Deterrence has failed. The People’s Liberation Army has invaded and occupied Taiwan. Just like Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, some questioned whether Xi Jinping would go through with it. Many experts incorrectly predicted that an invasion would be too costly for China’s already shrinking economy given the inevitable global backlash. But autocrats have their own logic and reasons that are often not understood by others. Rational actor theory is just theory, and Westerners have never fully unlocked China’s long-term, grand strategy playbook. The Chinese occupation force is on every street corner, in every government office, at all sea ports, in the telecommunications centers, and literally sleeping in the homes of the people of Taiwan. The crackdowns in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong are nothing compared to Xi’s ruthlessness unleashed in his attempt to bring the island under his control. Deterrence has failed. Taiwan has fallen.
This is a scenario the world may see on the news tomorrow, or in a year. Luckily, Taiwan and its supporters have today to prepare for the invasion and—if defense fails—the occupation. Much has been written about what the Taiwan or American or Japanese or any other conventional fighting forces around the globe should do before, during, or after the invasion, and there are likely well-established military plans in place for a war against China over Taiwan. Moreover, America’s arming and training of the Taiwan military increases significantly each year, as it should. But those initiatives are almost entirely focused on the island nation’s military. There is another element at play, one that offers Taiwan important advantages if it is properly incorporated into defense planning: Taiwan’s people, the civilians who will be forced to choose between compliance with or resistance against China’s occupation—the Taiwan students, truck drivers, tech entrepreneurs, private business owners, accountants, civil servants, CEOs, mayors, and the like. Today is the opportunity to prepare the civil population for their contribution to a resistance tomorrow—a resistance that will be necessary for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to ultimately realize that subjugation, oppression, and faux unification following invasion are all impossible in the face of a trained and organized populace.
There are many lessons to be learned from Putin’s war in Ukraine. One of them is when there is a threat of invasion and occupation—as is the case in Taiwan—it’s best to prepare civilians to resist before the first shot is fired. In Ukraine, this was largely not done before Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas region in 2014. But Ukraine’s response to the aggression involved a large-scale mobilization of civil society. Volunteers traveled east to fight. Nongovernmental organizations emerged to procure equipment and send it to the front lines—from night-vision devices to body armor to vehicles. Specialty organizations like the Ukraine Crisis Media Center emerged organically to promote Ukraine’s cause and rapidly respond to Russian propaganda. So when Russian forces launched their full-scale invasion in 2022, the groundwork for resistance was in place. There are admittedly countless differences between the situations in Ukraine and Taiwan. Nevertheless, it seems rather clear that now is a better time to train, organize, resource, and empower any willing citizens in Taiwan to resist potential occupation by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) should deterrence fail.
Former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently described his impressions following a visit to Taiwan. “I’ve come to view the growing willingness of all Taiwanese to fight for their country—a whole of society approach—as the key to deterring a Chinese invasion,” he wrote. “This evolution was shocked into being by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbor and sustained by the courage and success of the Ukrainian people. Let’s also hope that Xi is learning the painful lesson the Ukrainians are teaching Vladimir Putin—that a smaller nation with the will to win can beat back a larger foe, inspiring global support in the process.” A few notes about Esper’s comments are needed here. First, the fact that someone as senior as a former secretary made such comments about civilian resistance gives the observation greater credibility. And while Esper was speaking mainly about the convictions of the Taiwan people as a deterrent to prevent invasion altogether, it seems reasonable to infer that if a civilian population in Taiwan demonstrates its willingness to resist as a deterrent, that same population would be receptive to preparing said resistance beforehand. Second, Esper’s comments were likely aimed more at American lawmakers than anyone in Taiwan. The point was to tell the US Congress to keep supporting Taiwan with necessary resources. From a US perspective, the subject of Taiwan’s defense is highly political. But that is also true in Taiwan. With elections on the island set for January 2024, political will and even the idea of approaching the population with a conversation about resistance are both sensitive matters.
The Components of Resistance
Just like anywhere else, there will be nuances to Taiwan’s resistance. What worked in a resistance action in Ukraine may not work in Taiwan. Resistance is local and may differ from one place—and its unique set of cultural, religious, ethnic, socioeconomic and other factors—to another. The heroic actions of World War II’s partisan resistance fighters may only be partially effective today. Furthermore, it can be expected that some portion of Taiwan’s civilian population will in fact support China’s occupation, just as some in Ukraine support Russia’s ongoing war in the country. Moreover, emerging technology should be accounted for in all aspects of a resistance as it has fundamentally changed how people communicate, organize, think, and act. Along these lines, both China’s and Taiwan’s advanced abilities to use technology must be accounted for.
Still, despite the nuances that distinguish one resistance from another, all resistance movements are made up of several key components, and the United States Army Special Operation Command offers a useful framework for understanding these components in its Unconventional Warfare Pocket Guide. One component of a Taiwan resistance will be the underground. This is a “cellular organization within the resistance that has the ability to conduct operations in areas that are inaccessible to [the guerrilla component].” One such inaccessible area will be Taipei, the capital city that can reasonably be anticipated to quickly fall into the grip of PLA forces and CCP representatives. It is there that underground functions may include support for intelligence gathering, developing counterintelligence networks, fabricating special materials like false identifications or 3D-printed weapons, projecting subversive radio messages, developing print media (which will be important if the People’s Republic of China controls online communications), engineering social media and webpage content (possibly on the dark web), forming logistics networks, conducting sabotage operations, manning clandestine medical facilities, and moving funds from international supporters.
A second component of the resistance is known as the auxiliary. This term “refers to the portion of the population that provides active clandestine support to the guerrilla force or the underground.” Members of the auxiliary are part-time volunteers who have value because of their normal positions in their communities. Some functions of the auxiliary may include logistics procurement and distribution, labor for special materials, early warning for underground facilities and guerrilla bases, recruitment of intelligence collectors, communications or message delivery, media distribution, and safehouse management.
A third component of the resistance movement is the armed element, sometimes referred to as insurgents or guerrillas (although terminology is always up for debate and rarely agreed upon). The armed element is comprised primarily of local citizens “organized along military lines.” Their mission is “to conduct military and paramilitary operations in enemy-held, hostile, or denied areas.” It is possible that foreign supporters may join the armed element, as happened in Ukraine—although the physical geography of Taiwan and its lack of land borders makes this less likely, at least in any large scale.
A fourth component, the public component, refers to the overt political manifestation of the resistance. This component will be primarily responsible for negotiations with CCP representatives on behalf of the resistance. Every case of resistance is unique, and the degree to which public representatives exist in occupied Taiwan will depend greatly on the fluid situation on the ground. If the CCP decides to suppress the public component of the resistance, which is almost inevitable given China’s track record for brutally suppressing dissenters, the public component of the resistance may have to dissolve and go underground. Note that the public component is not synonymous with the parallel government or the government-in-exile.
A fifth component is the parallel government, sometimes referred to as the shadow government. This is the body that, behind the scenes, “replaces the governance functions of the existing regime”—in Taiwan’s case, the CCP’s occupation representatives. The parallel government legislates and provides oversight for things like security, health services, and taxation when possible. These functions may sound impossible at first, but some resistance movements last months, years, or decades. Members of Taiwan’s parallel government “may originate from any other component of the resistance.”
Finally, a Taiwan resistance movement would require a sixth component, the government-in-exile. Displaced from the island, or perhaps already overseas when the invasion occurs, the government-in-exile is the true government of Taiwan. It will be “recognized as a legitimate sovereign authority” of Taiwan by some but not all. It is almost guaranteed that many nations with good relations or high levels of economic dependence on China will not recognize the government-in-exile. This component of the resistance will need to reside in an allied or friendly country, such as the United States.
Toward an Effective Resistance in Taiwan
The people of Taiwan should be informed today that not everyone in a resistance movement needs to pull a trigger or detonate a bomb. Every civilian can play an important role in defeating the occupation. An initial step toward mapping out each of the six components of the resistance will involve population outreach programs to assess what and how each citizen may contribute to the movement. The willing banker, enabled by the information technology expert, for example, may want to assist in the movement of funds through clandestine channels outside of the CCP’s digital reach. The satellite frequency manager can facilitate secure communications. The mailperson can reconnoiter routes, identify potential PLA targets, and report intelligence during her normal mail delivery routine. The construction contractor can place bombs or sabotage infrastructure. Local mayors can help organize and compartmentalize community leadership councils. The TV announcer can assist with underground propaganda production. The ambulance driver may be the one to deliver dead-drop messages and communicate between Taiwan’s remaining military units and the civilian resistance. These are just a few examples of how the average citizen can support the resistance. At the strategic level, current and former senior government, nongovernmental, military, and private industry representatives will likely compose the parallel government, government-in-exile, and resistance leadership.
But it would reflect an antiquated understanding of resistance—one that doesn’t account for the unique conditions present in Taiwan—to stop there in thinking about how people may support resistance in Taiwan. An insurgency on the island would be like no other resistance movement the world has ever seen. While basic resistance principles would still apply, dusting off old US military field manuals on resistance will prove woefully inadequate in accounting for the modern complexities of Taiwan’s people and infrastructure. This is not Europe or the Pacific in World War II, nor even Ukraine in 2022 or the Islamic State at the peak of its short-lived caliphate. Why? Because the citizens of Taiwan today are different than in any of those other places. The island nation is one of the world’s most technologically advanced, with a highly educated population. Taiwan’s companies are at the forefront of advanced technologies, ranging from semiconductors to artificial intelligence. Plans to organize civilians into a resistance movement must account for exactly what and who is on the island today in this regard.
Resistance conducted for resistance’s sake may generate small victories but in the long run will likely contribute to a protracted conflict or outright failure. The overarching strategic objectives of the parallel government, government-in-exile, resistance leadership, and international coalition of supporters must be developed with painstaking detail and communicated to the lowest levels of the resistance movement. In the case of Taiwan, four principal strategic objectives stand out. First, a Taiwan resistance must support or enable the defeat of the Chinese occupation force, something that will likely be achieved in concert with coalition diplomatic, informational, military, and economic efforts. Defeat of the enemy should be the goal of any resistance movement, no matter how difficult the task. Second, the resistance must maintain the morale of the people. It is essential to remind the citizens of Taiwan that they are not alone and that there is hope for the future, free of oppression. This objective is essential for maintaining the will to resist, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Third, the resistance must inspire other countries to support Taiwan. Ukraine is an excellent example of how important this objective is. While many expected Ukraine to fall to Russia in days or weeks, the world has seen instead a committed and effective defense, enabled especially in the war’s initial months by the population’s spirited resistance. This has encouraged many nations around the world to support the war effort against Putin. Support does not always have to be military. A successful resistance movement may convince other countries to support Taiwan diplomatically, economically, or through other means, thus making it difficult for China to achieve its goals. Finally, the fourth objective of the resistance, short of defeating the PLA and more operational in nature, would be to harass and disrupt PLA and CCP operations on and around the island. The resistance movement has the potential to make the situation too costly for China to maintain its occupation, potentially forcing it to withdraw.
The specific objectives of Taiwan’s resistance will depend on the changing circumstances of the occupation. After the initial invasion, for example, PLA forces may not be well organized. In this instance, the resistance—alongside Taiwan and coalition military powers—might focus on defeating China’s forces outright. Alternatively, if the timeline of occupation is extended and Chinese forces can successfully build up their formations, the resistance movement might need to focus on harassing and disrupting while trying to maintain the morale of the people of Taiwan. Ultimately, the success of a Taiwan resistance movement will depend on several factors, including the timeline of occupation, the size and strength of the occupying force, the level of support from the people, and the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic response from the international community. Even a small resistance movement can make it more difficult for China to achieve its goals in Taiwan. Resistance alone, however, is rarely—if ever—enough to win a war. It is for this reason that Taiwan’s resistance must always remain aligned with the legitimate government’s strategic objectives.
Resistance needs to be homegrown and organic to the place it occurs and the people who conduct it. It must be a product of the hearts and minds of the local population. Foreign supporters cannot want a free and independent Taiwan more than the people of Taiwan do. Assuming the citizens of Taiwan genuinely want to resist, and with approval and guidance from the government of Taiwan, America and other international partners can support efforts to organize and train the people starting now. While a great deal of effort is rightly placed on the Taiwan war apparatus, the role of the civilian populace must be fully acknowledged and addressed. Civilians will represent a critical node in any strategic plan to protect Taiwan if occupation occurs. Organizing a resistance after hostilities have erupted is extremely challenging and dangerous for those involved. Instead, organize today and resist tomorrow.
Jeremiah “Lumpy” Lumbaca, PhD is a retired US Army Green Beret and current professor of irregular warfare, counterterrorism, and special operations at the Department of Defense’s Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. He can be found on X/Twitter @LumpyAsia.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Simon Liu, Office of the President of Taiwan