The Economist explains

What is Taiwan’s porcupine defence strategy?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises questions about how Taiwan could fend off China

This photo taken on October 20, 2020 shows anti-landing spikes placed along the coast of Taiwan's Kinmen islands, which lie just 3.2 kms (two miles) from the mainland China coast (in background) in the Taiwan Strait. - The tank traps on the beaches of Kinmen Island are a stark reminder that Taiwan lives under the constant threat of a Chinese invasion -- and fears of a conflict breaking out are now at their highest in decades. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP) / TO GO WITH Taiwan-China-US-politics-military-Kinmen,FOCUS by Amber WANG and Jerome TAYLOR (Photo by SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images)

THE THREAT of Chinese invasion has loomed over Taiwan for more than 70 years—so long that many Taiwanese have grown to assume it will never happen. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shattered that complacency. Taiwan suddenly has a live example of a large state invading a smaller neighbour while claiming that it is not a real country—the same claim China makes about Taiwan. The disturbing parallel has sparked a public debate over whether Taiwan is prepared to fend off an invasion. One recurring topic is the “porcupine” method of defence that American and Taiwanese strategists have pushed Taiwan’s armed forces to adopt. What does it mean to be a porcupine, and how might it help deter Chinese aggression?

Taiwan and China have been in conflict since 1949, when China’s Nationalist Party, known as the Kuomintang (KMT), lost a civil war and withdrew to the island of Taiwan. Both the Communist Party, which took over mainland China, and the KMT at first claimed that they ruled all of China, including Taiwan and its surrounding islands. In the 1980s Taiwan democratised, ending nearly four decades of martial law under the Kuomintang and allowing suppressed Taiwanese identity and history to re-emerge. Since then most people in Taiwan have dropped the idea of “retaking China”—but China’s Communist Party remains bent on conquering Taiwan. China’s president, Xi Jinping, refuses to rule out force in his pursuit of the island, and has overseen rapid military reform and expansion since he came to power ten years ago.

The “porcupine” strategy is also known as asymmetrical warfare or, as Lee Hsi-Ming, then the chief of the Taiwanese armed forces, called it when he introduced the strategy in 2017, the “Overall Defence Concept”. At its heart is a recognition that Taiwan and China are no longer evenly matched, and that the island therefore needs to adopt nimbler and lighter ways of fending off a stronger enemy. Think David versus Goliath. Instead of buying expensive conventional equipment such as tanks, battleships and submarines—which are hard to hide and easy to strike with a missile—a “porcupine” strategist would focus on agile and concealable weapons such as the portable Javelin and Stinger missiles that have proven so useful in Ukraine. A porcupine doesn’t have to be larger or stronger than a predator to fend it off. It need only have many sharp quills that make it too painful to hold.

Taiwan’s recent defence purchases have raised concerns, especially from American officials, about whether it is prioritising the porcupine way. Taiwan has invested in coastal-defence missiles, sea mines, Stingers and speedy corvette warships that fit the agile prescription. But it has also spent lavishly on developing its own submarines and upgrading fighter jets, tanks and helicopters that critics say will be less useful in an actual war.

These flashier purchases are politically popular. Fighter jets help track and discourage China’s frequent incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), a buffer region intrusions into which prompt military alerts. Some of Taiwan’s political and military leaders believe it is more important to counter such “grey zone” attacks than to prepare for an invasion. A full-scale assault has long been hypothetical, after all, while incursions have increased every year. In an ideal world Taiwan could afford to buy both kinds of arms. But that is “a rich man strategy”, Mr Lee says. Taiwan’s defence spending fell from 5.2% of its GDP in 1990 to 1.9% in 2020. China spends less on defence as a share of GDP, but 20 times more in dollar terms.

Taiwan’s parliament approved more cash this year after record numbers of Chinese warplanes intruded on the ADIZ. The extra budget will be spent mostly on anti-ship weapons and Taiwan-made systems that can be produced quickly. Proponents of “porcupine” defence hope that sense of urgency will move Taiwan’s leaders to prioritise asymmetrical weapons over conventional ones in their broader spending as well. “You are the smaller one,” says Mr Lee. “You must prioritise asymmetrical if you want to survive.”

More from The Economist explains
Why Taiwan is not recognised on the international stage
Does America have troops in Taiwan?
How did Ukraine destroy the Moskva, a large Russian warship?

More from The Economist explains

What evidence reveals about the Gaza hospital blast’s source

The damage points to a malfunctioning rocket, not an air strike

What is Palestinian Islamic Jihad?

Israel blames the group for a deadly explosion at a hospital in Gaza

What is Hizbullah?

The Iran-backed militia has long resented Israel