Taiwan: A Porcupine’s Defence

Alberto Buzzola/Getty Images

By Daniel Bloom

In light of growing tensions between China and Taiwan, increased focus has been given to the possible scenarios involving a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and the strategies Taiwan can pursue to both deter and respond to this threat. An increasingly popular strategy that is being championed as the most effective solution to the threat of invasion by China is the porcupine strategy. The foremost aim of this strategy is to provide initial deterrence against invasion, and failing that – to provide the most effective response.

What is the Porcupine Strategy?

The Porcupine strategy refers to the asymmetric defence strategy whereby a territory seeks to defend itself by making the cost of invasion or attack extremely high for the aggressor. This strategy relies on heavy investment in defensive capabilities such as anti-air, anti-ship and anti-tank munitions in order to inflict maximum damage on the attacking force. The logic being that the cost of invading would be so high, that the aggressor would have to seriously consider the cost of military action. This strategy relies on the ability of the defender to be able to repel the initial attacks, or slow them down so that the invaded state can reinforce its position or wait for reinforcement from allies. Singapore is a state that has historically adopted a porcupine strategy for its defence, due to potentially hostile neighbours and the fact that it is a small territory vulnerable to attack. 

Why should Taiwan adopt this strategy?

As stated, Taiwan’s situation shares some resemblance to Singapore. Taiwan is a small territory with a large and potentially hostile neighbour that could easily overwhelm it in the event of an invasion. So, a central question we must ask is, can the porcupine strategy work? In theory, the porcupine strategy appears to offer a viable defence for small and less-equipped actors facing a much larger military aggressor. The political risk involved in invading a heavily defended Taiwan and the potential  loss of life that would occur on both sides could be potentially disastrous for China’s domestic stability and would destroy its international reputation. The key factor in this equation is that the fallout from the invasion might eclipse  any benefit gained from the invasion. It appears that the reunification of Taiwan is a symbolic ambition to repatriate the territory and the citizens of Taiwan with the Motherland. If this is the underlying desire, then the risk of a bloody war and the destruction of Taiwan would certainly make China question its rationale for invading. The alternative scenario of a bloodless invasion and forceful reunification of Taiwan is far more palatable and involves less political risk and capital. Therefore, the porcupine strategy fulfils the key criteria of making an invasion too costly and thus preventing its occurrence.

What if China decides to invade anyway?

In the event that the primary aim of the strategy fails and an invasion occurs, the strategy would then rely on Taiwan’s ability to repel an initial invasion force in order to wait for reinforcement from the US and its allies. If China attacks, then the porcupine strategy would seek to inflict the highest amount of damage and casualties possible on the invading force. The best possible scenario would be repelling an invasion for a brief period of time, but still long enough for the US to formulate a response and intervene to defend Taiwan. The main issue with this underlying rationale of the porcupine strategy is that if its initial deterrence fails, then it must necessarily lead to a violent conflict with high casualties. This reveals the potential futility of resistance in the face of overwhelming force and the needless loss of life. Similarly, Taiwan and its citizens must be prepared to make huge sacrifices in the name of their own defence, something that may prove futile in the face of such an overwhelming force. As we have seen elsewhere, such as the Russian invasion of Crimea, when troops are heavily outnumbered and resistance seems futile, they are likely to surrender rather than sacrifice their lives. Therefore, the human element of the porcupine strategy is potentially a limiting factor. Another crucial element to the success of this strategy is that the US and its allies would come to the defence of Taiwan, thus making its defence worthwhile, rather than a futile endeavour. However, the US policy of strategic ambiguity and its botched interventions in various other parts of the world mean that US intervention is not certain. Therefore, this policy is heavily reliant upon factors outside of Taiwan’s control and the ability of its democratically elected government to convince the population of such a sacrificial strategy could also be a limiting factor in its implementation.

Can it work?

The success of the porcupine strategy rests on its ability to deter an invasion. The failure of this deterrence would lead to a fatalistic invasion which would seem certain to overcome Taiwan in a rapid time frame if aid fails to arrive in a timely manner. Once an invasion occurs, the strategy relies upon the willingness of Taiwan to sacrifice its own people in the defence of their nation with no real certainty that their sacrifice would result in success. The US policy of strategic ambiguity and its track record of foreign interventions do little to assuage Taiwan’s fear that it would not come to its aid. If this cannot be reconciled, then it is difficult to see how the Taiwanese people could justify the destruction of their country and lives with no meaningful or tangible benefit or outcome.

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