Being a porcupine like Ukraine could help Taiwan fight off China

·3-min read
China Taiwan missile test - Twitter/World Military News
China Taiwan missile test - Twitter/World Military News

As the world draws breath after the first hectic six months of the war in Ukraine, another potential flashpoint demands our attention: Taiwan.

Although the capital cities are 8,000km (4,970 miles) apart, security analysts suggest that Kyiv and Taipei share very similar defence priorities and should learn from each other as each seeks to fend off the unwanted attention of an imperialist neighbour.

Security experts are asking: are we entering the era of the porcupines?

If it is impossible to render one’s country totally impervious to ambitious bullies perhaps, the argument goes, it is better to raise the cost of any intrusion to a level unacceptable to the aggressor.

In short, promise the hunter such a thorny reception that even if the balance of military probabilities suggests he might eventually succeed, he decides against invading because of the pain he will have to endure to prevail.

To be a porcupine is a bold strategy, calling for a complete change from conventional military thinking regarding defence equipment, training and structures.

Instead of investing, as Taiwan currently is, in small quantities of high-spec military kit such as US F-16 fighter jets and M1A2 Abrams tanks, perhaps Taipei should instead be buying or creating vast quantities of cheaper, less sophisticated equipment.

As Ukraine’s stout defence has shown the world, relatively cheap and cheerful anti-tank systems such as the American Javelin or Anglo-Swedish NLAW, plus equally easy-to-master surface-to-air missiles can, in the right hands and in sufficient quantities, hold back an army the size of Russia’s.

Simple home-made devices like the “hedgehog” tank traps – strong metal bars welded in a pyramid structure – have been around for decades, but were seen dotting the streets of Kyiv and beaches of Odesa, ready to lodge under tanks or rip the bellies of softer vehicles, rendering them combat-ineffective.

Much of this can be a civilian effort if corralled and trained sufficiently by the military.

Building a civilian force of beach watchers, taking shifts to identify Chinese special forces landing to attack radar and missile sites, or drone operators flying reconnaissance aircraft, would be relatively easy. And that’s before this new civilian militia has taken up arms.

With sufficient training, a reserve force could be built as mobile coastal defence troops equipped with short-range missiles. Fishing fleets could be re-roled as fast-attack boats.

Put bluntly, Taiwan’s population – at about 25 million – is 10 times the number of people in the Chinese military.

If a decent proportion of the adult population could be trained and organised as a reserve force and, importantly, if this activity took place in full view of China, it could add to Taiwan’s credibility as a porcupine. It may make Beijing think twice.

A porcupine strategy is a risk, of course. To willingly focus on weapons of lower sophistication compared to modern submarines, planes and tanks is an inherently risky course of action.

But the West’s stock of freebies will start to run low one day, if the current level of support for Ukraine is maintained. Will China sniff an opportunity to strike before Taiwan can similarly be gifted high-end kit?

For its part, China will have observed two important lessons from the war in Ukraine.

Firstly, the power of an international alliance. Military kit is vital, of course, but Russia has been shocked at how effective the international coalition of political and economic goodwill for Ukraine has been.

Second, and this is a biggie, China’s annual defence budget of $230 billion (£189 billion) may dwarf Taiwan’s $17 billion (£14 billion), but war is never as easy as the bully thinks it will be.

That consideration is exacerbated if, as Ukraine and Taiwan believe, one side is fighting for its very existence.