of New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) Judith Collins declared her country’s support for the UK’s condemnation of the PRC’s cyber operations. Collins announced on March 26 that GCSB also traced malicious cyber activity targeting parliamentary entities to PRC state-sponsored cyber group APT40.[37]

The US and UK jointly imposed sanctions on March 25 against two defendants and an entity they allege is an MSS front company that enables cyber operations.[38] The UK Foreign Office summoned the PRC chargé d’affaires on March 26 to express “unequivocal condemnation” of the PRC’s hacking activities.[39] UK political figures such as former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith and former immigration minister Robert Jenrick are urging the government to take harsh punitive action against the PRC.[40]

The latest revelations about the PRC’s hacking activities highlight the PRC’s large-scale data theft and espionage against its adversaries. The MSS conducted a large-scale hacking operation from 2014 to 2015 against the Office of Personnel Management, the United States government’s chief human resources agency that manages federal employees’ records for security clearances. The MSS exfiltrated the background investigation data of over 22 million federal employees and contractors.[41] A PRC state-backed cyber actor related to APT40, known in open source as Hafnium, exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft email servers in 2021 to extract sensitive data from organizations around the globe, compromising 30,000 companies and entities in the US alone.[42] NCSC called the espionage-focused incident the largest cyber intrusion against the UK and its allies to date.[43] The alleged APT31 operation also targeted companies of “national economic importance,” including defense contractors who supply the US military and a “leading provider” of 5G network equipment.[44]

The PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Lin Jian denied the allegations on March 26 and pointed to recent PRC reports of US government cyber operations against the PRC. Lin accused the United States of recruiting Five Eyes allies to spread disinformation and villainize the PRC.[45] The PRC’s counter accusations are consistent with its past reactions to reverse the narrative, portraying itself as a responsible actor in cyberspace and a victim of US transgressions.

Northeast Asia

North Korea

Top CCP officials met with a North Korean delegation led by Minister of the International Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Kim Sung-nam in Beijing to discuss bilateral relations.[46] Kim met separately with Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Chairman Wang Huning and Director of the CCP International Liaison Department Liu Jianchao on March 21.[47] Wang Huning stressed unwavering ties despite changes in the international situation, according to Pyeongyang’s official media.[48] Kim met with Secretary of the CCP Secretariat Cai Qi on March 22.[49] PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Kim met on March 23, during which Wang expressed the PRC’s will to maintain and develop its friendship with North Korea.[50] Kim declared North Korea’s support for the PRC in all Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang-related issues. This is Kim’s first overseas trip since assuming his position as the head of International Department of the WPK.[51]

PRC readouts of the meetings repeated expressions of goodwill between the two countries and pledges to strengthen bilateral cooperation. The PRC did not comment on North Korea’s aggressive behavior in the region, which is consistent with PRC actions since mid-December. The CCP has not publicly criticized North Korea for launching ballistic missiles, testing alleged underwater nuclear drones, or labeling South Korea as its “primary foe.” The CCP has instead called for dialogue to portray the party as a responsible regional stakeholder while avoiding steps to stop North Korea's provocations. The PRC MFA has messaged since mid-December that “trying to solve the problem [on the Korean Peninsula] through military deterrence and pressure will not work…[and] dialogue and consultation” are how to resolve the issue.[52] The CCP has also emphasized the PRC’s close relations with North Korea and plans to deepen “mutually beneficial cooperation” this year, which will be the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.[53]

Southeast Asia


The Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) is driving heightened tensions in the South China Sea while the PRC blames the Philippines and the United States for the crises. Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Spokesperson Jay Tarriela stated that Filipino marine scientists conducted research at Sandy Cay on March 21, two nautical miles from the Philippine-controlled Thitu Island, while the CCG and maritime militia harassed the researchers, including by helicopter.[54] Over 15 CCG vessels remained in the area between Sandy Cay and Thitu Island on March 22.[55] The CCG blamed the Philippines for “infringing on China’s territorial sovereignty,” since the PRC claims both Sandy Cay and Thitu Island as its own.[56]

The CCG also fired water cannons at a Philippine supply ship heading to the Second Thomas Shoal on March 23. The water cannons rendered the ship immobile and caused unspecified injuries to the Filipino crew. Two PCG ships towed the supply ship away while a motorboat successfully transported new soldiers and supplies to the Second Thomas Shoal.[57] The Second Thomas Shoal is a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea which the Philippines and the PRC both claim. The Philippines controls the shoal with troops based on the grounded warship BRP Sierra Madre. Filipino Undersecretary for Bilaterial Relations and ASEAN Affairs Theresa Lazaro protested the CCG and maritime militia actions to PRC Vice Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong via phone call on March 25.[58]


The CCG actions since March 21 are part of a coercive trend targeting the Philippines. A CCG vessel attempted to block and collided with a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel escorting a supply mission to Second Thomas Shoal on March 5, causing minor damage to the Philippine ship.[59] Two CCG ships also fired water cannons at a separate Philippine supply ship, injuring four Philippine personnel, and later collided with it.[60]

The CCG actions In the South China Sea support PRC claims of sovereignty over nearly the entirety of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, through the “nine dash line” maritime boundary. The PRC rejects a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that declared the nine dash line claims are unlawful.[61] The PRC has constructed, seized, and attempted to seize many islands in the South China Sea so it can build a military presence throughout the critical waterway. The PRC has built military infrastructure on islands that it has seized control of or artificially constructed to expand its power projection capability, strengthen domain awareness, and increase its control over critical Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) through the South China Sea. Developing the capability to monitor or restrict ships through the South China Sea would support a future PRC effort to implement a blockade of Taiwan or block US and allied reinforcements from reaching the Taiwan Strait in wartime.

The PRC blames the Philippines and the United States for the regional tension. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. gave an interview to Bloomberg on March 19 where he stated the Philippines is trying to keep relations with the PRC “on an even keel” but “since the threat [from the PRC] has grown, we must do more to defend our territory.”[62] The PRC MFA responded on March 20 that the Philippines is driving the crisis by alleged “maritime infringements” on South China Sea islands the PRC claims as its own.[63]

The PRC MFA is framing the planned United States-Japan-Philippines summit on April 11 as provocative toward the PRC.[64] PRC MFA Spokesman Wang Wenbin claimed on March 14 that the United States “traveled thousands of miles to China’s doorstep to … provoke trouble” as part of its “hegemonic activity.”[65] He then framed the revisionist PRC territorial aggression in the South China Sea as a protection of his country’s “territorial sovereignty.”[66] Wang’s rhetoric is consistent with previous PRC messaging about the US role in the region. The PRC MOD framed the United States as “creating bloc confrontations that escalate regional tension” after the June 2023 US-Japan-Philippines trilateral summit.[67] Wang’s comments exemplify the view of CCP leadership that the United States-led security architecture in East Asia is inherently aggressive rather than defensive in nature.


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