how the “porcupine doctrine” could help deter armed conflict with China

Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged earlier this year to complete the China’s “reunification” (with Taiwan). Associated to recent violations of Taiwan’s sovereign airspace by Chinese warplanes, this prompted widespread speculation on the safety of the island.

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Taiwan has long been preparing for a possible conflict with China. He has long recognized that China is too powerful to engage in conflict on an equal footing. As a result, Taipei’s strategy shifted towards deterrence in terms of the human and therefore political costs that war would inflict on China. This thinking was confirmed in the recently released publication Quadrennial Defense Review 2021.

Taipei’s defense plan is based on an asymmetric warfare strategy – the so-called “porcupine doctrine”. It involves tactics to “To escape the forces of the enemy and exploit his weaknesses” and a growing set of options that recognize China’s proximity to the Taiwanese coast. The idea, according to the defense review, is “to resist the enemy on the opposite shore, to attack it at sea, to destroy it in the coastal zone and to annihilate it on the bridgehead”.

There have been several studies and simulations that concluded that Taiwan could at least contain a Chinese military incursion into the island. In a nutshell, Taiwan’s porcupine doctrine has three layers of defense. The outer layer is about intelligence and reconnaissance to ensure the defense forces are fully prepared.

Behind this lurk guerrilla plans at sea with sophisticated aircraft air support provided by the United States. The innermost layer is based on the geography and demography of the island. The ultimate goal of this doctrine is to survive and assimilate an air offensive well enough to organize a wall of fire that will prevent the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from successfully invading.

Guerilla warfare at sea: Taiwanese special forces board a “hostile” ship during an exercise in January 2021.
EPA-EFE / Ritchie B. Tongo

Looking at these layers one by one, over the years Taiwan has developed and maintained a sophisticated system early warning system, to save time if China launched an invasion. This is to ensure that Beijing cannot prepare troops and transport ships to cross the Taiwan Strait in a surprise offensive. As a result, China is expected to begin any invasion with a medium-range missile-based offensive and air strikes aimed at wiping out Taiwan’s radar installations, runways and missile batteries.

If it succeeds, then China will have to go through the second leg of Taiwan’s defense plan to ensure its troops sail safely to the island. But as it attempted to cross the strait, the Chinese navy would encounter a guerrilla campaign at sea – the so-called “flea war”. This would be done with the use of small, agile, missile-armed ships, supported by helicopters and missile launchers.

But crossing this layer will not guarantee a safe landing for the PLA on Formosa Island. Geography and population are the backbone of the third defensive layer. The PLA has the ability to mount a full-scale bombing campaign on the Taiwanese island, but land on it and deploy once there is a whole other matter.

The tanks cross the beach surrounded by explosions.
Be prepared: Taiwanese M60A3 tanks in a recent exercise.
EPA-EFER / Ritchie B. Tongo

Taiwan’s short west coast, just 400 km long, has only a handful of beaches suitable for disembarking troops, meaning Taipei’s military strategists would have a relatively easy job when it came to figuring out where the PLA would try to land – especially with the sophisticated reconnaissance technology acquired from its American ally.

This would allow the Taiwanese military to set up a deadly shooting gallery to prevent PLA amphibious forces from entering the island. Even once the Chinese boots were on Taiwanese soil, the island’s mountainous topography and urbanized environment would give the defenders an advantage when it came to hampering the progress of an invasion.

The Taiwanese armed forces are easily mobilized. Although Taipei has a small professional army of around 165,000 people, it is well trained and equipped. And they are supported by up to 3.5 million additional reservists, although there has been recently criticism that it is under-prepared for an invasion.

Another factor is what the British defense academic Patrick porter calls it the “ham omelet dilemma” because to make an omelet a pig has to commit its life while a hen only has to lay a few eggs. This means that Taiwan will see a conflict with its adversary across the strait as a conflict for survival.

For China, the stakes are not as high, although it has wanted to incorporate Taiwan for much of its modern history. And it’s unclear how dealing with this existential threat might spur Taiwanese defenders.

The defense review also recommends the development of a locally produced long-range strike capability, as part of an ongoing movement toward self-sufficiency for the Taiwan Defense Force. But in the meantime, the country has gradually built up its arsenal of defensive weapons over the past two decades, most recently agreeing to purchase the last remaining Patriot missiles from the United States in a 2019 US $ 620 million (£ 455 million) deal between Taiwanese Prime Minister Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump.

Taiwan’s strategy to deter a Chinese invasion by threatening to impose major political costs is also informed by what it sees as the risk-averse nature of the Chinese leadership and its preference for long-term planning. And, no doubt, both sides will have learned lessons from the US experience in Afghanistan, where the political costs of fighting a small but determined and mobile enemy have recently become too clear.