The Lion and the Porcupine
What is it going to take to make Xi Jinping say “not today”?
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has inevitably triggered some hasty and immature bed wetting about what this means for Taiwan. From a realpolitik point of view, this is utter nonsense. Leaving Afghanistan is completely in line with Biden’s policy of refocusing on containing China in a multilateral way. He solved a problem for the US while creating a headache in China’s back yard. The US does not have the resources to solve every problem in the world equally. As bad as I feel for the poor Afghans, Taiwan is probably much safer with China given a nation-building project on its northwestern flank.
If the American’s hasty and undignified retreat from Kabul did give pause to Taiwanese with magical thinking about how the all-powerful US is going to protect us from the Chinese baddies, well good. It’s always been incredible to me how the Taiwanese seem to abdicate all agency when it comes to their fate. The pro-independence side seems to go all out for irritating China as much as possible, the equivalent of poking the bear when you’re stuck in the cage with the bear. The pan-blue side, on the other hand, are complete defeatists who believe that China can eat Taiwan for breakfast whenever it wants. So why hasn’t it already?
Luckily, we are blessed with a president with a good head on her shoulders and her response to the Afghanistan situation was pitch perfect and worth translating:
Taiwan's only choice is to become stronger, more united, and absolutely resolute in our determination to protect ourselves.
We must make our existence meaningful. This is to say we must insist on our democratic values and make our contribution to international collective safety and security indispensable.
It is not an option to be reliant only on the protection of others. As for those who never gave up on threatening us militarily, we will not be accepting their temporary goodwill or succour.
63 years ago, to defend our homeland, Taiwanese no matter when they arrived on this island united, military and civilian, and fended off our enemy together. The proof of our unity is our victory
If we do not face up to challenges and threats, if we choose to give up we would be letting down past generations of Taiwanese. It is my mission as the president for all Taiwanese to face the challenge of our generation together.
This is so smart. She is going against the recent DPP vogue of viewing the Chiang era as a colonial occupation and those who arrived post WWII as "not really Taiwanese". Instead she boldly harked back and claimed a KMT victory, the defense of Kinmen 63 years ago, as Taiwanese. Her narrative of Taiwan is continuous, strong and united. She put on that camouflage mask and stood with the military. Her message is clear. Crystal. The Taiwanese must not be dead weight as allies. We need to stand on our own two feet and be rescue-able.
It’s a 10,000 ft view that does, inevitably, leave out nuance about how Chiang Kai-shek was a motherfucking dictator who killed a bunch of Taiwanese. Because CKS is dead now, and the threat that is alive is the Chinese Communist Party. While partisan politics in Taiwan will probably never come to a kumbaya moment, this is an issue where we need to stand united. To survive, the Taiwanese need to change their mindset from one of a passive shrimp stuck between two whales to an active agent, cognizant of the dangerous situation we’re in, but willing to stand up to the challenge of history.
The wily porcupine
So far, I would say that Taiwan has been surviving as a turtle nation. We have a certain amount of protection, being separated from China with the Taiwan straits and being the client non-state of the United States. We’ve lived under the sword of Damocles of invasion for so long we’ve become inured. Like a turtle, we’ve retreated into our shells and hoped that all will be fine. But as the navel strength of China builds up, that shell is getting thinner than ever. It’s time to change paradigms and become what many have called a porcupine nation.
The lion can eat the porcupine any time it chooses to. But it’s usually not a wise choice. The sharp quills of the porcupine will not protect it from destruction by the lion, but it will have its revenge. Lions often die from the quills of the porcupine, making porcupine eating the behavior of either old, desperate lions who has no other prey or young stupid lions who don’t know any better.
It is time for Taiwan to become a porcupine nation, one that doesn’t hope to take on China in a marquess of Queensbury type combat, but to deter an attack by the stronger party by making it clear we will take you down with us. Asymmetric warfare is the name of the game, or as political scientist Ian Oxnevad puts it: if you’re down pieces in a chess game and you still want to survive, find a way to put pressure on their king.
DPP legislator Lo Chih-cheng puts it even better. “We have to do enough as Taiwanese to make Xi Jinping think every morning as he wakes up…‘not today.’” The goal is never to somehow defeat the Chinese. But to make them think, each and every day, that war with Taiwan is just not worth it yet.
The quills of the porcupine
So what is it exactly that is going to convince XJP that it just isn’t worth it to fuck around and find out? I’m proposing six sharp quills that Taiwan might or might not be willing to adopt:
1: The Israeli mindset
Taiwan currently has a 4 month draft for men only. If we are serious about a capable population for defense, we need to raise that back to a one-year draft, for both sexes, and for the time in the military to be meaningful. Not moving stuff around or clearing weeds around the compound. The United States can help with this:
U.S. Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) today released the following statements after introducing the Taiwan Partnership Act, which would establish a partnership between the U.S. National Guard and Taiwanese defense forces to ensure a well-integrated defense force capable of fast deployment during a crisis:
2: Finding more friends
Don’t get me wrong, the United States is our protector Numero Uno. But increasingly, with the RAND games showing that even with the US going all out it’s not a given that US/Taiwan can prevail against China, it’s time to figure out how to Win Friends and Influence People within the neighborhood: Japan and India specifically.
A former alliance with Japan, which Taiwan is already very simpatico with, is a no-brained. Party-to-party talks are already starting.
As for India, a nuclear power, things can get even spicier. Let’s just leave it at that.
3: Unconventional weapons
The nature of warfare is changing. We can see this pretty clearly with the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the Azerbaijani military took the upper hand with the help of Turkish drones. Now no doubt, China is going to have drones too. But when the battlefield goes from man to man to drone to drone, it’s a potential equalizer for smaller, less populous but very technically advanced Taiwan.
Imagine an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) weapon that can put Beijing and Shanghai in the dark. Even if they could do the same back to us, is that a risk they would want to take? Let’s not forget the forces that could take down the CCP might not just be from without, but from Chinese people who feel like their deal with the CCP (we get rich, you stay in power) has been reneged on.
4: Gain regional clout by being more cosmopolitan
Yo excuse me I have a question. Why is Singapore the Switzerland of Asia and not Taiwan? It’s a tiny Disney-fied Authoritarian capitalist “paradise” but it is in the catbird seat with great relations with China AND the US and reaping the benefits.
Hong Kong is gone. If Taiwan can transcend its rather provincial and xenophobic roots and be OPEN, it has the potential of becoming the Switzerland of Asia: cosmopolitan, neutral, everybody’s friend. This is not going to be easy. The Taiwanese are rank-closers and circular firing squad enthusiasts. But we can forge a path to being both safer, cooler and more prosperous by opening ourselves up to free immigration.
Another way of putting it…every citizen from France to Malaysia who sets up shop in Taiwan and become Taiwanese becomes a reason for those countries to come to our defense automatically if shit goes down, and China knows that.
5: Go nuclear
The ultimate deterrence. And I’m not talking about nuclear power. Look…North Korea has it. Pakistan has it. If Taiwan ever ends up getting it, you can be sure the bullying from China will be coming to a complete stop. The US won’t be happy, of course, but let me ask you: Is the world safer with a nuclear North Korea or a Nuclear Taiwan? Why is it the Americans bind the hands of their allies while letting proliferation go unchecked elsewhere?
6: Soft Power to the Chinese People
ITaiwan, I believe, is making a mistake when we try to distance ourselves from the ordinary Chinese people. We share a common language. We like the same food and the same jokes and the same pop stars. Because the CCP is despicable and they have propagandize the Chinese people into being good little CCP cheerleaders, it’s tempting to say well, we’re nothing like them. But that is giving up a incredible opportunity.
How did the Soviet Union fall? Because of psych-ops basically. The United States were able to convince the Russians that they would rather be more like Americans. The Taiwanese have the opportunity to convince the Chinese that life is better if they can live like us. But we can’t do that when we are focused on messaging on how DIFFERENT they are from us and how fundamentally they are just somehow lesser. That’s not the way.
The way to porcupine nation
I was so mad at the US when I found out the MQ-9 drones they sold us, you know, the ones that took out Soleimani, were without offensive capabilities. They were not hawks in the sky, they were owls in the sky. It’s no secret the US are holding out on selling us the good shit because they are afraid we’re infiltrated with Chinese spies and that any US tech that makes it to us will eventually become Chinese tech. Frustrating!
We’re also too, too dependent on free-riding off our US allies…according to the Taiwan National Security Survey 2020, about 60 percent of Taiwanese thinks that Taiwan cannot capably defend itself…and yet only about 40 percent thinks that Taiwan should spend more on boosting military capabilities. This leaves a 20 percent gap of people who don’t really care that Taiwan is not in a position to defend itself.
This is a problem.
70 years of tense quiescence has lead the Taiwanese to come to resent the sword of Damocles of Chinese invasion that has hung over their heads all this time. This is understandable, yet unwise. Especially with Xi’s stated ambitions of getting Taiwanese unification done on his watch, Taiwan should be on high alert, rather than sleepwalking through danger as China continues to get stronger.
As inappropriate as the Taiwan situation is vis as vis Afghanistan, if it reinvigorates Taiwanese urgency about the danger of a possible Chinese invasion, I would say it is a good thing.
We all know that China never forgot about Taiwan. But so far, every day they’ve said…”not today.” But the terrain is shifting and what worked for the next 70 years might not work for the next seven.
It’s our job to make sure the CCP keep saying that to themselves, every day from now on…not today.
Special thanks to Prof Ian Oxnevad and @JoshuaMWilkes on twitter for their research and insights.
What I always say when people say 'Taiwan can't defend itself from a CCP invasion is' a) Taiwan is a mountain island, you can't get more defensive terrain than that, and b) nobody has conquered the entire island through military force ever. Both Japan and the ROC took control of Taiwan primarily through diplomacy, not military force.
This is extremely anecdotal, but in my experience, the PRC citizens most open to the idea of Taiwan being independent of China were from Fujian (maybe they are better informed, or they are more sympathetic due to cultural/linguistic/etc ties, or maybe they are scared of what war with Taiwan would do to them). Any attempts by Taiwanese people to win over ordinary Chinese people might be especially effective there.
Though I don't want to suggest anyone in Taiwan is as awful as the Taliban... they offer a different kind of lesson. The Taliban were able to outlast the American occupation, despite the firepower of the U.S. military, because Afghanistan is their home, they're motivated, they're patient, and they were more willing to make sacrifices. Even if the CCP initially succeed in a takeover, that doesn't mean they would control Taiwan long-term, just as the United States was unable to defeat the Taliban in the long run.
Thanks for the thoughtful post!
Dear Angelica, I am glad to have discovered your site. The "bed-wetting" reference was as good as it gets: Pundits are quick to print anything for click-bait. It is the reality of your observations that saddens me. I am at a loss as to what it would take for for the good people, who live in one of the most comfortable counties I have known, to wake up and see the light. I guess "cvomplacency" says it all. With regards from DelMarVa, Tom