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Asymmetry in the defence of Taiwan – analysing Taipei’s deterrence strategy

At the operational-strategic level, Taipei’s proclivity for asymmetric warfare has long been the key deterrent against a Chinese invasion of the island. Asymmetries employed by the Taiwanese have adapted over time to match and overcome the core capabilities of China’s PLA, whether possessing qualitatively superior military hardware to overcome China’s quantitative advantages or embedding irregular warfare into Taiwan’s national military doctrine. The fortress island has simply made the notion of any invasion too costly on Chinese lives for Beijing to contemplate.

At the operational-strategic level, Taipei’s proclivity for asymmetric warfare has long been the key deterrent against a Chinese invasion of the island. Asymmetries employed by the Taiwanese have adapted over time to match and overcome the core capabilities of China’s PLA, whether possessing qualitatively superior military hardware to overcome China’s quantitative advantages or embedding irregular warfare into Taiwan’s national military doctrine. The fortress island has simply made the notion of any invasion too costly on Chinese lives for Beijing to contemplate.

However, Taiwan’s successful defensive and deterrent posture has changed under the administration of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, prompting analysts to urge a return to the fundamentals.

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Michael Hunzeker, assistant professor at George Mason University and associate director of the Schar School’s Center for Security Policy Studies, recently cast doubt on Taiwan’s military posturing, suggesting that Taiwan’s current military apparatus now favours meeting its Chinese adversaries head on as opposed to creating a war of attrition over the island nation.

“Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has abandoned asymmetric defense reform in all but name and has not been reined in by President Tsai Ing-wen. Instead, the ministry is now planning to deter an invasion by threatening to retaliate with missile strikes against the Chinese homeland and by pitting Taiwanese units in direct combat against the vastly superior People’s Liberation Army,” Hunzeker argues.

“The ministry’s preferred approach to defending Taiwan is unrealistic and destabilising. Its implementation will both weaken cross-strait deterrence and undermine the Tsai administration’s many other national defence achievements, including major increases in defence spending, reserve reform, and raising threat awareness among voters.”

Hunzeker notes that the tendency of Taiwan’s military to favour a conventional response to the PLA stems from a long-term qualitative superiority over their Chinese adversaries. This qualitative superiority, an asymmetric edge in and of itself, has decreased over recent years with large scale military improvements on the Chinese mainland. While such head on competition may have proved successful in years gone by, Taiwan’s military hardware is now more outdated than that of the PLA.

Many in Taiwan have realised this but have unsuccessfully observed the loss of qualitative superiority, encouraging the uptake of the Overall Defense Concept.

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Overall Defense Concept

The realisation among some in Taiwan’s military apparatus that the island nation could no longer convincingly defend itself in the event of a PLA invasion spurred the introduction of the Overall Defense Concept in 2017 by Taiwan’s Admiral Lee Hsi-ming.

“Asymmetry meant acquiring large numbers of small and cheap capabilities — weapons like coastal defense cruise missiles, short-range mobile air defences, naval mines, and drones — and using them to wage a prolonged denial campaign in the air, at sea, and on the ground,” Hunzeker noted.

“In this concept, Taiwan’s armed forces finally had a logical blueprint to help them to survive a first strike and wage a prolonged, decentralized, and multilayered campaign of attrition.”

National security reporter for The National Interest Mark Episkopos goes a step further in describing Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept.

“Taiwan will seek to inflict the most damage on the invading forces in the littoral zone, where their home-field advantage is the greatest. Taiwanese forces will then shift to preventing the PLA from establishing beachheads. If the PLA gets boots on the ground, then not just the army but also the civilian population will be mobilised for a whole-of-society guerilla effort to prevent the occupying forces from advancing inland and establishing re-supply chains,” Episkopos said.

“At that point, every Taiwanese citizen will be conscripted into what could escalate into a wholesale urban war. As Lee Hsi-ming put it, ‘It is the onus of the Taiwanese people to decide their fate and fight for their existence.’”

If military theorists have learnt any lessons over recent decades, it’s that such irregular asymmetries are difficult – if not impossible – for the invading force to overcome in such littoral, urbanised and populated environments.

Preference for symmetric warfare

Despite receiving broad support from Western governments, Hunzeker notes that Hsi-ming’s Overall Defense Concept did not prove popular among Taiwan’s military elite, with the Overall Defense Concept scrapped after the admiral’s retirement. Rather than pursue an asymmetric fortification of the island, Taiwan has sought the acquisition of long range missiles to deter Chinese invasion by threatening strikes on the Chinese mainland, among a litany of other mainstream pieces of conventional military hardware.

“It should go without saying that manned fighter jets, main battle tanks, self-propelled howitzers, and diesel submarines are ill-suited to wage an asymmetric defence of the island. Yet even if one pretends that these legacy platforms have a realistic role to play in an invasion scenario, the question of time remains. Diesel submarines, F-16 jets, M1A2 tanks, and Paladins take a long time to build and field. Years will pass before Taiwan will get its hands on the weapons that are already in the pipeline for production or purchase,” Hunzeker argued.

Ryan Hass in Brookings provides a less pessimistic view of Taiwan’s rejection of asymmetric warfare, but nevertheless reiterates Hunzeker’s suggestion that Taiwan has shifted away from their Overall Defense Concept.

“There is a perception in some quarters of Washington that the asymmetric approach President Tsai endorsed has been stretched beyond recognition in recent years by a recalcitrant MND. According to this line of thought, the MND wants to preserve legacy systems and outdated defense concepts and is dragging its feet on major changes toward a more mobile, survivable force,” Hass argued.

It is evident that the recent step changes in Taiwan’s military strategy in the face of a potential invasion from their larger neighbours has left Western analysts befuddled, with widespread support for the island nation to revert back to its porcupine strategy of asymmetric deterrence.

Your say

Could Taiwan’s proposed use of conventional military hardware to strike the mainland, coupled with a porcupine strategy of attrition against PLA troops, provide a greater strategic deterrent against invasion?

In the face of an increasingly unstable Indo-Pacific, should Australia take a leaf from Admiral Lee Hsi-ming’s book by creating an Overall Defense Concept?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected], [email protected], or at [email protected]

Asymmetry in the defence of Taiwan – analysing Taipei’s deterrence strategy
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