Tensions between Beijing and Washington are rising over Taiwan, as US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived on the self-governing island on Tuesday.
Pelosi, the most senior US official after US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, has been a vocal critic of China for decades, while ardently backing Beijing’s opposition, including protesters in Tiananmen Square, the leader Tibetan Buddhist the Dalai Lama and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has angered Chinese authorities, who have recently stepped up aggressive patrols and overflights of Taiwan’s air defense zone while conducting frequent military drills.
Will the United States defend Taiwan against China?
It is not clear to what extent Taiwan could count on American support in the event of Chinese aggression. For decades, Washington has maintained a “strategic ambiguity” about Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), maintaining a friendly relationship with its government without formal diplomatic relations or even recognition as a fully-fledged state. sovereign. The White House has sold defensive military equipment to Taiwan; however, he has not officially committed to intervene militarily.
Meanwhile, China considers the island its territory and has drawn up plans to retake it, by force if necessary.
Over the past decades, the Chinese Communist Party has prepared its military wing, known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA overshadows the Taiwanese forces and, according to some expertsis more powerful than the forces that any supporter of Taiwan, such as the United States or Japan, could afford to bring to the region.
But that doesn’t mean Taipei is completely helpless against a potential PLA attack.
Porcupine strategy: a lot of little things
The potential risk of Chinese invasion has hung over Taiwan for decades, long enough for it to develop a sophisticated defense system suited to its geography.
To deal with a gigantic power like China, Taiwan has adopted an asymmetric method of warfare known as the “porcupine strategy”, which aims to make invasion very difficult and costly for the enemy.
Taiwan has accumulated large stockpiles of anti-aircraft, anti-tank and anti-ship weapons and ammunition. This includes unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and low-cost munitions like Coastal Defense Mobile Cruise Missiles (CDCMs), which have the capability to destroy China’s expensive naval vessels and equipment.
Stealth fast attack craft and miniature missile assault boats are other relatively cheap but highly effective pieces of equipment. They can be scattered among fishing boats in Taiwan ports. Sea mines and fast minelaying ships could also complicate the landing operations of any invading navy.
A multi-layered maritime defense
To quickly take the island, the Chinese PLA would need to ferry large numbers of troops and large amounts of supplies – armored vehicles, weapons, ammunition, food, medical supplies and fuel – across the strait. This is only possible by sea, as air bridges and aircraft fleets have limited capacity.
The territory of the ROC includes a chain of islands, some of them near the Chinese coast. The surveillance equipment installed on these islands can detect the first fleet departing from the Chinese coast. This is supposed to give Taiwanese forces enough time to coordinate a multi-layered defense.
Sea mines, combined with fast attack craft and missile assault boats, as well as land-based ordnance positioned on nearby coasts and islands, would face the PLA in its most vulnerable state before until she gets the chance to land and start an operation.
Taiwan has also prepared its cities for guerrilla warfare in case the PLA manages to put boots on the ground. Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and mobile anti-armour weapons, such as High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), can be used in urban combat, while buildings can be turned into barracks.
According a 2017 report published by the RAND foundation, there are 2.5 million men in the military reserve system plus 1 million civil defense volunteers. In total, this number represents about 15% of the Taiwanese population and one in four men.
Defend the defense system
A primary focus of Taiwan’s tactics is to protect key defense systems, including aircraft and ballistic defense systems, which can intercept ballistic rockets and inflict primary damage on invading powers.
Taiwan has invested heavily in a large number of low-cost portable missiles
Over the past two years, Taiwan has purchased dozens of advanced fighter jets from the United States, while manufacturing its own AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-Kuo, dubbed the Native Defense Fighter. Many planes are held in fortified bases, with pilots trained to use highways to land if airports are bombed.
Moreover, while Washington may not get involved in the event of a conflict, it has pledged to continue selling defense systems and providing intelligence support to Taiwan.
All of these measures would help Taiwan to impress on China that if a war did break out, it would be long, costly and bloody.
However, for a small defender like the ROC, the best case scenario would be for the conflict to never occur.
Edited by: Andreas Illmer