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Can Taiwan defend itself against China?

May 23, 2024

Taiwan has expanded its asymmetric warfare capacity, which involves using smaller but highly effective weapons to make an invasion by a larger force prohibitively costly.

Taiwan President Lai Ching-te poses for pictures along with military personnel during his visit to a military camp in Taoyuan
China dubs Taiwan President William Lai Ching-te a 'dangerous separatist'Image: Ann Wang/REUTERS

Large-scale Chinese military drills near Taiwan are taking place just days after William Lai Ching-te, of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was sworn in as president of the self-governing democratic island on Monday.

In his inauguration speech, Lai vowed to defend the island's democracy, and called on China to end its military intimidation.

The leadership of the People's Republic of China (PRC) under President Xi Jinping considers self-ruled Taiwan as Chinese territory that must be "reunited" with the mainland, by force if necessary.

On Thursday, Chinese Naval Colonel Li Xi told state media the drills are "strong punishment" for "separatist acts" three days after Lai was sworn in.

Su Tzu-yun, a research fellow at Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), told DW that the exercises are part of a long-running pattern "using military means to send political signals."

A picture released by the People's Liberation Army shows the map of Chinese drills around Taiwan
This picture released by the People's Liberation Army shows the map of Chinese drills around TaiwanImage: https://mil.huanqiu.com

Taiwan's 'asymmetric' approach to counter China

Taiwan's Defense Ministry condemned the drills as an "irrational provocation" and mobilized sea, air and ground forces in response, adding that "all officers and soldiers of the armed forces are prepared."

Taiwanese capability to defend itself against China's much larger People's Liberation Army (PLA) has in recent years seen defense spending increase along with the expansion of asymmetric warfare capacity, also known as the "porcupine" strategy.

This involves using smaller, but highly effective, weapons to make an invasion by a larger force prohibitively costly.

According to a recent US Congressional report on Taiwanese defense, Washington is pushing for an asymmetric approach that "envisions Taiwan investing in capabilities intended to cripple an amphibious invasion through a combination of anti-ship missiles, naval mines, and other similarly small, distributable, and relatively inexpensive weapons systems."

This includes the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), like the domestically developed drone "Albatross II," which was unveiled last year.

Low-cost munitions like mobile coastal defense cruise missiles (CDCMs) can destroy China's expensive naval vessels and equipment

Stealth fast-attack craft and miniature missile assault boats are other relatively cheap but highly effective equipment. They can be dispersed among fishing boats across Taiwan's ports.

Sea mines and fast mine-laying ships could also complicate the landing operations of any invading navy.

Taiwan's natural defenses

Geography is another asset in Taiwan's defense. A full-scale invasion of the island would require sending hundreds of thousands of troops across the Taiwan Strait, which would be a long and laborious operation involving thousands of ships that would be vulnerable to attack.

"Invading Taiwan or mounting a successful blockade" would be the "most complex military operation in modern history," involving synchronization of air, sea and land forces, along with cyberwarfare, writes David Sachs, an Asia fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations.

Sachs points out that the monsoon season means that a landing operation could only take place a few months out of the year.

Additionally, there are few deep-water ports or large enough landing sites on beaches, which an invading force would need. The east coast of the island is lined by cliffs that provide a natural barrier to a large-scale invasion. The shallow water of the west coast means large ships would need to anchor further offshore.

Sea mines, combined with fast-attack craft and missile assault boats, along with land-based munitions positioned on shores and nearby islands, would counter the PLA in its most vulnerable position before it could establish a beachhead.

Map of Taiwan and Taiwan Strait

And even if an invading force were able to establish a beachhead, Sachs emphasizes that Taiwan's mountainous terrain limits military operations.

The capital, Taipei, is situated in a bowl ringed by mountains, with a few entrance points allowing an advantage to defensive positions.

Taiwan has also prepared its cities for guerrilla warfare in case the PLA does succeed in getting boots on the ground.

Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) and mobile anti-armor weapons, such as high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), can be used in urban fights, while buildings can be turned into barracks.

Taiwan spending more on defense 

Taiwan has also invested heavily in larger weapons systems.

The United States is Taiwan's top military benefactor, and for decades, Washington has sold arms to the island under the Taiwan Relations Act, which allows for the supply of "defensive" weapons.

Taiwan is still waiting for the delivery of $19 billion (€17.52 billion) worth of purchased US military equipment, including fighter jets, tanks, missiles and smaller weapons.

Under Lai's predecessor Tsai Ing-wen, from 2019 to 2023, Taiwan's government has increase defense spending by an average of nearly 5% per year, and as a percentage of GDP increased from 2% to 2.5%.

Defense spending is set to increase again in 2024, albeit at a slower rate, coming in at $18.8 billion.

What does China want to achieve with the drills?

China has expanded and modernized its military capability in recent decades with a focus on annexing Taiwan.

Tensions rise with China over US aid bill for Taiwan

Beijing has tended to demonstrate these capabilities to make a statement at high-profile moments when Taiwanese politics lean away from Beijing's interests, or after engagements with Taiwanese officials by US lawmakers.

Beijing dubs Taiwan President William Lai Ching-te a "dangerous separatist." And China carried out its largest-ever military drills around Taiwan in August 2022, practicing an "encirclement operation" after former US House speaker Nancy Pelosi paid a visit to the island.

Chang Wu-ueh, a cross-Strait relations expert at Tamkang University in Taiwan, told DW that this week's drills appear to be smaller in scale that those of August 2022.

Unlike the live-fire military exercises in 2022, Beijing has not declared "no-fly zones" this time, and the drills will last for only two days, instead of five. Chang said this could indicate the reduced possibility of large-scale missile tests and artillery exercises.

Although the title of the drills, "Joint Sword-2024A," portends more drills to come as a series of war games, Chang said that "the risks remain manageable" at this stage despite Beijing increasing the pressure.

Chang believes the PLA is highly likely to intrude into Taiwan's prohibited and restricted waters in order to "formally break" the tacit understanding of boundaries between two sides, much like how it has gradually eroded the concept of the "median line of the Taiwan Strait" in recent years.

"Beijing is now adopting a gradual and progressive approach, aiming to intensify its actions each time," Chang said.

In terms of the impact of China's military exercises on Taiwanese society, defense researcher Su said the effectiveness of China's "grey zone" tactics designed to divide morale among the Taiwanese public "has been gradually diminishing" over time, as the shock value loses effect.

Additional reporting by Yuchen Li and Yu-Chun Chou in Taipei, and Monir Gahedi.

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia