Halifax, Canada — A top U.S. commander said he sees special forces playing a significant role in Washington’s efforts to help partners in the Indo-Pacific build up “porcupine”-style defenses against Chinese aggression. Although he didn’t say so explicitly, that likely includes Taiwan.
General Richard Clarke, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, made the remarks at a session of the Halifax International Security Forum this evening, following Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen’s recent confirmation to CNN of a Wall Street Journal report that a small contingent of U.S. special-operations forces has secretly been training the Taiwanese military.
Clarke’s remarks suggest that the principal aim of his forces’ efforts in Taiwan is to make the island democracy a less enticing target.
“As one of my predecessors said, you want to build up a porcupine so hard to swallow because you build up the resilience within that that they’re not even willing to take that bite,” said Clarke. “If they elect to take that bite, then you build up the infrastructure and the people that can resist and can actually fight back against someone,” he added.
A porcupine strategy aims at equipping Taiwan with weapons such as anti-ship missiles, air-defense capabilities, and drones to inflict severe losses on the People’s Liberation Army in the event of an assault. Clarke’s comments came to the backdrop of the growing popularity of the term. Deputy assistant secretary of state Jonathan Fritz told Congress in June that the Biden administration is taking steps to shore up Taiwan’s defense capabilities through a porcupine approach, and Trump-era national security adviser Robert O’Brien has also endorsed such an approach.
Clarke was careful to couch his comments in a general statement about how his forces are building up allied capabilities in “numerous countries throughout the Indo-Pacific” without specifically naming Taiwan. U.S. officials haven’t publicly acknowledged the special operations presence in Taiwan. As recently as this month, Special Operations Command left Taiwan off a list it provided to Responsible Statecraft of 10 Indo-Pacific countries in which special operators are deployed.
However, the relevance of Clarke’s remarks to the island country was unmistakable, not least because the moderator, PBS’s Nick Schifrin, had asked about Taiwan, acknowledging that Clarke likely wouldn’t answer a question with specifics about his forces’ work in the country.
Schifrin was correct, but Clarke’s comments still provide some additional details about special-forces training missions in Indo-Pacific countries, including, presumably, Taiwan. Clarke said his troops are looking at allied troops’ training, interoperability, first-aid capabilities, and resilience.
The annual forum, which brings together ministers, lawmakers, and military leaders from the U.S. and other democracies, began its first in-person gathering since 2019 this afternoon.
Participants in the high-profile defense confab will have no shortage of challenges to discuss, as Russia and China make increasingly worrying threats against neighboring democracies, and Western leaders confront an emboldened terrorist threat from groups enabled by the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan.
During an earlier panel at the Halifax event, Senator Jeanne Shaheen issued a warning to Beijing over its saber-rattling around Taiwan.
The New Hampshire Democrat said longstanding U.S. policy suggests that “Taiwan is an ally, and the People’s Republic of China needs to be careful about extending its hegemony throughout not just Taiwan, but throughout the whole South China Sea and that part of Asia.”
Halifax Forum president Peter Van Praagh opened today’s session emphasizing that delegates would discuss the threat that China poses to international order, in addition to other pressing security challenges. He welcomed former Canadian diplomat and International Crisis Group staffer Michael Kovrig, who was held hostage by Beijing for two years before his release in September, as a participant in the forum: “Michael, welcome home.”
During a press conference this morning, Van Praagh also confirmed that a top Polish commander previously slated to join the gathering had canceled, as Warsaw grapples with provocations by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, including a migration-weaponization campaign.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba and defense minister Oleksii Reznikov are listed as participants on the forum’s program but also have canceled amid an unprecedented buildup of Russian forces on their country’s border.