With the sun rising, drinks on the table and music in the air, it seems that the young people in the video, which went viral on Chinese social media, chose a great day for a picnic.
Dressed casually in jeans, T-shirts, shorts, and sandals, and cheerfully speaking in Mandarin as they saunter over a console and screen, it’s hard to believe they might be as much as anything shady – until someone exclaims excitedly, “You’ve got a tank!”
But these guys are not playing a computer game. They are flying drones over a military post on a nearby island controlled by Taiwan.
The 15-second video is among a number of videos that have surfaced recently on Chinese social networking site Weibo showing what appear to be civilian-grade drones hunting the Taiwanese military. The island’s military later confirmed that these mysterious threats were indeed civilian drones from mainland China.
The videos show detailed drone footage of military installations and personnel on Taiwan’s remote Kinmen Islands. Accompanied by soundtracks ranging from ballads to dance music and plenty of emoji, the clips seem designed to highlight the unpreparedness of the Taiwanese forces.
One video captures the moment four soldiers from Taiwan realize that a drone is watching them as they fly in the sky over their guard post. When caught by surprise, they respond by throwing rocks at the intruder drone, which zooms in so close that you can see the faces of the individual soldiers.
Video footage of these bizarre confrontations went viral on Chinese social media, attracting hundreds of comments mocking the Taiwanese military. The clips seem to reveal an astonishing weakness: the ability of Chinese drones to photograph prohibited military sites in Taiwan at any time.
Analysts say the online footage – which shows military sites and personnel in minute detail for the entire world to see – is at best embarrassing for Taiwan and at worst, downright dangerous.
The drone incursions come amid heightened tensions after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, a self-governing democracy of nearly 24 million people, in August.
That trip infuriated China’s ruling Communist Party – which views Taiwan as part of its territory, although it has never ruled it – and it responded by launching unprecedented military maneuvers around the island, sending warplanes across the Taiwan Strait and launching missiles over the main island.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has claimed that the drone strikes are the latest escalation of this pressure; A new front in China’s “grey zone” war tactics to intimidate the island. On September 1, after being warned that it would exercise its right to self-defense, Taiwan shot down a drone for the first time.
But, as provocative as the footage is, it is difficult to ascertain exactly who is behind the drone strikes.
Beijing has shrugged off the drone strikes, calling them “not a big deal.” When asked about civilian-class drones flying in the Kinmen region, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson recently replied: “Chinese drones are flying over the territory of China – what is surprising?”
Raising suspicion, China has not removed videos from the heavily censored internet or banned drones from traveling through its highly controlled airspace.
Nor does Beijing seem interested in trying to punish those behind the footage; Flying drones over local military sites is punishable by imprisonment.
It’s impossible to know who was piloting the drones, said Isabel Hilton, a longtime international journalist and Chinese observer – which is exactly what makes them so well suited to “deniable harassment”.
Hilton, founder of China Dialogue, said the machines looked like civilian models, but could be “operated by anyone, including the military,” noting that “government agencies in the guise of a grassroots movement” could be behind the controls.
Hilton drew parallels to events in the South China Sea, where China has been accused of using a naval militia to enforce its territorial claims by marshaling disputed areas with hundreds of what appear to be civilian fishing boats.
Western experts say the militia – sometimes called the “little blue men” in China – is funded and run by the People’s Liberation Army. China does not acknowledge their existence and when questioned, it refers to them as “the so-called naval militia”.
In both arenas, the ideal outcome for China would be to gain an advantage “without the military appearing to be involved,” Hilton said.
Whether you use fishing boats or civilian drones, this does not appear to be official policy. It does not appear to be direct military harassment as is the case with the incursions of warplanes. It is therefore an undeniable provocation.”
Hilton said that drones not only serve reconnaissance purposes — “they fly very low over military installations or take very clear pictures of individually identifiable soldiers” — but can also have a psychological effect on soldiers, who “find their faces.” Very clearly. On Chinese social media, where they are vulnerable to insult and where people are vulnerable to being demanded to be killed.” Taiwan media reported that such exposure could harm the morale of the island’s soldiers.
“All of this is very frustrating for the Taiwanese, and it has been kept at a level designed not to allow Taiwan to relax, and not to let Taiwan forget the threat,” Hilton said.
“(It) is designed to remind Taiwan that Chinese pressure is inevitable, and that in the end, China will take over. That is the purpose.”
But not everyone doubts the invisible hand of the Chinese army.
Paul Huang, a researcher at Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, a non-governmental, not-for-profit think tank, believes that the drones are operated by ordinary civilians “perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps out of nationalism” who want to provoke Taiwan.
“Flying so close to a Taiwanese military guard post and getting their attention… This is not how any army would deploy or use their drones. I honestly don’t see any good reason why (the People’s Liberation Army) would even attempt something like that.”
However, he and Hilton agree that Beijing could halt the drone strikes if it wanted to — but it doesn’t, because it sees an advantage in letting them continue.
“Beijing (sees incursions) is an attempt by its residents to seize Taiwan, provoke Taiwan, and ridicule Taiwan’s incompetence. They treat it as a propaganda victory,” Huang said.
Hilton said of the China Dialogue that Beijing is “definitely playing a double game here”.
“Beijing, as we know, controls its own local internet, controls the local airspace. If this is happening, it is because the government wants it to happen.”
Taiwan has faced the threat of invasion since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when defeated Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek fled there to form a new government, after being expelled from the mainland by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.
More than 70 years later, the Communist Party has continued to view Taiwan as something akin to a breakaway province that must be “reunified” with the mainland at any cost — and has made clear that it is willing to use force, if necessary, to achieve this goal.
If China invades, the Kinmen Islands – most of which Taiwan has controlled since the end of the war – will be a tempting target first. Located just a few miles from the Chinese city of Xiamen – and hundreds of miles from the Taiwanese capital Taipei – it is extremely vulnerable.
That’s why, over the past seven decades, the beaches at Kinmen have been lined with countless iron spikes designed to make any amphibious assault as costly as possible for an invading force.
For Taiwan, the problem is that the nature of that invading force is changing.
The Kinmen Islands’ proximity to the mainland puts them in the wide range of commercially available drones, which are cheap and available in China, home to the world’s second largest market for machines and there is no shortage of potential operators among its 1.4 billion people.
And while iron nails might be useful in a beach invasion, they wouldn’t do much against a drone operator hunting the Taiwanese army from the safety of Xiamen Park.
However, Huang said Beijing may regret its failure to rein in the trolls, whoever they are.
He said Taiwan could ask DJI, the China-based manufacturer whose logo has appeared in a few phishing videos, to make the Kinmen Islands a restricted area in its database — a move that would prevent operators from being able to fly. Drones are there.
If DJI refuses to comply, Taiwan could exclude it from its market – dealing another blow to a company already added to a US investment blacklist due to its alleged links to the Chinese state. DJI, the world’s largest maker of drones, declined to comment to CNN for this article.
And Beijing’s “propaganda victory” may come with other unintended and unwanted consequences.
Shortly after the series of drone strikes, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense announced that the island will deploy a new anti-drone system to military bases starting next year. It also announced plans to increase its overall defense budget to a record $19.4 billion, a 13.9% increase from 2022.
“(China) doesn’t see a problem yet, which I think they should, because that could lead to an escalation they didn’t want. If they want to be in control, they better control the civilian drone operators first,” Huang said. “.
Meanwhile, Taiwan appears to have realized that ignoring the drones and their shadowy operators is not an option. Within days of shooting down the first drone, it released a series of photos to the media showing off its shiny new anti-drone weapons. It seems to be sending out a propaganda message of its own: The next time you summon the drones, they’ll be ready.