A “People’s War” against the People’s Republic: Deterring an Invasion of Taiwan (in three parts)

Dr. Ford published a three-part series of short essays on deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan for the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Law School, on October 5, 7, and 11, 2021. They may be found here, here, and here on NSI’s podcast website, “The SCIF.”

Christopher Ashley Ford
9 min readOct 20, 2021

This three-part series looks at the U.S-Taiwan partnership from the perspective of how we might be able more effectively to deter an invasion of Taiwan by the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — which has spent many years preparing for such an operation. Part I of this series will examine shortcomings in previous U.S. Government approaches to defending Taiwan and deterring an invasion, while Part II will offer a practical plan for presenting the PLA with unprecedented operational challenges in an invasion scenario. In conclusion, Part III will then explore how such an operational approach could be coupled with a strategic communications campaign that really might present the Chinese Communist Party with circumstances threatening enough to its interests to deter aggression.

Part I:

The ignominious American retreat and humanitarian catastrophe of turning Afghanistan over to the Taliban has led to questions about whether U.S. alliance guarantees can be depended upon. The debacle, for instance, has encouraged some to predict a similar fate for America’s longstanding partners on Taiwan, a thriving democracy we have long promised to help protect, but that faces terrible threats from its huge and predatory authoritarian neighbor, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

It seems clear that the unseemly U.S. scramble to extricate itself from Afghanistan has worsened the problem of deterrence in the Taiwan context. One recent article, for instance, declares Taiwan undefendable and urges that U.S. arms sales to the island be terminated, even as media reports detail the PRC’s growing preponderance of force in the region, raising doubts about U.S. guaranteesto the island nation.

Certainly, the PRC’s propaganda machine is crowing about the implications. One newspaper — Global Times, owned and controlled by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) official mouthpiece People’s Daily — has described the Afghanistan withdrawal as a “lesson” for Taiwan that it should come to terms with Beijing, claiming that it is just “a matter of time” until Washington abandons Taiwan, too.

Biden Administration officials have desperately tried to rebut Afghanistan/Taiwan comparisons, insisting that notwithstanding our craven abandonment of the former, the U.S. commitment to the latter remains “as strong as it’s ever been.” One hopes this is true, and indeed the two situations are somewhat different. It’s also important to remember that even America’s humiliation in Vietnam did notcause the collapse of our other alliance networks, either in Europe or East Asia. (In fact, not long thereafter, NATO courageously countered Soviet SS-20 missile deployments with the deployment of U.S. intermediate-range systems. Perhaps Global Times should ponder that analogy more.)

That said, the Afghan mess has certainly roiled the geopolitical waters in potentially dangerous ways. It is unquestionably the case that the PRC is stepping up bellicose rhetoric and campaign of threats and intimidation against Taiwan, while continuing to build up a massive array of force against that beleaguered democracy. It is also hardly surprising that new questions are now being raised about U.S. constancy as an ally and about our ability to help defend Taiwan.

These questions are all the more vexing given the degree to which — despite decades of arms sales, which the Biden Administration has continued — Taiwan has not always been supplied with the types of U.S. military equipment that would be most useful against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in an invasion scenario. Too often, Taiwan has tended to end up with gear that may be symbolically important and “sexy,” but that seems unlikely to be of much actual use against such an invasion.

For example, Taiwan’s newly-upgraded F-16 fighter jets are likely to conduct only one-way missions in the event of a full-scale invasion, even assuming they manage to get off the ground before their runways are destroyed by the PLA’s huge arsenal of missiles. It made sense to provide Taiwan with anti-ship missiles and armed maritime patrol drones, which could be used to help attrit a PLA amphibious armada, but U.S. main battle tanks would have limited utility as the mountainous and partly forest-covered island is overrun. Just how Taiwan would expect to use U.S.-made amphibious assault vehicles against a PLA amphibious invasion, moreover, is anyone’s guess.

This is clearly a problem. The more equipment we provide that won’t help Taiwan against a full-scale Chinese invasion, the more we risk seeming to confirm Global Times’ assessment that the United States simply seeks to sell arms at a profit without getting stuck with a serious commitment to the island’s defense. The more, too, might we thereby also risk allowing our Afghanistan withdrawal to taint our alliance relationships elsewhere.

Assuming that the point of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is to equip it to resist an invasion — and thus also to help deter one — Washington and Taipei still have work to do in demonstrating the military efficacy of our partnership and making the island demonstrably “indigestible” to the PLA. How might we convince Beijing both that this partnership is likely to be militarily effective and that an invasion would result in a bloody, costly, and prolonged debacle in ways potentially dangerous to the survival of the CCP itself?

That’s a tall order, but there may indeed be a way to do this. I’ll turn to the practicalities of ensuring such a debacle for the PLA in Part II.

Part II:

Welcome back. This second installment in our three-part series offers a vision for how to make such an invasion operationally and politically unsustainable and unattractive to Beijing and its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

As you may have gathered from my account in Part I, I believe U.S.-Taiwan security assistance and military cooperation should reorient itself away from trying to prop up the Taiwanese military as just another “regular,” conventional military force analogous to — though notably smaller than — the modern PLA. Instead, it should prepare Taiwan to put up an intolerable degree of irregular, non-conventional resistance to any PLA invasion and occupation. We need, in other words, to turn Mao Zedong’s theories of “People’s War” back against the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Imagine, if you will, a security assistance program that helps Taiwan establish a network of hundreds (or thousands?) of clandestine arms caches all around the island — in densely-populated urban areas and rugged mountain fastnesses alike — brimming with supplies and equipment to help the Taiwanese people confront the PLA with its own debilitating, humiliating, and utterly unwinnable “Vietnam” or “Afghanistan.” These caches would contain the weaponry needed for Taiwanese irregular fighters to make the PLA’s life on the island a living hell: man-portable air defense systems; anti-tank guided missiles; anti-vehicular mines; sniper rifles and ammunition; and high-grade explosives and detonator/fusing kits to facilitate anti-PLA sabotage missions and improvised explosive device placements against an occupying force.

Portable jammers for the PLA’s “BeiDou” system — China’s analogue to the American GPS network — could also be supplied in order to help the Taiwanese resistance impede PLA aerial navigation and weapon targeting, as well as American equipment optimized for jamming or intercepting Chinese military communications. Short-range, low-power encrypted radios would help Taiwanese guerrillas communicate with each other and organize the fight, while longer-range communications equipment — as well as target-designation gear — would facilitate coordination with long-range precision fires deliverable by U.S. aerial, military, and naval assets from far offshore. (The caches might even include quantities of small, clandestine “tag-and-track” devices, which resistance fighters could affix to vehicles and other assets associated with the PLA occupation, further facilitating targeting and interdiction.) Video gear and satellite communications equipment would also be supplied to enable locals to upload evidence of PLA abuses and atrocities — as well as heroic and inspiring stories of resistance activity — in order to embarrass Beijing, undermine its propaganda, and potentially lay the groundwork for future war crimes prosecutions of senior PLA and CCP officials.

The establishment of such a network of arms caches should not be carried out in secret — though of course their actual locations would need to be concealed as much as possible. To the contrary, integral to this new security assistance program would be a forward-leaning U.S.-Taiwan messaging campaign making clear what was underway and highlighting just what a truly awful mess would inevitably await PLA servicemembers were they to try to occupy Taiwan.

I’ll turn to that messaging campaign — and why I think it really could help deter a PLA invasion by threatening CCP interests in ways that could be even more compelling than Beijing’s perceived incentive to take Taiwan as quickly as possible — in Part III of this series.

Part III:

In this final installment of my three-part series on how to deter an invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA), I’ll try to pivot from the operational — i.e., creating a world of potential insurgent ugliness for the PLA should it try to occupy the island — to the political and the geopolitical, and to why I think this approach may in fact be deterring.

In Part II of this series, I called for “a forward-leaning U.S.-Taiwan messaging campaign making clear what was underway and highlighting just what a truly awful mess would inevitably await PLA servicemembers were they to try to occupy Taiwan.” As I see it, this messaging campaign would be particularly important to the overall strategy, inasmuch as upon it would hinge much of the deterrent effect of this program — that is, its ability not merely to equip Taiwanese irregulars to bloody and humiliate the PLA in defending their homeland against Chinese invasion, but also in fact to help deter attack by making an invasion seem desperately unpalatable, and perhaps even existentially dangerous, to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders in Beijing.

The Chinese Communist Party has invested enormous political capital, over the years, in the idea that the CCP alone is capable of bringing about the “return” of China to a central place on the world stage through a process of “national rejuvenation.” In this ambitious vision, the country’s humiliations at the hand of Westerners and Japanese in the 19th and early 20th-centuries would finally be put behind it, and Beijing would reemerge as the sort of global power Chinese nationalists imagine ancient China to have been, enjoying a preeminent status and respectability at the center of human civilization in ways which they consider to be their historical birthright.

In terms of its domestic legitimacy narrative, in other words, the CCP has invested beyond measure in the notion of overcoming humiliations, re-acquiring a position of respected global centrality at the center of some modernized, status-conferring analogue to China’s ancient tribute system, and “reunifying the Chinese people” through the “recovery” of Taiwan.

This is why a humiliating PLA bloodletting at the hands of guerrillas in Taiwan could be hugely problematic from Beijing’s perspective, far beyond its actual (and very considerable) cost in lives and treasure, potentially even to the point of threatening CCP power in China itself. Particularly with a largely ethnically Chinese resistance in Taiwan that would be able to invoke the PRC’s own mid-20th-century propaganda tropes and doctrinal pronouncements about “People’s War” against the CCP — a scenario in which, moreover, the PRC would be cast in the role of Imperial Japan — such an intractable conflict could strike dangerously close to the heart of CCP power and legitimacy in China, even as the Party prepared to celebrate the supposed gloriousness of its 100 years in power in 2049. (The global sanctions and isolation that could also result from such a war scenario might jeopardize many of the foundations of the PRC’s economic power and prosperity, too, thus striking at the CCP’s only other source of supposed domestic legitimacy and presenting Party leaders with something of a “perfect storm” of catastrophe.)

Enjoying in recent years the fruits of its economic and military expansion, the CCP seems to be increasingly self-confident and risk-tolerant in many external ways, but it remains at its core deeply fearful, terrified of the population it struggles to control. For all Xi Jinping’s recent provocative swagger in international affairs, therefore, a bloody and irregular “People’s War” in Taiwan of the sort contemplated here might indeed seem a terrifying prospect from the CCP leadership compound at Zhongnanhai. Making all of this exquisitely clear to Beijing in advance, moreover, could notably advance the cause of deterring just such a conflict.

To be sure, re-engineering U.S.-Taiwan security assistance along these lines — and effectively signaling to Beijing both the horrors it would face on Taiwan and the instability and insecurity a humiliated and stigmatized CCP regime might face at home should an invasion occur — would be no small task. But such a bold new “People’s War” program would take less time, cost less money, and provide much more warfighting and deterrent impact than even several decades more of the sort of conventional military assistance we have traditionally provided to Taiwan.

So where does this leave us? Well, I think that despite America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, therefore, we can still reform and reinvigorate our partnership with Taiwan. We do know how to make the island demonstrably “indigestible” to the PLA, and thus help protect its vibrant democracy from invasion and suppression by the Chinese Communist Party. And we should do so.

— Christopher Ford



Christopher Ashley Ford

Dr. Ford is a former diplomat, Senate staffer, naval intelligence officer, and think tank scholar who works and writes on foreign and national security policy.