Taiwan Needs a Maoist Military

Beijing can always outspend Taipei. It’s time to think small and mean.

A U.S.-made helicopter takes off from a frigate.
A U.S.-made S-70C helicopter is guided by a Taiwanese Navy soldier during takeoff from a frigate in the sea near the Suao harbor in Yilan, eastern Taiwan, on April 13, 2018. Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images

Give up and become Maoists.

That’s my counsel to Taiwan’s government and armed forces as they fret about the titan rousing itself across the Taiwan Strait. And an increasingly wrathful titan it is. In recent years, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has stepped up the pace of military maneuvers near the island even as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) grandees mutter balefully about how Beijing has never renounced the use of armed force to bring Taipei under mainland rule.

Not only has the leadership never renounced force, it also vows regularly that it will use force to settle the dispute on its terms if Taiwan doesn’t buckle. In fact, Beijing transcribed its threat into law via its Anti-Secession Law back in 2005.

Surrender or conquest: Like a certain mob boss of Hollywood lore, the CCP supremo has made the islanders an offer they can’t refuse.

Now, I am not counseling surrender when I urge Taipei to embrace Maoism. Just the opposite. Taiwanese need not and must not give up their independence or their liberal democratic way of life. Rather, they must adapt Mao Zedong’s war-making methods—techniques meant to empower the weak to prevail over the strong in a trial of arms. Once military commanders accept—and come to feel in their guts—that Taiwan is now the weaker contender in the Taiwan Strait, they will learn to think in Maoist terms. Strategy, operational concepts, and weaponry for turning the tables on the strong will come naturally to them.

The island’s political and military leadership must abandon the offensive mindset of the strong. That demands a cultural revolution of sorts. For decades, Taiwanese military folk cherished the conceit that they would best PLA hosts in a pitched battle and rule sea and sky afterward. The military regarded itself as a plucky, skilled, high-tech force. Aviators and mariners would venture forth in times of trouble and overcome the lumbering PLA, which was stronger by weight of numbers but remained backward in technological and human terms.

Naval Might: China vs. Taiwan
PLAN numbers include Southern and Eastern theaters only*
*China’s Eastern and Southern theater navies would take part in direct action on the Taiwan Navy. The Northern theater navy would primarily protect sea approaches to China and could support other fleets in mission-critical situations. Note: Icons are illustrative and do not depict actual vessels.

*China’s Eastern and Southern theater navies would take part in direct action on the Taiwanese Navy. The Northern theater navy would primarily protect sea approaches to China and could support other fleets in mission-critical situations. Note: Icons are illustrative and do not depict actual vessels.source: U.S. defense department

In other words, the idea was that Taiwan’s quality would trump China’s quantity. And it made perfect sense—so long as the island remained a beneficiary of U.S. military largesse while China remained a poor country with little to invest in high-tech armaments. The qualitative offset endured. But U.S. presidential administrations and Congress have been stingier and stingier with arms sales over the years, even as China opened itself to the world economically, made itself rich, and sluiced some of its wealth into new weaponry for PLA naval, air, and missile forces. Both assumptions—U.S. support and mainland backwardness—are now suspect.

Today, Taiwan’s defenders remain outnumbered, as always, but they can no longer count on technology and human excellence to make up for relatively sparse numbers of ships, planes, and tanks. The PLA is good and getting better, while its advantage in sheer mass will last into the indefinite future. The geopolitical advantage goes to the well-armed continental power overshadowing the winsome island lying just offshore.

Once upon a time, it bears repeating, the CCP was far from a juggernaut. Mao honed his martial theories to guide a Red Army confronting overpowering foes in Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army, its antagonist in the Chinese Civil War, and later the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, which invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China proper in 1937.

The idea underlying Mao’s concept of “active defense” is that the weak can do things to make themselves strong while enfeebling a superior enemy. They can organize, recruit manpower, and train for combat, laying the groundwork for a dominant force. They can induce the enemy to divide its force into smaller, weaker units, or break its alliances. Getting the enemy to scatter its power lets the lesser contender mass guerrilla forces and small units at points of impact—outmatching the adversary locally and winning minor tactical engagements even though its armed forces remain inferior on the whole. In other words, active defense, astutely executed, sets the strong on the downslope toward inferiority while putting the weak on the upslope toward supremacy.

Eventually the trendlines converge on a crossover point beyond which the balance of forces reverses itself. Thereafter, the erstwhile weak can unleash a counteroffensive against the erstwhile strong—and emerge triumphant. The beleaguered Red Army turned the Nationalists’ world upside down after being hounded to the brink of oblivion during the Long March of 1934to 1936. That’s when CCP forces retreated deep into the hinterland to regroup. They came back, outlasted Japanese invaders, resumed the fighting against Chiang’s legions after World War II, and were the victor by 1949.

Active defense, in short, is an intensely offensive-minded brand of defensive strategy.

Now, Taiwan in 2019 is not China in the age of Mao. It will never amass the economic or military resources to defeat the PLA outright, the way the PLA smashed its opponents. In that sense, active defense applies better to Taiwan than China. Taipei is permanently weaker than contemporary Beijing, while inferiority was fleeting for Mao’s CCP. Yet Mao had to accomplish big things, eradicating his enemies’ political existence to impose communist rule on the mainland. Taipei merely needs to mount a defense formidable enough to deter a cross-strait attack or, failing that, to gain time for U.S. forces to battle their way into the combat theater to reverse aggression.

Some of us have been urging Taiwan to embark on a new strategy for some time. My colleague and shipmate from way back when, Bill Murray, led the way back in 2008 by recommending that the islanders adopt what is known as a “porcupine strategy.” Rather than investing lavishly in high-end warplanes or ground forces likely to meet swift defeat at PLA hands, Murray suggested strewing land-based missiles and other armaments around the island. Such weaponry could evade destruction while meting out fearful punishment against a cross-strait amphibious or air offensive. The island would make itself indigestible—like a porcupine.

My friend and co-author Toshi Yoshihara and I followed up in 2010 and 2011 with a seaborne counterpart to the porcupine strategy, although we didn’t pitch it in quite those terms at the time. First we maintained that the Taiwanese Navy could no longer win command of the sea, sweeping the PLA Navy from important waters and using those waters as the Taiwanese leadership saw fit. Seeking maritime command through big battles is what the strong do. It no longer fit Taiwan’s circumstances.

What the Taiwanese Navy could do was deny the PLA Navy command of seaways adjoining the island. Such sea denial is a classic strategy of the weak who entertain limited aims. No maritime command for China, no amphibious assault. A mortal threat would remain at bay, either because Beijing concluded such an assault offered sparse prospects of success and foreswore the attempt, or because the Taiwanese Navy, fighting in concert with porcupine forces ashore, delayed the onslaught long enough for U.S. forces to arrive on station to help repulse the assailants.

Attacking Taiwan by Sea

SOURCE: The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia by Ian Easton, with maps by paul huang; Basemap: Carto

If a porcupine strategy means de-emphasizing high-end weaponry on land, a sea denial strategy would similarly forgo hardware and operations useful for major fleet battles. Out would go traditional platforms such as destroyers and frigates, sure to be pummeled by their PLA Navy counterparts on the open sea. Instead, the Taiwanese Navy would put to sea swarms of small surface combatants armed to the teeth with anti-ship missiles. Fast patrol craft could range around Taiwan’s rugged periphery, using geography for concealment. They could make small fishing harbors their bases, daring China to distinguish them from fishing vessels or pleasure craft berthed there. Small craft would be Taiwan’s great equalizer. They perform that function for Nordic countries blessed with rugged geography—and, reportedly, early tests and maneuvers have yielded results satisfactory to Taiwan’s naval leaders as well.

Much as Mao envisioned concentrating the Red Army against fragmented Nationalist or Japanese forces and wiping them out in turn—he advised commanders that it was better to cut off one of an enemy’s fingers altogether than mash them all—the Taiwanese Navy could mass firepower from patrol craft to overwhelm individual parts of a PLA amphibious armada. Cut off a Chinese finger or two, and the effort starts losing momentum. Beijing will find it hard to make a fist—and the prospects for successful resistance will brighten. Best of all, the better a fight the islanders put up, the easier it is for the United States to intercede—militarily, yes, but also politically. It’s easier for the White House to order U.S. forces into harm’s way on behalf of a plucky island ally like Winston Churchill’s Britain than a hapless victim.

The good news in all of this is that Taipei has moved toward a Maoist offshore strategy. Then-President Ma Ying-jeou ordered a review of Taiwan’s naval strategy back in 2010, and force acquisitions are learning some of the lessons of weakness. A new class of impressive-seeming stealthy corvettes is currently under construction—the offshore counterpart to Red Army guerrillas and light forces—while the indigenously built missiles that evidently constitute the corvettes’ armament appear hard-hitting. But apparently only a dozen of these fleet-of-foot streetfighters will be constructed. That’s hardly a swarm capable of deterring or delaying a Chinese onslaught for long. The Navy needs many more hulls.

The Taiwanese Navy has come some ways in the right direction but has some ways yet to go. In large part that’s because of the Navy’s culture, a product of decades of traditional top-end sea combat. Mariners fight change to proven methods. Cultures have a curious quality: They resist being revised, even by farsighted leadership, and often have to be debunked by events. It took Pearl Harbor to break the U.S. Navy’s culture of battleship operations, showing that aircraft carriers were now the premier weapon for war at sea. Taiwan doesn’t have the option of suffering a major defeat as a learning experience. It must buck the trend, amending its naval culture before a cross-strait war—a war potentially fatal to national existence—breaks out.

Embarking on a new course is a matter of urgency. An island populated by 23 million people has only so much to spend on national defense. It cannot afford to waste resources on expensive legacy capabilities while procuring new capabilities in bulk. Leaders in Taipei, accordingly, may be better off redirecting scarce budgetary resources toward porcupine or sea denial platforms and away from pricey and glitzy purchases such as F-16 fighters or domestically built submarines—to name two traditional programs that command substantial support on the island.

Strategy is about setting and enforcing priorities. The same can be said of designing and forging the implements used to execute strategy. If Taipei goes all in on the weapons of the weak, that’s where it should direct resources—lest it try to procure every bit of hardware to carry out every possible military mission and end up ill equipped to conduct any of them.

In the end, then, strategy is about self-discipline. There are worse legacies for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to cite heading into an election year than an effectual active defense at sea. But it demands that she curb Taiwan’s longstanding naval culture.

But maybe don’t mention Mao during campaign season.

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.