Trump Arms Sales to Taiwan Boost Anti-China ‘Hedgehog’ Strategy

While China has long opposed U.S. arms exports to Taiwan, the Trump administration’s latest sales are worrying to Beijing for another reason: They show a greater alignment among the two democracies on the so-called “hedgehog” strategy to resist an invasion.

The U.S. weapons approved this month mark a notable shift in approach from the flashier warplanes and tanks traditionally favored in Taipei that were more vulnerable to an attack from Beijing. In the last two weeks, the State Department signed off on the $2.4 billion sale of 100 Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems anti-ship missiles and $1.8 billion worth of extended-range land attack mobile missiles, as well as surveillance and reconnaissance sensors.

The move cements a transition toward greater asymmetric warfare capabilities long recommended by U.S. defense analysts and included in Taiwan’s own defense strategy since 2017. That plan seeks to inflict more damage on Chinese forces crossing the Taiwan Strait in an invasion, while limiting Beijing’s ability to wipe out Taiwan’s defenses and air force with a barrage of targeted missiles.

Taiwan views the weapons as purely defensive, part of a gradual shift to a “hedgehog” or “porcupine” strategy that would see the island strengthen its defenses while deterring a People’s Liberation Army attack that might lead to a wider nuclear conflict with the U.S. and devastate the region. President Donald Trump has increased ties with Taiwan, including signing a law in 2018 that called on the U.S. to make annual assessments of Taiwan’s defense needs.

“This arms sale is quite important and crucial to Taiwan,” Wang Ting-Yu, a Taiwanese lawmaker in the ruling party who co-chairs the island’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, told Bloomberg Television on Tuesday. “We need to defend ourselves, so when we develop our capability we try to be hedgehog-like. When a lion tries to swallow a hedgehog, it will hurt -- so no lion will try to swallow a hedgehog.”

Trump Arms Sales to Taiwan Boost Anti-China ‘Hedgehog’ Strategy

‘Offensive Weapon’

Yet the sale of more effective weapons -- including missile systems capable of reaching Chinese soil and viewed by China as offensive rather than defensive -- risks igniting more fury in Beijing, which is engaged in a broader strategic battle with the U.S.

“No matter how you look at it, it is not a defensive weapon -- it’s an offensive weapon,” said Zhu Jiangming, a Beijing-based senior researcher at Renmin University’s Overseas Security Research Institute. Referring to Taiwan’s “porcupine” strategy, he added: “The U.S. is continuing to pass poisonous quills to Taiwan.”

China earlier this week announced unspecified sanctions on the defense unit of Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., and Raytheon Technologies Corp. over the weapons sales. On Tuesday, China Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Beijing warned the U.S. to stop arms sales to Taiwan. “China will take necessary measures to uphold our sovereignty and security interests,” he said.

For leaders in Taipei anxious about Chinese threats, the Trump administration’s willingness to needle Beijing on everything from trade and the coronavirus to arms exports has been a boon. Under Trump, the U.S. has pledged to sell nearly as many arms to Taiwan in U.S. dollar terms as the Obama administration did in eight years, according to calculations from Su Tzu-yun, associate research fellow at the Taipei-based Institute for National Defense and Security Research.

Still, land-based missile systems like the Harpoon “will have only marginal deterrence value unless thousands are deployed, which currently seems unlikely,” said Ian Easton, a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute, a research organization focused on U.S. security interests in the Indo-Pacific. “The sheer number of PLA targets is remarkable and many will be decoys.”

Heightened Pressure

Beijing has kept up pressure on Taiwan throughout the pandemic with fly-bys into the island’s air defense identification zone -- including two military aircraft on Monday that caused Taiwan to scramble its fighters.

To counter the latest U.S. weapons sale, China could do more military exercises, live-fire incidents or make moves to threaten outlying Taiwanese islands, according to Wu Shang-Su, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

China could mount an economic blockade of the island or destroy the U.S. weapons once they’re deployed, Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-backed Global Times, said on Chinese social media site Weibo. The Global Times regularly calls for aggressive responses on Taiwan, and those scenarios would risk significant U.S. backlash.

Wang, the Taiwanese lawmaker, said the latest weapons will help raise the cost of war with China.

“What we are doing in Taiwan now is making the leader of China think twice,” he said. “We are trying to make the price something they cannot afford.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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