‘Porcupine doctrine’ leaves China feeling prickly

The PLA Navy would encounter a Taiwanese guerrilla campaign at sea or a ‘war of the flea’

Chinese president Xi Jinping made a pledge earlier this year to complete the “reunification” of China with Taiwan.

Coupled with recent violations of Taiwan’s sovereign airspace by Chinese warplanes, this has prompted widespread speculation on the island’s security.

Taiwan has been preparing for possible conflict with China for a long time. It has long been acknowledged that China is too powerful to engage in a conflict on equal terms.

Accordingly, Taipei’s strategy has shifted to deterrence in terms of the human and political costs making war would inflict on China. This thinking was confirmed in the Quadrennial Defense Review 2021.

Taipei’s defense plan is based on a strategy of asymmetric warfare – what is known as the “porcupine doctrine.”

This involves tactics for “evading enemy’s strengths and exploiting their weaknesses” and a set of escalating options that acknowledge China’s proximity to the Taiwanese coast. The idea, according to the defense review, is to “resist the enemy on the opposite shore, attack it at sea, destroy it in the littoral area, and annihilate it on the beachhead.”

Defensive layers

There have been several studies and simulations that concluded that Taiwan may at least contain a Chinese military incursion into the island. In a nutshell, the porcupine doctrine has three defensive layers.

The outer layer is about intelligence and reconnaissance to ensure defense forces are fully prepared. Behind this come plans for guerrilla warfare at sea with aerial support from sophisticated aircraft provided by the US.

The innermost layer relies on the geography and demography of the island. The ultimate objective of this doctrine is that of surviving and assimilating an aerial offensive well enough to organize a wall of fire that will prevent the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from successfully invading.

China’s PLA Navy in the South China Sea. Photo: PLA Navy

Looking at these layers one by one, Taiwan has developed and maintained a sophisticated early-warning system, to buy time should China launch an invasion.

This aims to ensure that Beijing cannot get troops and transport ships ready to cross the Taiwan Strait in a surprise offensive. As a result, China would have to begin any invasion with an offensive based on medium-range missiles and air attacks aiming to eliminate Taiwan’s radar installations, aircraft runways, and missile batteries.

If it succeeds in this, China would then have to break through the second layer of Taiwan’s defense plan in order for its troops to sail safely towards the island.

But as it attempts to cross the strait, China’s navy would encounter guerrilla campaign at sea – what’s known as the “war of the flea”. This would be conducted with the use of agile, missile-armed small ships, supported by helicopters and missile launchers.

But breaking through this layer will not guarantee a safe landing for the PLA on Formosa Island. Geography and the population are the backbone of the third defensive layer.

Military strategists

The PLA has the capability to mount a large-scale bombing campaign on the Taiwanese island, but landing on it and deploying once there is another matter entirely.

Taiwan’s short west coast, just 400 kilometers long, has only a handful of beaches suitable for landing troops on, meaning that Taipei’s military strategists would have a reasonably easy job when it comes to working out where the PLA would try to land – especially with the sophisticated reconnaissance technology it has acquired from its United States ally.

This would allow the Taiwanese military to set up a deadly shooting gallery to prevent PLA’s amphibious forces from making their way into the island.

Even once Chinese boots were on Taiwanese ground, the island’s mountainous topography and urbanized environment would give defenders an advantage when it comes to hampering 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.

China and Taiwan are in a vicious circle. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

And they are supported by up to another 3.5 million reservists, although there have recently been criticisms that it is underprepared for an invasion.

Another factor is what British defense academic Patrick Porter calls the “ham omelette dilemma,” because to make the omelet, a pig needs to commit its life while a chicken only has to lay a few eggs.

What this means is that Taiwan will see a conflict with its adversary across the strait as a conflict for survival.

For China, meanwhile, the stakes aren’t as high, despite having wanted to incorporate Taiwan for pretty much its entire modern history. And there’s no knowing how facing this existential threat might spur the Taiwanese defenders on.

The defense review also recommends the development of an indigenously produced long-range strike capability, part of a continuing move towards self-reliance for Taiwan’s defense forces.

Patriot missiles

But in the meantime the country has steadily built its arsenal of defensive weapons over the past two decades, most recently agreeing to the purchase of the latest patriot missiles from the US in a US$620 million deal agreed in 2019 between Taiwanese premier Tsai Ing-wen and former US President 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 China’s leadership and its preference for long-term planning.

And, no doubt, both sides will have taken lessons from the US experience in Afghanistan, where the political costs of taking on a small but determined and mobile enemy have become all-too clear.

Zeno Leoni is a teaching fellow in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.