Lee Hsi-ming was once the top military officer in Taiwan, charged with protecting the island from what he calls the existential threat posed by China.
Now the retired admiral has swapped the sword for the pen and written a book urging Taiwan to speed up reforms that embrace the same guerrilla warfare strategies that Ukraine is using to thwart Russia’s invasion.
Among other things, the former defence chief is calling on Taipei to create a reserve force of civilians, much like Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces, to help deter a Chinese invasion. “We will show them that even if you successfully landed on our territory, there is not only the military but the whole population across every inch of our island equipped with Javelins, Stingers, drones, radios and improvised explosive devices,” he said in an interview.
China’s authoritarian rulers consider Taiwan a breakaway province and as recently as August reaffirmed that they would “not renounce the use of force” to annex the island.
Mr. Lee is one of many in the Taiwanese military community drawing lessons, and even inspiration, from Ukrainian fighters who have surprised and repelled Russia’s numerically superior, better-equipped forces for almost seven months.
He warns that Taiwan is not moving fast enough in shifting to the kind of asymmetrical, or unconventional, warfare needed to fight an outsized foe – a type of warfare that relies on mines, missiles and drones rather than big-ticket items such as fighter jets.
“If our airfields are destroyed, the fighter jets can’t take off,” he said. “That would mean a significant portion of our investments would be gone – which is a terrible disaster.”
He is also urging the country’s military to quickly embrace a command structure that empowers junior officers to make big decisions.
Ou Si-fu, a director at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research, agrees that the army, navy and air force are too wedded to buying conventional gear such as tanks, ships and planes. “The mentality is not changing overnight.”
Mr. Ou said a glaring lesson from Ukraine is the massive amount of ammunition – from bullets to missiles – being consumed by both sides. He said that should serve as a wake-up call that Taiwan’s existing stores are “maybe not enough to deal with a massive Chinese attack.”
And when it comes to decentralizing command structures to give lower ranks more tactical freedom, “the pace of reform is not fast enough,” he said.
But others disagree with Mr. Lee’s assertions. Lai I-chung, the president of Taiwan’s Prospect Foundation think tank, said China’s aggressive military exercises around Taiwan in August are one reason why conventional hardware such as planes and ships remain vital. Beijing could blockade the island and starve it of energy and food for months before an invasion. It’s unlikely Taiwan’s allies would come to its aid if it were merely under blockade. “You still need traditional platforms such as aircraft to ensure a blockade wouldn’t work.”
Indeed, one of the biggest open questions for Taiwan is whether it can rely on international support. NATO refrained from deploying in Ukraine, but its members have supplied Kyiv with large amounts of equipment. The United States has maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan that does not make explicitly clear how it would respond to a military assault of the island.
U.S. President Joe Biden, in a 60 Minutes interview broadcast Sunday, said in his clearest statement yet that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China. Asked if that meant that, unlike in Ukraine, U.S. troops would be deployed, Mr. Biden replied: “Yes.”
A White House spokesperson later told Reuters that U.S. policy toward Taiwan had not changed.
But Mr. Ou said Taipei still cannot be assured of U.S. support. The U.S. is not committed by treaty to aid Taiwan. He said Mr. Biden may be making a commitment, but “U.S. presidents change.”
Shen Ming-shih, the acting deputy CEO of the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, said another lesson from Ukraine is that successful and prolonged resistance to an attack will encourage international military support – even if it’s just in the form of ammunition and equipment. “God helps those who help themselves,” he said.
While Taipei hasn’t adopted Mr. Lee’s territorial defence plan, it has set about reforming the country’s reserves. And Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said in March that a plan to extend compulsory military service was under consideration. Military experts anticipate Taipei will extend it to one year from four months.
Mr. Lee says Taiwanese appear more open to a greater role for civilians in a war. He said that when he first proposed a territorial defence force after he retired in 2019, critics in Taiwan accused him of wanting to “send civilians to the battlefield to die.”
But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he has again been advocating for such a force and has not faced a backlash. “This time, no criticism.”
Mr. Shen said Ukraine’s recent military successes give Taiwan hope that a determined and united smaller military can fend off a bigger enemy. He noted that one ranking of military might lists Russia as No. 2 and Ukraine as No. 22. The Global Firepower 2022 Military Strength Ranking also ranked China at No. 3 and Taiwan at No. 21.
“If No. 22 can defeat No. 2, why can’t No. 21 defeat No. 3?”
With files from Reuters