In July 2021, during a speech on the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that China has a “historic mission” and “unshakable commitment” to reunify with Taiwan and “smash” any efforts at independence.1 The CCP has created a vast surveillance state in China to control the population, particularly in areas of “restive” populations. Across the Taiwan Strait, the Republic of China (ROC) employs sophisticated electronic monitoring methods for security, health, transportation, and other purposes, as demonstrated in its successful efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.2 If China invades and conquers Taiwan, it likely will move to quickly repurpose Taiwan’s existing surveillance capability.
In an initial invasion, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) likely would have overwhelming numbers on its side and good prospects for success.3 Xi and the CCP believe they have developed a model for how to eliminate resistance and establish dominance—namely, mass surveillance, which they increasingly use in Tibet, are applying in Hong Kong, and have perfected in the Xinjiang province.4
To aid Taiwan resistance forces, the U.S. Marine Corps should plan to help destroy with physical or cyberattacks Taiwanese data centers and channels used to transmit data back to China. A successful insurgency will require disabling China’s ability to establish surveillance capability on the island. With an insurgency bleeding and tying down PRC forces, U.S. and allied forces may have sufficient time to repulse China in the broader theater.
PLA strategists believe information is the key domain of warfare and will seek to destroy the U.S. military’s ability to gather and assess data in a system-on-system confrontation.5 Gathering information during an invasion and any occupation through internal surveillance capabilities will similarly represent the center of gravity for China’s efforts to control Taiwan.
The CCP has adopted a technology-heavy surveillance state to control not only suspect groups inside China, but also its own population, through communication monitoring, hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras, and facial recognition software.6 For example, “smartphone surveillance equipment, facial-recognition technology, deep-packet inspection gear, and application filtering” have created the “virtual internment” of the Uyghur population, turning their communities into “open air prisons.”7
China’s pacification of Hong Kong using surveillance measures is evidence of this method’s success; just two years ago the city was in open rebellion.8
Conflict Over Taiwan
The CCP is increasingly vocal about its interest in reunifying with Taiwan, and the Chinese military is undertaking more aggressive actions in the Taiwan Strait. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has a quantitative advantage over the U.S. Navy, and most U.S. wargames suggest that after the outset of high-intensity conflict, U.S. forces may also lose their qualitative advantage.9 A former Deputy Under Secretary of the Navy has suggested that Russia’s initial failures in Ukraine may cause the PLAN to redouble its efforts to overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses at the outset.10 If China invades Taiwan, it “wins” if it can successfully subdue the population and assimilate it as it has Hong Kong and other restive provinces.
Under Presidents Joseph Biden and Donald Trump, the United States has begun to support Taiwan more overtly. The Biden administration’s nominee to serve as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May 2021 that the United States should strongly consider assisting Taiwan in improving its capacity to conduct irregular warfare to resist a Chinese invasion.11 In August 2021, the White House offered Taipei a $750-million arms package.12
The Marine Corps appears poised to play a larger role in Taiwan. Some defense analysts suggest that one of the experimental Marine littoral regiments may be ideally suited to be deployed in Taiwan.13 Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger has reoriented the service to focus on the Pacific and China, with critics suggesting he has done so to the exclusion of all other threats.14 If General Berger’s assessment is correct, Marines will be uniquely postured to respond as the “911 force” to a contingency in Taiwan, directly involving them in any defense of the ROC. A key role in that defense should be developing a resistance capable of an insurgency against the PLA—prohibiting its successful pacification of the country while the United States and allies continue to fight China in the broader theater.
Insurgency and Methods of Control
In a recent exercise simulating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John E. Hyten assessed that the U.S. military “failed miserably.” General Hyten said the adversary force “ran rings around us.”15 While Chinese annexation is not inevitable, U.S. planners should be prepared for this worst-case scenario. In such an event, China’s occupation of Taiwan should be seen no more as ending the conflict than the United States’ successful rout of the Iraqi military in 2003 concluded the Iraq War. To prepare for this contingency, the Marine Corps should plan to assist a Taiwanese insurgency.
The Marine Corps has capabilities well-suited to supporting a resistance force. Marine Special Operations Command (MarSOC) is designed to serve as a connector between the Marine Corps, other U.S. military elements, intelligence agencies, and host/partner units. Some of its key tasks are organizing for war against near-peer competitors, training allied troops, and leading irregular and proxy forces.16 Marine Raiders could focus on collaborating with their Taiwanese partners on the means and methods to establish resistance networks against a PLA occupation. MarSOC also could coordinate as a connector with U.S. Army Special Forces units, such as the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), which has responsibility for the Pacific and has participated in recent exercises in Taiwan.17
The 2006 Army and Marine Corps’ Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, relied heavily on the thinking of French counterinsurgency theorist and Algerian war veteran David Galula.18 In his writings, Galula took a holistic whole-of-government approach to addressing insurgencies, focused on winning over the population from the guerrillas.19 However, a more ominous model proposed by another French veteran and counterinsurgency expert, Roger Trinquier, may more closely describe expected Chinese behavior. Trinquier wrote a how-to manual for an occupying power to crush an indigenous resistance movement. He focused on gaining intelligence on the enemy and separating them from the population. Trinquier proposed using censuses, curfews, and other methods to make it onerous to assist the rebels and easier to cooperate with the government.20
Despite its claimed reliance on Galula’s approach, the U.S. military may also owe a debt to Trinquier, as it adapted some of his methods to modern technology, launching programs such as the Automated Biometric Identification System in 2004 to catalog biometric data on all suspects detained in Afghanistan and Iraq.21 Similarly, China can be expected to take a page from Trinquier’s manual and move to establish surveillance methods allowing it to control the citizenry and separate the populace from resistance forces.
Therefore, in addition to taking steps common throughout history in training, preparing, and provisioning a resistance force, and emplacing weapons caches and other activities that would have been familiar to the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, Marines must account for the modern information domain, including surveillance technology. Taiwan is home to multiple smart-cities, has extensive networks of closed-circuit TV cameras, and issued a national health insurance smartcard that tracks medical histories. In 2020, the ROC government used sophisticated social monitoring tools in its successful efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Taiwan, such as the geofencing of cell phones.22 Already in pre-pandemic 2018, its legislature had held hearings about digital privacy after a human-rights advocacy group report alleged massive collection of online and cell-phone data by security services and police agencies.23
Any Taiwanese resistance will need to operate unseen in the black, or its cells will be identified and destroyed by the PLA. To enable a successful guerrilla campaign, Marine war planners should prepare to help execute sabotage against Taiwan’s monitoring technology to eliminate the PLA’s ability to repurpose it. Targets may include Taiwan’s system of surveillance cameras, its satellite relays, internet/fiber nodes, and associated means of data storage. Furthermore, working with Taiwan’s defense ministry, the Marine Corps should identify locations used to exfiltrate data back to China for analysis and exploitation via big-data algorithms run on massive Chinese server farms and plan to help render them inoperable.24 The goal must be to make the island’s surveillance networks dark.
Destruction of Taiwanese information infrastructure could be carried out in the physical as well as the virtual world. Physical attacks could be assigned to conventional units and/or MarSOC Raiders. Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command (MarForCyber) could conduct computer network operations to help map and destroy, as necessary, existing Taiwanese cyber networks. While the PLA may be pleased that civilians cannot communicate using the internet, the adverse effects on their occupation would be more significant and would give resistance cells freedom to operate.
The major choke points MarForCyber units would need to target are the landing points for submarine cables, as 99 percent of all internet data (and information shared internationally) is routed through these cables.25 Online maps identify the locations as well as the networks that connect via these landing points and highlight how many of Taiwan’s landing points connect to mainland China. Only by destroying the island’s surveillance and data exfiltration capability does Taiwan stand a chance of resisting.
If China invades Taiwan and the United States intervenes, Marines will likely be the first responders. Developing a defense for Taiwan, Marine planners must prepare for the long game and recognize that given the overwhelming numerical superiority of an anticipated PLA invasion force, China may be able to occupy the ROC.
To preserve the option for an active guerrilla campaign against PLA forces while the United States and allies fight a larger war against China, the Marine Corps must help reduce China’s ability to turn the island into a panopticon. To that end, Marine raider, conventional, and cyber forces must be prepared to help Taiwan sabotage its existing networks and cut off any means to exfiltrate data for exploitation on the Chinese mainland. In the past, retreating armies destroyed bridges and tore up rail lines. In the future, Marines must be prepared to help destroy electronic superhighways to allow resistance forces to survive and fight another day.
1. Yew Lun Tian and Yimou Lee, “China’s Xi Pledges ‘Reunification’ with Taiwan, Gets Stern Rebuke,” Reuters, 1 July 2021; and Lawrence Chung, “Xi Jinping Vows to Crush Attempts to Thwart ‘Complete Reunification’ with Taiwan,” South China Morning Post, 1 July 2021.
2. Yimou Lee, “Taiwan’s New ‘Electronic Fence’ for Quarantine Leads Wave of Virus Monitoring,” Reuters, 20 March 2020.
3. Jeff Schogol, “Why the Next Major War Is Likely to Start in Taiwan,” Task & Purpose, 7 August 2021.
4. “Chinese Authorities in Tibet Demand Information on Relatives Living Abroad,” Radio Free Asia, 30 July 2021; and “China Undercover,” PBS Frontline, 7 April 2020.
5. Edmund J. Burke, Kristen Gunness, Cortez A. Cooper III, and Mark Cozad, People’s Liberation Army Operational Concepts (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2020); and J. Michael Dahm, “Beyond ‘Conventional Wisdom’: Evaluating the PLA’s South China Sea Bases in Operational Context,” War on the Rocks, 17 March 2020.
6. Tahir Hamut Izgil, “One by One, My Friends Were Sent to the Camps,” The Atlantic, 14 July 2021; Kai Strittmatter, We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2020); Nectar Gan, “China Is Installing Surveillance Cameras Outside People’s Front Doors . . . and Sometimes Inside Their Homes,” CNN Business, 28 April 2020; and “How China Is Using Facial Recognition Technology,” NPR, 16 December 2019.
7. Ali Çaksu, “Islamophobia, Chinese Style: Total Internment of Uyghur Muslims by the People’s Republic of China,” Islamophobia Studies Journal 5, no. 2 (Fall 2020): 184–86.
8. Vivian Wang and Alexandra Stevenson, “‘A Form of Brainwashing’: China Remakes Hong Kong,” The New York Times, 30 July 2021.
9. Todd South, “What War with China May Could Like,” Military Times, 1 September 2020.
10. Seth Cropsey, “Biden’s Plan to Cut Navy Ships: Handing China Victory at Sea,” The Hill, 4 April 2022.
11. Stephen Losey, “U.S. Special Forces Could Help Taiwan Learn to Resist Chinese Invasion, DoD Nominee Says,” Military.com, 27 May 2021.
12. Jennifer Hansler, “Biden Administration Proposes $750 Million Arms Sale to Taiwan in a Move Likely to Anger Beijing,” CNN, 5 August 2021.
13. Michael Mazza, “Imagining a New U.S. Military Presence in Taiwan,” The American Enterprise Institute, 17 June 2020.
14. Jim Webb, “The Future of the U.S. Marine Corps,” The National Interest, 8 May 2020.
15. Guy Taylor, “Chinese Pressure Sparks Debate on Taiwan’s Resilience,” The Washington Times, 8 August 2021.
16. LTC Brandon Turner and MAJ Paul Bailey, USMC, “The Joint-Force SOF Relationship: Support Roles in the Resurgence of Great Power Competition,” Marine Corps Gazette, January 2020, 12–16.
17. Joseph Trevithick, “Army Releases Ultra Rare Video Showing Green Berets Training in Taiwan,” TheDrive.com, 29 June 2020.
18. Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014); and Ann Marlowe, “David Galula: His Life and Intellectual Context,” Strategic Studies Institute Report, U.S. Army War College, 2010.
19. David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Praeger, 1964), 66.
20. Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency (New York: Praeger, 1964), 45.
21. Nina Toft Djanegara, “Biometrics and Counter-terrorism: Case Study of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Privacy International—Report, May 2021.
22. Wen-Yee Lee, Elizabeth McCauley, and Mark Abadi, “Taiwan Used Police Surveillance, Government Tracking, and $33,000 Fines to Contain Its Coronavirus Outbreak,” Business Insider, 4 June 2020; and Alexander Klimburg, Louk Faesen, Paul Verhagen, and Philipp Mirtl, “Pandemic Mitigation in the Digital Age: Digital Epidemiological Measures to Combat the Corona Pandemic,” Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (2020), appendix A.
23. Lawrence Chung, “Is Taiwan Becoming a Surveillance State? Privacy Advocates Sound Alarm,” South China Morning Post, 9 September 2018.
24. Derek Grossman, Christian Curriden, Logan Ma, Lindsey Polley, J. D. Williams, and Cortez A. Cooper III, Chinese Views of Big Data Analytics (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation 2020), l.
25. Phil Edwards, “A Map of All the Underwater Cables that Connect the Internet,” Vox, 8 November 2015; and “How Does Cyberspace Work?” The Council on Foreign Relations—World 101.