Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this year pledged to complete the “reunification” of China (with Taiwan). With the recent breach of Taiwan’s sovereign airspace by Chinese warplanes, this has sparked widespread speculation over the island’s security.
Taiwan has long been preparing for a possible conflict with China. It has long acknowledged that China is too powerful to engage in a conflict on equal terms. Accordingly, Taipei’s strategy has shifted towards deterrence in human terms and therefore the political cost of doing war will affect China. This thinking was confirmed in the recently published Quadrennial Defense Review 2021.
Taipei’s defense plan is based on a strategy of asymmetric warfare – known as the “porcupine doctrine”. This includes a set of tactics and mounting options to “avoid enemy strengths and exploit their weaknesses” that acknowledge China’s proximity to Taiwan’s coast. The idea, according to the Defense Review, is to “oppose the enemy on the opposite coast, attack him at sea, destroy him in the coastal zone and annihilate him on the coast”.
There have been numerous studies and simulations that conclude that Taiwan may have at least been a Chinese military incursion into the island. In short, Taiwanese porcupine theory has three defensive layers. The outer layer is all about intelligence and reconnaissance to ensure that the defense forces are fully prepared.
Behind this come plans for guerrilla warfare at sea with air support from sophisticated aircraft provided by the US. The innermost layer depends on the geography and demography of the island. The ultimate objective of this doctrine is to survive and assimilate an air attack so as to organize a wall of fire that would prevent the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from successfully attacking.
Taking these layers one by one, over the years Taiwan has developed and maintained a sophisticated early-warning system to give China time to launch an invasion. Its purpose is to ensure that Beijing does not prepare troops and transport ships to cross the Taiwan Strait in a sudden attack. As a result, China would have to launch any offensive based on medium-range missiles and air strikes aimed at dismantling Taiwan’s radar installations, aircraft runways and missile batteries.
If it succeeds, China will have to break through the second layer of Taiwan’s defense plan so that its troops can move safely to the island. But as it attempts to cross the strait, China’s navy will face a guerilla campaign at sea – known as the “War of the Fleas”. It will be conducted with the use of agile, missile-armed small ships, supported by helicopters and missile launchers.
But breaking this layer would not guarantee a safe landing for the PLA on Formosa Island. Geography and population form the backbone of the third defensive layer. The PLA has the capability to conduct large-scale bombing operations on the island of Taiwan, but landing and once deployed on it is another matter entirely.
Taiwan’s tiny west coast, only 400 km long, has only a handful of beaches that are suitable for landing troops, meaning that Taipei’s military strategists will have a fairly easy task of figuring out where the PLA tries to land. Will – especially with the sophisticated reconnaissance technology it has acquired from its American ally.
This would allow the Taiwanese military to set up a deadly shooting gallery to prevent the PLA’s amphibious forces from making their way into the island. Even once Chinese footwear was on Taiwanese land, the island’s mountainous topography and urbanized environment would give defenders an advantage in hindering the progress of an invasion.
Taiwan’s armed forces are easily mobilized. Although Taipei has a small professional army of about 165,000 personnel, they are well trained and equipped. And they are supported by another 3.5 million reservoirs, although there has recently been criticism that it is unprepared for an invasion.
Another factor is what UK defense academic Patrick Porter calls the “ham omelette dilemma”, because to make an omelet, a pig needs to lay down its life, whereas a chicken only needs to lay a few eggs. This means that Taiwan will see the conflict with its adversary in the strait as a struggle for existence.
Meanwhile, for China, the stakes are not as high, despite wanting to include Taiwan throughout its modern history. And no one knows what inspiration Taiwan’s defenders might get from facing this existential threat.
The Defense Review also recommended the development of indigenously built long-range strike capability, as part of an ongoing step towards self-reliance for Taiwan’s defense forces. But in the meantime, the country has steadily built up its arsenal of defensive weapons over the past two decades, most recently in a US$620 million (£455 million) deal in 2019 between Taiwan’s premiers to purchase the latest Patriot missiles from the US. agreed upon. Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump.
Taiwan’s strategy of deterring Chinese aggression by threatening to incur major political costs is also seen by the risk-averse nature of China’s leadership and its preference for long-term planning. And, undoubtedly, both sides will have learned from the American experience in Afghanistan, where the political cost of taking on a small but resolute and mobile enemy has only recently become apparent.