Taiwan’s Theory of the Fight

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Lee Hsi-ming, Taiwan’s Plan for Victory: An Asymmetric Strategy to Use the Small to Control the Large: All of Taiwan Should Understand the Overall Defense Concept (Linking Books, 2022).

In 1874, the Japanese Meiji government dispatched a punitive expedition to Taiwan. Its leaders sailed with instructions to exact retribution on indigenous islanders who, in 1871, had captured and executed a group of shipwrecked sailors. Unable to mount any resistance to Japan’s newly acquired steamships, Chinese Qing officials watched helplessly as Japanese forces crossed the sea, landed on Taiwan, and killed dozens of native Taiwanese. Humiliated by the attack, Qing leaders debated the best strategy to prevent future Japanese incursions. Some advocated acquiring “strong ships and powerful cannon” to symmetrically match the Japanese at sea. Others saw in new asymmetric technologies like the torpedo —cheap, concealable, lethal — a means of achieving deterrence by denial. Tempted by both strategies, the Qing built a strategically confused program of coastal defenses and an ocean-going fleet. In 1894, Japan — undeterred — engaged and decisively defeated the Qing at sea and ashore in the First Sino-Japanese War, annexing Taiwan as a colony in 1895.

The basic contours of this Qing-era debate over how to defend Taiwan resonate today — so too do the risks of getting strategic choices wrong. Like Qing officials taking stock of the whirlwind Japanese expansion in the 19th century, Taiwan’s leaders are now at a crossroads, facing down a rising power in the Western Pacific during a period of technological flux and political uncertainty.

In crowded field of work by scholars and officials exploring Taiwan’s security, Lee Hsi-ming’s Taiwan’s Plan for Victory: An Asymmetric Strategy of Using the Small to Control the Large (2022) stands out as both a theoretical framework for deterrence and a set of concrete proposals for asymmetric resistance against a People’s Liberation Army invasion. Lee, Taiwan’s chief of the general staff from 2017 to 2019, argues for reorganizing Taiwan’s military in a “paradigm shift” away from expensive “traditional” platforms and instead instituting an “Overall Defence Concept” relying on small, mobile, distributable, and lethal weapons to deter a numerically and materially superior People’s Republic of China. If deterrence fails, “overall defense” also promises the tactics and weapons to survive an initial attack and then, Lee claims, defeat an enemy landing force.

Lee’s case tracks closely to a policy proposal he made in 2018, summarized by Drew Thompson here and in Lee’s own words in The Diplomat and at the Hoover Institution. The 2022 monograph’s goal, however, is more ambitious than these earlier efforts: to shape not just official policy, but mainstream opinion in Taiwan and, one suspects, in the United States and People’s Republic of China as well. Writing in 2022, Lee also had the advantage of evidence from recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Ukraine.

In all, Lee’s book is a window onto strategic debates in Taipei with implications for the United States and the People’s Republic of China. It persuasively argues that if (if!) Taiwan moves quickly, it can build a credible deterrent by restructuring its military from a force based on “concentration, fixed-defenses, and control” (集中、固守、控制) to one relying on “dispersal, mobility, and denial” (分散、機動、拒止). This shift would revolutionize Taiwan’s military and civil society, presenting new opportunities for the United States and challenges for the People’s Republic of China. Military officers and defense contractors across the Pacific should take note of what tactics and technologies might support the Overall Defense Concept — and which ones the concept will render obsolete. Strategists interested in a cross-strait crisis, “air sea battle,” or “anti-access/area denial” should read Lee with an eye toward how Taiwan will participate in its own defense. If nothing else, Lee should be congratulated for his effort. Having made a successful case for how Taiwan might frustrate an armed invasion, Lee has already improved the credibility of Taiwan’s deterrence.



The Overall Defense Concept and its Implementation

A graduate of the U.S. Naval War College, Lee is steeped in theories of threat perception, loss of strength gradient, and deterrence. Indeed, Thomas Schelling runs like a leitmotif through the text. Lee is also finely attuned to the contours of U.S. political debate over both Taiwan and Indo-Pacific strategy. He is hopeful that the United States would intervene in the event of an invasion or blockade. That said, he believes Taiwan should develop an organic theory of defense that can operate successfully with or without U.S. support. Taiwan’s “America Complex” has for too long encouraged leaders to purchase conventional and at times archaic weapons for which Taiwan now has little use. Troubled by the parallel problems of foreign technological dependency and U.S. “strategic ambiguity,” Lee stresses that Taiwan should articulate a reasonable theory of self-reliance as the foundation of a credible deterrence.

Lee’s basic problem is how to defend Taiwan given the growing disparity in military funding between Taipei and Beijing. He notes that Taiwan’s “traditional” defense policy is rooted in superiority on the sea and in the air with weapons that are “small in number, exquisite in quality, and high in effectiveness.” Air superiority and sea control in conjunction with U.S. support safeguarded Taiwan against invasion for decades, most dramatically in the Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950s. Lee recalls, for example, that the first time a Sidewinder missile was used in combat was over the Taiwan Strait, allowing the Republic of China Air Force an edge over the People’s Liberation Army. While this worked well in the past, Lee believes that, given the scope of the People’s Liberation Army’s investment in ships and planes since the 1990s, it is manifestly impossible for Taiwan to keep pace in a plane for plane, ship for ship competition. Taiwan’s traditional navy (especially small craft like the Tuo Chiang corvette) and air force (newly acquired F-16s) will continue to be useful in peacetime as symbols of military power and a deterrent against People’s Republic of China incursions into Taiwan’s air and sea space (what Lee calls “gray zone” operations). These assets will not, though, meaningfully contribute to deterring or defeating “the existential threat of a military invasion of Taiwan” (武力犯臺). Leaders on both sides of the strait understand that if put to test in symmetrical battle, Taiwan’s traditional force would collapse. Worse yet, the destruction of squadrons of fighter planes and ships would harm Taiwan’s ability to resist by tanking civilian morale in the opening days of the war.

Recognizing the conventional superiority of the People’s Liberation Army, Lee makes the best of Taiwan’s weakness by advancing an asymmetric strategy of “overall defense.” This is nothing less than an effort to deny the People’s Liberation Army the ability to militarily unify Taiwan via a layered, cross-domain thicket of cheap, resilient weapons, leveraging resources from across civilian society for support. In the near and intermediate term, Lee argues, it is best to set aside anachronistic fantasies of “sea control” (控制) and instead focus on denying (拒止) the People’s Liberation Army Navy and Air Force the air and sea superiority that are prerequisites for a “triphibious” invasion. The tools and tactics Taiwan needs to achieve this strategic effect are not prestige weapons, but rather “a great quantity of mobile, distributable, accurate, and lethal little things” (大堆機動、分散、精準、致命的小東西).

If Taiwan’s military is unable to defeat a People’s Liberation Army invasion force at sea, or on the shore, it will be necessary to “deny in depth” using a host of cheap and man-portable weapons as well as a flexible and survivable command system. Toward that end, Lee also suggests a “territorial defense force” of mobilized civilians; something that would make an occupation of Taiwan tremendously expensive. Popular military participation, or the “communitization” (社區化) of resistance, would also, Lee notes, help correct a lack of military knowledge among ordinary citizens. This in mind, the concept is better translated as “comprehensive” than “overall defense.” It offers layers of denial comprehensively across domains at sea, in the air, on shore, and in depth against an assault. It is also comprehensive in that successful implementation hinges on the integration of civilian and military resources — or the “whole of society.”

Lessons from Other People’s Wars

Lee’s theory is buoyed by evidence from recent wars — mostly Afghanistan, Armenia-Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. From the collapse of Afghanistan’s government in 2022, Lee concludes that it is imperative for Taiwan to build defensive capabilities that can succeed with or without the United States. Lee sums up his thinking with a dose of optimism tempered by realism, urging Taiwan to be “thankful for support, but unafraid to resist alone” (有,感谢,没有,无惧). It is no time for wishful thinking or naivete. Lee cites Sun Tzu: “Do not count on your enemy’s reticence to attack, but rather depend on your own readiness to receive them.”

In Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian 2022 invasion, Lee finds a role model for how to asymmetrically defeat a Eurasian hegemon, as well as insight into the evolving nature of conflict. There are positive and negative lessons here. On the one hand, the failures of the Russian army show the perils of centralized command and control and insufficiently robust logistics networks. On the other, Ukraine’s success in blunting the initial Russian invasion is a tremendous encouragement to Lee. He explores in detail the possibilities of new technologies like drones and electronic warfare. More important still, he notes, is the underlying power of a popular and motivated resistance. Failure to “get real” about a territorial defense force in Taiwan would be to waste the lessons of the Ukraine war. Whether Ukraine’s citizen-soldiers ultimately manage to oust Russia from the Donbas and Crimea is irrelevant to Lee. Taiwan need not win back territory in mainland China to achieve its aims — it is enough to simply frustrate Beijing’s political ambitions at forceful unification through a comprehensive and credible deterrent.

Of course, members of the People’s Republic of China security studies community are also studying these foreign wars. If the available literature is any guide, national security experts in Beijing have taken a different set of lessons from Ukraine: namely, that the People’s Republic of China has the industrial base and technical proficiency to succeed where the Russians failed. Unfortunately, in the absence of overt hostilities it is impossible to know who is right.

A Plan Among Many

In comparative context, Lee’s book is a variation on the theme of “whole of society” resistance popularized over the past decade. Like other works written for relatively small nations on the borders of Eurasian hegemons — notably Otto Fiala’s Resistance Operating Concept and NATO’s Comprehensive Defense Handbook — Lee’s work is a provocation about how “the weak can defeat the strong” through collective mobilization and civil-military integration. Lee likely owes a debt to these authors, at least by osmosis. Indeed, he is explicitly interested in the territorial defense forces of the Baltic States as possible models for Taiwan.

Rhetorically, at least, Lee’s inspiration seems closer to home: China’s own history of resistance and civil war in the 20th century. Mao Zedong was fond of the phrase “to defeat the strong with the weak” (以弱胜强) and faith in that proposition lay at the heart of his “military romanticism” about the ability of people to overcome material deficiencies. Lee appropriates (in what may be a deliberate irony) Mao’s language and reforms it as “to control the large with the small.” Lee also proposes a “protracted” campaign of resistance against a lodged invasion force, reminiscent of Mao’s campaign of “protracted warfare” in 1938 against Japan. Lee’s plan is specific to the present, but it shares a great deal with earlier forms of asymmetric defense.

Geographically, Lee’s argument has particular value to other insular nations. Transferring insights from Fiala’s Resistance Operating Concept to maritime states poses a number of problems: Where is the front line? How do ordinary citizens respond to incursions into air and sea space? What about the piecemeal annexation of small offshore islands or the possibility of a blockade? Lee has thoughts on all these subjects. His work may be appealing for the Philippines or Japan, island nations in the midst of their own debates about force structure and spending. Actually, Lee’s table of contents tracks closely with another small island on the edge of Eurasia facing down a continental hegemon: the United Kingdom in 1939–1941. Lee’s plan to deny the People’s Liberation Army command of the air, sea, shore, and landing zones is an echo (at times nearly word for word) of Winston Churchill’s call to fight on the seas, in the air, on the beaches, landing grounds, streets, and hills.

Further Challenges and Opportunities

Any book as ambitious as Lee’s is bound to raise as many questions as it answers. The foremost concerns dependency. Lee is suspicious of Taiwan’s dependency on a handful of expensive platforms acquired from the United States. But instituting the “Overall Defense Concept” in the near term means new contracts for U.S.-made systems. On an intermediate timeline, an authentically self-reliant defense would require more investment in indigenous programs and a domestic industrial base. Taiwan’s media routinely celebrates the achievements of domestic weapons manufacturers, but it remains unknown if these firms could sustain Taiwan in combat.

Moreover, Lee’s almost singular commitment to asymmetric resistance likely overstates the benefits of comprehensive defense relative to other forms of deterrence. Lee categorically rejects “deterrence by punishment” as ineffective because Taiwan lacks nuclear weapons and should not risk provoking Beijing by obtaining them. That is sensible, but it is hardly self-evident. North Korea transformed its deterrent capability by obtaining nuclear weapons, despite objections from the international community. Nuclear weapons were central to U.S. plans to defend Taiwan, and even its offshore islands, for decades during the Cold War. It is possible that Lee’s skepticism toward nuclear weapons doubles as a critique of Taiwan’s long-range conventional missile program — a program he sees as at best quixotic and at worst a waste of finite resources. In both cases, Lee contends that deterrence by punishment is as likely to provoke a war with the People’s Republic of China as prevent one.

Lee has blindspots as well, notably regarding “gray zone” operations. His definition of “gray zone” warfare — to him the incursion of People’s Liberation Army assets into Taiwan’s waters and skies to erode confidence and readiness — is quite narrow. A truly comprehensive defense would have to take into account threats like psychological and political warfare. Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense already has a Political Warfare Bureau that could be enlisted toward those ends.

Then there is the question of civil-military relations in the shadow of Taiwan’s military dictatorship. Any attempt at full scale mobilization or a “whole of people defense” (全民防衛,) carries within it real risks to the autonomy of civil society — exactly the sort of freedoms that Taiwan is keen to preserve. Would the people of Taiwan be willing to defend their democracy if doing so means becoming a garrison state? Is it possible to construct a robust territorial defense force, while still preserving civil society’s independence? Lee seems to believe the answer is yes, but the text is not clear about a risk inherent to “comprehensive defense” strategies generally: by militarizing society they can destroy the very freedoms that they intend to safeguard.

Stylistically, the book can be repetitive, but that is as much feature as bug. Lee writes on the explicit assumption that certain readers will skim or skip chapters, making it necessary to reiterate points. The Kindle edition also comes with only a handful of citations. This misses an opportunity to connect Lee’s work to the raucous debate about comprehensivedefense and irregular warfare underway globally.


Tucked into the body of the text, Lee quotes Muhammed Ali to sum up his theory of mobility and survivability: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” In fact, Ali’s boast is an apt metaphor for the Overall Defense Concept writ large: Equip Taiwan with a force that can survive an enemy barrage by dispersing and then hit back. It is a good plan. Ali’s “rope-a-dope” tactic to defeat George Foreman actually inspired Ivan Arreguín-Toft’s opening anecdote in his classic article on “how the weak win wars.” By exploiting the vulnerabilities of objectively stronger powers the small can, and often have, managed to control the large. That said, it is worth remembering Mike Tyson’s observation too: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” How Lee’s concept — elegantly conceived and forcefully argued — works in practice is wholly contingent on the decisions policymakers make today and the will with which people in Taiwan prepare to resist.

Taiwan’s Plan for Victory is a polemic for remaking a military in the face of a vast conventional threat. Lee is persuasive and cogent. How best to cooperate with Taiwan’s military as the Overall Defense Concept gains traction with current leaders will be hotly debated, particularly in the U.S. special operations community. In this, Lee’s book is a starting point for future and more constructive conversations about U.S. support and collaboration. Someone should secure the rights and translate it. People’s Liberation Army officers will undoubtedly take note as well. That’s likely a good thing. In making such an effective case for Taiwan’s ability to “use the small to control the large,” Lee may well have already achieved some deterrent effect against invasion.



Dr. Tommy Jamison is a historian at the Naval Postgraduate School and a 2024 Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow—Japan. The views expressed do not represent the opinions of the Department of Defense or the Council on Foreign Relations.

Image: NASA