Taiwan and the United States appear to have reached the decade of maximum danger with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While Taiwan has mostly accepted the need to shift to a “porcupine strategy” to deter a potential Chinese invasion—an approach that emphasizes asymmetric capabilities and weapons like antiship missiles and mines—implementation has been slow. And Taiwan has neglected to cultivate the guerrilla-style resistance forces that will be necessary to counter an occupation. With the help of allies like the United States, Taiwan should be doing all it can to prepare for a lethal insurgency, the threat of which may deter Chinese invasion in the first place.
In any conflict with China, Taiwan should play to its strengths and China’s weaknesses. Taiwan should develop a devoted resistance force capable of deploying irregular warfare tactics, separate from the Ministry of National Defense and the reserve forces. Resistance fighters and insurgents have succeeded against large occupying forces with advanced capabilities, and Taiwan could use such principles to take full advantage of its home-field advantage against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While it remains unclear if or when the CCP will attempt an invasion of Taiwan, Taiwan must examine all options that may bolster its defense capabilities and deterrence posture—and irregular warfare should play a central role among those options.
As Mao Zedong wrote, guerrilla warfare “is a weapon that a nation inferior in arms and military equipment may employ against a more powerful aggressor nation.” Writing in 1937, Mao was referring to a Japanese imperialist invasion of mainland China. Today, however, this ethos is just as relevant for Taiwan.
Deterring an Invasion
Were China to attempt to invade Taiwan, it likely would be met with staunch resistance from the population. According to a July 2021 poll, 73 percent of Taiwanese support independence or the status quo, as opposed to unification or “don’t know.” A December 2021 poll found that 72.5 percent of Taiwanese are willing to fight against China in the event of an invasion. More recently, another poll found that 90 percent of Taiwanese reject China’s threats of force, the suppression of Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, and the CCP’s view of a “one country, two systems” model. The more China-friendly KMT party has been steadily losing support from Taiwanese voters. The Taiwanese view themselves as a distinct people and entity from China and have expressed their will to fight for their sovereignty.
There is newfound private sector support for a civilian defense force in Taiwan. Robert Tsao, founder of one of Taiwan’s leading semiconductor manufacturers, recently announced his plans to spend more than $30 million of his own money to fund the training of three million “civilian warriors” over the next three years with Kuma Academy, a civilian defense organization. Enoch Wu, an American-educated politician in the Democratic Progressive Party and a former soldier in Taiwan’s special operations forces, has founded Forward Alliance, a national security and civilian defense organization. Forward Alliance has held “resilience training” workshops to train civilians in situation awareness and personal safety.
Taiwan has also moved to reconsider its military readiness, recently announcing a 14 percent increase in defense spending. And it has created a system of underground bases and tunnels, safe houses, hide sites, shelter areas, and mountain refuges, not to mention bunkers along the coastlines. But Taiwan can do more to leverage its mountainous and rugged geography, ideal for guerrilla bases, and urban environments, ideal for guerrilla fighting.
The national government and military commands should supply what they can, but decentralized command and operations will be key for resistance forces. Taiwan’s reserve forces activation plan could be reinforced by further expansion to resistance forces. Reservists could be assigned to defend their home regions where they can blend into local towns and villages, enhancing guerrilla warfare capabilities and strategic interoperability with Taiwanese military forces.
Reports have highlighted US special operations forces and Marines who may have been training military forces in Taiwan, as part of broad defensive measures in the event of a Chinese invasion. Weapons sales from the United States of billions of dollars’ worth of F-16s and howitzers are intended to help deter an invasion. But training for defensive measures against a potential amphibious landing and small-boat exercises are also necessary, and Taiwan would be wise to continue focusing its arms purchases on highly asymmetric capabilities. Refocusing on cost-imposition capabilities as well as resistance (or guerrilla warfare) principles would strengthen Taiwan’s actual defense in case of conflict, as well as enhancing deterrence.
Resisting an Occupation
If an initial invasion were to succeed, China would then seek to fully occupy Taiwan. At this point, China could seek to leverage its economic ties to Taiwanese political leaders to stabilize a PRC-friendly portion of the populace, which could fracture the political landscape and divide the people.
Alone, Taiwan is clearly overmatched militarily by China. Taiwan must therefore continue to play to its strengths: island and maritime geography, the desire of the people to exist separately from China, integration into international economic and technological systems, and defensive orientation. Taiwan should learn from the Ukrainians, who intentionally flooded their own villages to prevent Russian tank advances, or from the Swiss, whose defensive capabilities can reportedly lock down the few mountain passes permitting transit in and out of the country, to leverage its natural environment to slow an invasion. Taiwan’s military command has considered the thirteen-kilometer-long Hsuehshan Tunnel as a backup joint operations command center in the event that the Hengshan Military Command Center in Taipei is destroyed.
While China may not yet have the capacity to mount a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, it is clearly building its amphibious operations capabilities to enable it to execute future operations. Taiwanese resistance forces should not be a frontline force meeting the PLA on beachheads. Rather, the utility of such resistance forces is maximized when, upon invasion, they amass supplies, gather in bases and villages, and wait for the invading vanguard to pass through. The resistance forces may then engage enemy forces, attacking and then disappearing into urban and forest environments.
It would be a significant challenge for Chinese forces to locate and neutralize all of Taiwan’s underground, mountain, and urban bases and tunnels. Taiwanese guerrillas could probably operate from such installations for weeks, if not longer, after an invasion, providing Taiwan critical options to engage in a Fabian campaign strategy. Deconfliction with Taiwan’s regular military forces is vital, as guerrilla forces can harass the enemy and hinder transportation by destroying infrastructure and operating from small, temporary, forward bases. They can also gather intelligence and use small unmanned systems for both surveillance and attacks, as well as defense. For example, Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology has developed its own indigenous drone defense system (composed of unmanned aerial vehicles) that will be deployed beginning in 2023. Rapidly striking and then dispersing is key, as is careful planning by command that is “centralized for strategical purposes and decentralized for tactical purposes.”
As Taiwan is at an insurmountable quantitative disadvantage compared to China, regaining lost territory would be difficult. For example, were China to encircle and take the Kinmen or Matsu islands, which are as little as six kilometers and nine kilometers, respectively, from the Chinese coastline, it would be nearly impossible to regain them; the US Department of Defense already believes that China’s amphibious force has the capabilities for such medium-sized island operations, and even Taiwanese officials have acknowledged that “Taiwan may not have the military capabilities to retake them [Kinmen and Matsu].” Assuming the PLA began operating from parts of Taiwan, overcoming Chinese antiaccess/area-denial capabilities would be costly and time-consuming. But with significant support, it might still be possible to regain territory on the main island of Taiwan, if Taiwanese operations can coordinate and provide critical targeting and intelligence to allies’ strike platforms.
Taiwan could again look to the Swiss for a model of how to destroy infrastructure to make it useless to occupiers, especially when considering the value of semiconductor foundries. Paired with an Operation Paperclip–style effort that would temporarily relocate key swaths of the Taiwanese workforce to places such as Japan, the United States, South Korea, and Australia, this could keep vital technology and knowledge out of the hands of the CCP, while minimizing economic and strategic impacts to allied countries. Later, Taiwan would likely be able to reconstitute its domestic capabilities more quickly.
A likely scenario in which all of Taiwan would peaceably capitulate to China is difficult to imagine. The CCP could attempt to further divide the Taiwanese people along partisan lines and weaken the will of the people, co-opting some key leaders and forcing them to choose between their countrymen and the invaders. Taiwanese resistance forces would likely remain in mountainous and urban hideouts, continuing to wage irregular warfare. These resistance forces would rely on local communities for supplies and would be at a severe materiel disadvantage.
China might then turn to its own counterinsurgency playbook, parts of which it has already applied in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet. In Xinjiang, in the 1990s and early 2000s, China enforced a policy of assimilation by targeting immigration and economic and cultural integration. This included extensive human intelligence collection and targeting of specific and influential individuals. According to one study, China’s ethnic nationalism and vertical coordination and hierarchy of its security system bias it toward tactics of hard power and imposition, resulting in brutal administration of occupied areas.
Taiwan needs to anticipate this brutality. If and when Chinese troops overreact, the resistance force must be ready to document, disseminate, and publicize those actions. Propaganda and social media will play a crucial role in garnering international support, as they have done in the Ukraine war, and Taiwanese forces should be trained in social media and information operations. Today’s printing presses are cell phones, computers, and an internet connection.
Aiding Taiwan’s Resistance Forces
The United States, Japan, and others can aid in increasing the potency and the persistence of Taiwan’s resistance efforts, in addition to the other deterrence efforts. The US Marine Corps theoretically is well positioned for such aid post-invasion, via physical operations to destroy key command and communication nodes and through cyber and information operations that would enable resistance forces to operate without surveillance and monitoring by the occupying Chinese.
The United States and Taiwan should make available (by translating, publishing, printing, and distributing) US doctrine manuals, both current and past, on subjects such as guerrilla warfare, improvised munitions, and unconventional warfare. These key manuals should be further updated for the digital era and shared widely within Taiwan.
The United States and its allies can also provide mission-specific training and capabilities, including loitering munitions, drone swarms, Stinger antiaircraft missiles, Javelin antitank missiles, and surveillance systems, all designed to enable irregular units to be small, lethal, mobile, and many. Training resistance units could include approaches similar to Finland’s, tailored to three groups: the best-trained and best-equipped operational units, regional forces, and local units from the general population.
Resistance forces should be able to draw from stockpiles and caches of munitions, missiles, drones, and launchers, but also have some capacity for organic force reconstitution, especially during the period when Taiwan is likely to be cut off from outside aid. They can use digital approaches and stockpiled raw materials to print weapons and munitions on the island. Units should be well versed in using large quantities of asymmetric weapons and capabilities, underpinned by communications capabilities with low probability of detection and interception, disconnected operations, and network-optional warfare concepts. Resistance forces can use covert and overt blockade-running capabilities, by sea and by air, using autonomous ships, unmanned aircraft systems, disguised platforms, and other smuggling techniques. As much as possible, such resistance forces must be organized to match civilians with existing skills from day jobs to relevant specialized units.
The goal of Taiwan’s bolstered irregular warfare capabilities (in concert with the conventional active-duty military) should be delaying and hindering a PLA invasion and occupation as long as possible, in order to provide the United States and other partners the time needed to mass forces in the region, break through any sort of blockade, and provide support to Taiwan.
To do this, Taiwanese resistance force operations and irregular warfare capabilities, along with significant capacities of munitions, will be imperative. Taiwan must establish sufficient weapons caches and supporting countries must prepare for contested resupply operations. By replacing “China” with “Taiwan” and “Japan” with “China,” one of Mao’s own insights offers wise counsel to Taiwan today: “These energies must be directed toward the goal of protracted war. . . . [Taiwan’s] cause is righteous [and] countrymen of all classes and parties are united to oppose the invader. . . . This is perhaps the most important reason why [China] will lose and [Taiwan] will win.”
Aidan L. P. Greer is a research assistant and Dr. Chris Bassler is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Chien Chih-Hung, Office of the President of Taiwan