• Lee said "time is urgent," citing predictions that China might invade Taiwan in 2027 
  • Lee refused to "speculate" whether the U.S. would send troops if China invades 
  • The former chief believes Taiwan cannot take on China through conventional methods

Taiwan's former defense chief has said that the self-ruled island's military urgently needs cheap and asymmetric weapons if it has to counter Beijing's greater firepower.

Lee Hsi-min, a retired admiral and former chief of general staff of Taiwan's armed forces, told Nikkei Asia in an exclusive interview that Taiwan is facing an "existential threat" posed by an increasingly aggressive China.

The former defense chief said Taiwan should prioritize weapons that are cost-effective and harder for Beijing to destroy, rather than procuring "conventional weapons such as fighter jets, tanks, and warships." He also stressed the importance of forcing civilian units, much like Ukraine's Territorial Defense Force.

Citing the U.S. Pacific Forces former commander Adm. Philip Davidson's warning that the Chinese invasion of Taiwan could happen by 2027, Lee said "time is so urgent" for Taiwan. "Taiwan doesn't have a sufficient sense of urgency to prepare for a Chinese attack," Lee told Nikkei Asia.

That said, Lee refused to "speculate" whether Washington would send troops to Taiwan in the event of a conflict. "I'm not a fortuneteller. The answer is for Taiwan to integrate its security with U.S. interests -- and how to do so is a political, not military, question -- on issues such as freedom, justice, human rights," he said, adding that Washington would come to the rescue if it were in its national interest.

"But Taiwan also needs to show the will to defend itself," he said. However, on the subject of military cooperation between Taipei and Washington, Lee said Taiwan should focus on close-range defense and the U.S. on long-range battles.

In countering China, Lee believes Taiwan should embrace the "overall defense concept," commonly known as "porcupine" asymmetric defense. "Given the discrepancies in defense resources across the strait, we have no way of competing against the People's Liberation Army in conventional capabilities," the former defense chief said.

He said rather than raising the defense budget, which only leads to an arms race, Taiwan should adopt "deterrence by denial."

"We don't have deterrence by alliances, because Taiwan doesn't have formal military pacts with other countries or nuclear deterrence. But deterrence by denial can deter a Chinese invasion by raising the cost for China via asymmetric defense. Even if they were willing to pay the price, the strategy adds uncertainty to whether they could take over Taiwan," Lee told the news outlet.

He also wants Taiwan to copy Ukraine in its creation of the Territorial Defense Force. "The Territorial Defense Force is not about guerrilla warfare. It is to tell the PRC: 'Even if you can defeat our air force and our navy, and even if you successfully land on Taiwanese territory, you still cannot occupy and control Taiwan because the people stand ready to defend. So don't invade."

Taiwan, which Beijing has said it will take by force if necessary, plans to counter China's might in numbers
Representation. Taiwan, which Beijing has said it will take by force if necessary, plans to counter China's might. AFP / Sam Yeh