Taiwan – A lesson on how to adapt to power imbalances

Marius Būga is a 2nd year International Relations student in the War Studies Department in King’s College London. He is particularly interested in the historical, geographical background of state relations and the economic soft power exerted by trade. He is currently focusing on the Asia-Pacific region for research.

Most of the coverage Taiwan gets in the general news and academic discourse is related to it being a tension flashpoint between the US and the People’s Republic of China. However, less attention is paid to Taiwan itself, its future and its agency in a possible conflict. This seems largely because the country is stuck in a near unsolvable situation regarding its status and recognition as a state, which makes covering it difficult. Reunification with the undemocratic PRC is deemed “not possible” by Kuomintang officials. Meanwhile, Independence is widely considered tantamount to inviting a PRC invasion due to its extreme hostility to the mere idea. Taiwan has no easy solutions for its future, with both of its possible pathways being untenable, it has no choice but to stay on course to maintain a status quo of de facto independence.

To do so is no easy task however. With a more politically volatile US that some allies fear could be unreliable, hostile China seeking to take advantage, Taiwan has in recent years made strides to be more independent in its defense. Ultimately, it still relies on aid from the US and other regional powers like Japan to survive a conflict with the PRC, but the defense plans for this island nation can show how the balance of power is turning in favour of defense in modern era conflicts. 

In 2017, Taiwan’s Chief of the General Staff, Admiral Lee Hsi-Ming outlined a new approach to the island’s defense – called the “Overall Defense Concept”. This new strategy seeks to maximize the defensiveness of the Island of Taiwan by employing asymmetrical warfare to its fullest, exploiting small, cheap mobile forces on land and on sea to cause significant damage to Chinese military hardware. The strategy seeks to utilize anti-access/area denial (A2AD) means of warfare that many researchers have feared could make China able to challenge US dominion near its coast at a fraction of the cost the US Navy spends. While A2AD strategies certainly cause trouble for the US, they can also work in reverse and undermine China’s regional dominance as stated by Michael Beckeley. 

In his article on “The Emerging Military Balance in East Asia” he argues that this strategy will be used by Taiwan to rebuke attempts by the PRC to gain air or naval superiority and invade the island. The logic of such asymmetrical warfare is simple. For example, it is near impossible to take out every small truck or infantry contingent that carries anti-air weapons via bombing runs, yet while every such group costs little to equip – they can take out multiple bombers or fighters in return. This asymmetry of resources is mirrored at sea, where even coast guard boats normally used for patrol can be equipped with a cheap anti-ship missile, capable of causing high levels of damage or even sinking expensive Chinese naval vessels. 

The arguments made by Beckeley are also echoed by others like Ian Easton or Tanner Greer, who argue that it would be incredibly difficult for the PRC to fully disable even conventional Taiwanese defenses. They point to airbases protected by 6ft cement walls and airstrips hidden inside mountains as examples. But even in assumptions and simulations where Taiwan’s air force is disabled by early PRC strikes or its larger ships bombed in port – which is highly unlikely due to Taiwanese intelligence warnings – military officials on both sides predict massive casualties for the PRC in trying to land. Use of sea mines, concentrated mobile artillery fire on landing beaches, liberal use of landmines for beaches and bridges, urban warfare training and many more – all tools in the Taiwanese military arsenal meant to make invasions of their island as costly as possible. By focusing on such strategies that mimic ones used by insurgency fighters taking on a stronger foe, countries can achieve higher levels of deterrence than they would by trying to develop conventional military forces – such as trying to achieve parity in number of modern fighters or destroyers. Therefore, the defense strategy used by Taiwan maximizes its gain for investment made – turning the island into a resilient fortress.

Of course, not everything is perfect. If the PRC decides to prepare extensively and accepts extremely high casualties – it may be able to overwhelm the island with pure numbers advantage. Making an invasion costly does not make it impossible, just unlikely and very, very difficult. Taiwan also needs to take into account its internal issues. A key one being its conscription system. Having slashed military conscription to just 4 months of training and transitioned to a volunteer based military – Taiwan may struggle to fill its most needed divisions like artillery and armor. Moreover, pessimism plagues the Taiwanese population, with a 2018 poll finding that over 65% of the population believed their military could not fend off an attack from the PRC

If the Taiwanese population believes the fight is already lost before it even begins – they are unlikely to join up to defend (and presumably die) for their homeland in case of an attack. While it is possible to argue that the Taiwanese, being concerned about their military weakness, would be encouraged to enlist and fight for their country – this has not happened thus far. A surge of enlistment at time of PLA attack would hardly be helpful, considering most recruits would not be trained for conflict. Therefore, one of the biggest issues for Taiwan’s defense is the manpower shortages faced by its military – plans to shoot down aircraft will not work if no one is manning the anti-air guns. 

Finally, Taiwan’s primarily ally, the US, has in recent years been embroiled in public discussion whether it is ‘worth it’ to defend the island from a presumed PRC attack (See: [1] [2]). Many of such discourse seems concerned with how strong the PLA is becoming, how costly a defense of Taiwan could be for the US. This is concerning for Taiwanese policy makers as it may indicate a shift in US public policy. The US has extended assurances to Taiwan in regards to not recognizing PRC claims over the island and under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act is committed to resist any attempts of “coercion that would jeopardize the security <…> of the people on Taiwan” For now it does not seem like there is political will to change the stipulations of the TRA, as both major parties regularly state their support for the status quo(See: [3] [4]) However, if public opinion turned strongly against a conflict with the PRC, Taiwan could be in peril. Without US support Taiwan is far more vulnerable to a blockade and assuming American neutrality, it is unlikely that European states or regional powers like Japan would take a drastic stance against China militarily. 

With all of these issues in mind, the “Overall Defense Concept” adopted by Taiwan makes perfect sense. Not only does it shift the resource-cost balance in Taiwan’s favour, but it also fits as a solution or stop-break for issues outlined above. Increasing the cost of PRC attacks either deterrs or delays them – both preferable outcomes. It also requires less rigorous training than a fully professional military, as simple infantry brigades are easier to prepare than modern pilots – this could help solve manpower issues. An internal propaganda campaign about an “island fortress” could help increase popular support for national defense and the amount of military volunteers. Finally, since Taiwan is currently viewed almost as a “liability” – it is under threat of being abandoned by the US which makes a PRC attack more likely. If it is able to convince the US that Taiwan’s defense is a possible undertaking and further motivates its aid – it can also help make that aid and determination for sacrifices unnecessary by further deterring the PLA. With all of this being said, it is also the only possible, rational military approach. All the problems mentioned plague a conventional Taiwanese military strategy too. The Taiwanese military would suffer from insufficient resources to challenge the PLA if it needed to match its fighters with ones of its own, rather than with infantry divisions and anti-air missiles. Therefore, the “Overall Defense Concept” is the only reasonable choice for Taiwan seeking self-preservation.

In recent years, Taiwan has chosen to modernize its military strategy seeking to maximize defense and deterrence, skillfully adapting to the PLA’s growth and US worries. By learning lessons from guerilla and insurgency campaigns which also fought superior foes, and using A2/AD strategies, Taiwan can be more resilient than expected when looking at pure military resources. By increasing its resilience Taiwan can make itself less reliant on the US and can show that a conflict with the PRC is not completely one-sided without significant US investment. This would, consequently, make it more likely that Taiwan receives US support, as it is perceived “defensible” or it could even avoid an attack altogether. If this analysis holds true, then conventional assumptions about coercive power and the ability of states to achieve regional domination should be reconsidered. Meanwhile, militaries across the world can learn a lot from Taiwan and its readiness to recognize and adapt to its own weakness, local conditions and different fighting styles. Finally, it may be sensible to not give up on the island nation – after all, David did beat Goliath.

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