Created on:
June 14, 2022

Asymmetric Relations: The Geopolitics of Taiwan and China

Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dramatically changed the International Relations landscape. It has also made nearly everyone who watches the news an armchair military strategy expert. The Policy Insights Forum (PIF), in partnership with Samuel Associates, has decided to cut through the noise around the War by interviewing our top defence experts each week. This is a multi-part series authored by Jay Heisler, a Policy Research Associate with the PIF currently volunteering on the U.S. side of the Ukraine evacuation.

This week, we will shift away from Ukraine, and discuss the current geopolitical situation in Taiwan. Dr. J. Paul de B. Taillon is a Senior Academic Advisor with Samuel Associates and Vice-Chair of the PIF. During his 30-year career in the Canadian intelligence community, Paul conducted operations in the intelligence and counter-terrorism fields with organizations such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Canada's special forces unit, Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2). He has operational experience with American, Canadian and British Special Operations Forces (SOF) and has served in Great Britain, the United States, Oman, Bosnia, Kosovo, Ukraine and Afghanistan. He conducted 22 foreign Military Training Team missions under U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and was an instructor at the NATO Special Operations School in Chievres, Belgium.

There are three takeaways here.

First, Paul explains to us that the Taiwanese have been developing a strategy called the 'Porcupine Doctrine.' Essentially the strategy is to evade enemy strengths and exploit their weaknesses. It incorporates the ability to resist the enemy on the opposite shore, locate, monitor and attack it at sea, destroy it in the littoral area and annihilate it on the assault beaches.

This doctrine incorporates three defensive layers, one of intelligence and reconnaissance, one of guerilla warfare at sea, and one of conducting asymmetric warfare based upon possible beachheads and Taiwan’s geography and population centers.

On the intelligence layer, mainland China has to be monitored closely for indications of an impending invasion. Moreover, an invasion force would not be able to concentrate their amphibious and army-marine forces without the Taiwan military not being tipped off predicated upon their own and allied intelligence capabilities. This does not ignore HUMINT assets that would likely be operating in the PRC ports and embarkation areas. The Indications and Warning (I&W) would commence the preparations for follow on Taiwanese operations to interdict and repel an invasion force.

The amphibious force would then have to undertake an exposed and vulnerable 8-hour long voyage, during which the invasion fleet would be exposed to a full range of surface, subsurface, aerial and missile interdiction. The Taiwanese navy would likely be conducting a "guerilla war at sea" employing submarines, a fleet of fast missile-armed patrol boats, and attack helicopters, all engaging in hit and run tactics to attrit the landing force and escorts. These attacks would be supported by land-based fires that would further inflict devastation against a China People's Liberation Army (PLA) amphibious fleet at sea.

The third layer focuses on Taiwanese beach defences that would orchestrate a formidable and multi-faceted “wall of fire” aimed at destroying any potential invading force on the shoreline.

It should be appreciated that considering Taiwan's military geography, only 400 km of their shoreline is capable of enabling an amphibious landing. These venues would be closely monitored and be well defended, employing a panoply of sea/land mines and beach defences that are mutually supported, well-protected, sited in-depth, and supported by all source mass fires. These defences would have Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV) providing aerial eyes and targeting intelligence that will assist in coordinating mass artillery/missile fires to engage and destroy any invaders and/or supporting fleet assets. Hence the Taiwanese will have these shoreline venues well prepared to effectively resist any penetration of the beach defensive zone.

Paul compares China's gradual creation of an impressive perimeter of bases in the South China Sea as reminiscent of the Japanese strategy of establishing bases to dominate and protect the Japanese homeland circa 1942. Similarly, the PLA intends to create a perimeter of bases from the South China Sea to the East China Sea and, in due course, press out the perimeter eastward to the mid-Pacific. To do so, Taiwan would have to be incorporated into this plan, as it represents an unsinkable aircraft carrier and a potential threat to the PLA rear area.

“China does not want a vicious war in Taiwan. They want a relatively quick victory. Ideally, a peaceable option," Paul told us. "Should an invasion occur, and Taiwan holds out, the U.S. and other Allies, I believe, would come to their assistance." Notwithstanding, Paul says the last thing the Chinese want is images in the media of PLA bodies washing ashore from the Taiwan Strait nor an extended battle to conquer Taiwan."


Along with his threat to invade, Chairman Xi Jinping has concocted an alternative, more peaceable strategy to support joint business and economic ventures to bring China and Taiwan closer in the hope of economically unifying both.

"A Chinese invasion of Taiwan will not have the same strategic implications and repercussions on the international scene as Russia invading Ukraine," added Aliénor Peyrefitte,  PIF Coordinator and recent graduate of Laval University's Masters in International Studies. "The scale of this conflict would ultimately be more significant and far-reaching as China has deeper and wider statecraft reach and more profound economic leverage than Russia."

"That initiative would emphasize an intensification of economic links, the creation of joint companies and businesses," Paul explains. "Encouraging young Taiwanese to become more cooperative with partners in the mainland. This remains a peaceful option and has been mentioned by the Chinese leadership early in 2020 and again in 2021 under what would be termed "peaceful reunification" under the constitutional principle of "One country, two systems".

Paul said that this strategy "could in the future possibly end up as a compromise. A saving of face for Beijing, while avoiding the destruction of a military conflict, while concomitantly pre-empting a world crisis. This remains an interesting peaceable option.”

Third, Taiwan's situation, when compared to Ukraine, offers very different lessons.

"The PLA will carefully study Russia's Ukrainian campaign," Paul told us. "This conflict is of important concern for the PLA when you consider the Chinese armed forces have not fought a major battle since they invaded Vietnam in 1979." Moreover, they have not conducted an amphibious operation since Hainan in 1950.

There are also vast strategic differences between the two countries.

Ukraine, for example, has a substantial land border with Europe and Russia. This geography facilitates infrastructure support by roads, rail and air links aiding in the movement of supplies, weapons, vehicles etc. In contrast, Taiwan is a remote island in relative proximity to China. From an air and naval viewpoint, supporting Taiwan is problematic not only in distance but from the threat of Chinese-based assets that could interdict support operations. In short, it would be difficult to reach, support and sustain without maritime and aerial dominance.

Additionally, Taiwan is not in the United Nations and has no existing formal U.S. commitments to support it. American leadership has consistently surfaced to China that there is 'strategic ambiguity' in their interest in Taiwan's security-- not saying they would come to their aid—not saying they would not come to their aid. This keeps the Communist Party of China (CPC) leadership guessing.

Most dramatically, China has updated its military to be able to deter the U.S. from being involved and thus force the U.S. to walk back on prior commitments to be applied directly. Has China's strategy already been a success? Time will tell.

Anvesh Jain, the PIF's new Summer 2022 Policy Intern and University of Ottawa J.D. Candidate, offers some additional observations about the underlying rationale behind China's reunification argument:

"Today's mainland is most aptly classified as a Socialist Civilization-State with Chinese Characteristics. The unique merger of Marxist Ideology and Confucian Cultural tenets defines the political thinking of the post-Deng Xiaoping CCP leadership. In strategic terms, the Party defines its own approach of the Near-Abroad, including Taiwan.”

"To craft a cogent Western-Taiwan Engagement Policy, we must first understand (without necessarily accepting) the PRC's idea and concept of the historical 'Sinosphere,’” Anvesh added.

In sum, the US/Western relationship with China remains complex and multifaceted. It is clear from the historical record that an emerging superpower like China, coming into contact with an established superpower like the U.S. will need to be managed with political mindfulness. This is because both major powers have much to lose from a direct confrontation. However, in the meantime Taiwan, the US and China are seeing a period of great tensions in which it is important we maintain a respectful discourse and leave lines of diplomacy open to avoid any unintentional military or economic escalations.

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