President Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election in Taiwan in January has been met with growing assertiveness from China. Beijing’s ramped up military pressure against Taiwan has renewed questions about whether the United States would intervene if the island faced a blockade or invasion. Although the U.S. Congress has consistently signaled strong support for Taiwan, there has historically been less enthusiasm among the American public. However, new data suggests these views may be changing.
Annual surveys conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) consistently show tepid enthusiasm for Taiwan’s defense among the American public. The recently released 2020 poll revealed that a mere 41 percent of Americans backed military action were China to invade Taiwan. Although hardly a ringing endorsement, these results show the highest level of support for Taiwan’s defense since CCGA first posed the question to the public in 1982.
Were a contingency to arise in the Taiwan Strait, public pressure could hamstring a robust U.S. response and prove disastrous for Taipei. The CCGA surveys suggest that views among the public are slowly changing, and a newly released study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) offers further insight into how these perspectives are evolving.
This summer, CSIS surveyed the American public and thought leaders in the United States, Asia, and Europe to map perspectives on China and U.S. defense commitments in the Asia-Pacific (the authors were part of the research team). We asked respondents to gauge on a scale of 1 to 10 how important it is to defend U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific should they come under threat from China. These questions were designed so that a score of “1” meant it was not worth taking any risk to protect an ally or partner, and a “10” meant it was worth taking a significant risk.
The results show that Americans are, in fact, prepared to take a substantial risk to defend Taiwan. With a mean score of 6.69 out of 10, respondents from among the U.S. public gave stronger backing for defending Taiwan than Australia (6.38) and comparable to Japan (6.88), South Korea (6.92), as well as an unnamed ally or partner in the South China Sea (6.97).
Differences in views were most pronounced across different age cohorts. Older Americans (over 67 years old) proved to be the most willing to defend Taiwan, but there was a statistically significant gap between senior citizens and younger Americans (18-30 years old), who were the least supportive. Age proved to be a determining factor elsewhere in the study. Younger Americans showed only modest interest in defending partners in the region. This position is likely born out of the fact that our study also revealed that 50 percent of younger Americans think war with China is likely and another 15 percent believe it is inevitable.
Our project also tracked converging and diverging perspectives between the public and thought leaders. Across the board, thought leaders more enthusiastically supported defending partners in the region – including Taiwan. With a mean score of 7.93 out of 10, thought leaders demonstrated a willingness to take a considerable risk with regard to Taiwan, albeit somewhat less than the average mean score of 8.72 among U.S. treaty allies (Australia, Japan, and South Korea).
Of the constituencies polled, human rights experts pegged Taiwan’s defense as the highest security priority, more so than all other U.S. allies and partners in the study. An impressive 57 percent of individuals who self-identified as being from the human rights community rated their response with the highest possible score of 10.
We expected thought leaders to prioritize Taiwan. Many within the policy community have, for years, labored to counter Chinese coercion against Taiwan and strengthen the island’s security. There is also strong bipartisan support for Taiwan in the U.S. Congress. What was revealing was the degree to which experts were willing to accept risk on behalf of Taiwan’s security.
Although tempered, we were surprised to also find support for Taiwan among the American public. The public is less inclined than thought leaders to incur risk overseas, but they did rate the defense of Taiwan of similar importance to that of long-standing allies.
This latter point provides a more refined understanding of how the public thinks about Taiwan compared to what can be gleaned from other surveys. One of the clearest findings from our data was that the public is significantly concerned about China. Fifty-four percent of Americans see China as the biggest challenge to the United States, more than double the amount primarily concerned about Russia (22 percent). Those most worried about China are, unsurprisingly, also those most interested in defending partners like Taiwan.
China’s growing assertiveness in the region almost certainly plays a role in souring public opinion. Beijing has continued to rachet up its pressure campaign against Taipei, which ranges from disinformation campaigns to poaching some of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies. Over the last several months, Chinese military aircraft have made an unprecedented number of incursions across the median line of the Taiwan Strait.
While many of these provocations may go unnoticed by those outside the policy community, Taiwan’s precarious position as a small, vibrant democracy on the doorstep of China is more visible than ever. Rising authoritarianism, much of which stems from or is supported by Beijing, poses a fundamental threat to the U.S.-led international order. Leaders from both political parties have brought these shifting dynamics to the forefront of public discourse on foreign policy.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic likely also colors public opinion. With the pandemic continuing to rage across the United States, it logical that Americans are seeking effective government responses elsewhere. Taiwan boasts one of the most advanced health care systems in the world and provides universal coverage to the island’s 23 million inhabitants. COVID-19 has had a much smaller impact on Taiwan than other industrialized economies, and the international community has lauded Taipei’s effective handling of the outbreak.
Deterrence necessitates that China believes that the United States is likely to intervene should it attack Taiwan. The first step in making deterrence credible is ensuring that the U.S. military has the capabilities necessary to defend Taiwan and that Taiwan does its part to reinforce its security. Yet, public support for Taiwan’s defense – as evidenced by the recent CSIS study – is also critical. It demonstrates a robust commitment to overseas partners, which in turn serves to bolster peace and stability in the region.
Bonnie S. Glaser is senior advisor for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Matthew P. Funaiole is a senior fellow with the China Power Project and senior fellow for data analysis with the iDeas Lab at CSIS.