On January 11, 2020, Tsai Ing-wen won a second term as president of Taiwan with an impressive 57.1 percent of the popular vote. The victory was especially notable when one considers that her party – the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – had suffered a crushing defeat in the island’s 2018 mid-term elections. That drubbing forced Tsai to resign as party chair, while the DPP lost control over some key cities.
Does the DPP landslide in the 2020 election reflect a shift in political party alignments within Taiwan? Is popular support for the DPP’s independence-leaning agenda growing? Has opinion shifted with respect to Taipei’s complex relations with Beijing and Washington? The discussion below seeks to shed some light on these and other questions by comparing the findings of the latest Taiwan National Security Survey (TNSS) – conducted on October 27-31 of this year – with the TNSS polls of January 3-7, 2019 and November 29-December 5, 2017. Since 2002, this survey has been conducted 13 times by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University, under the auspices of the Asian Security Studies Program at Duke University.
Following the Kuomintang’s (KMT’s) sweeping victory in Taiwan’s midterm elections, the 2019 TNSS poll showed that support for the party rose to 28 percent – a significant jump from the 2017 survey – while the DPP’s support dipped to 18 percent. In the 2020 survey, the results were reversed. Today, 19 percent support the KMT and 29 percent favor the DPP. Like earlier polls, however, a plurality of Taiwanese (40.7 percent) do not identify with any party. Considering past survey results and shifts in party loyalty, it appears unlikely that the 2020 election signaled a political realignment in Taiwan.
During the 2015-16 election cycle, promises to revitalize Taiwan’s stagnant economy played a key role in the DPP’s campaign strategy. All subsequent TNSS polls, however, reveal that few Taiwanese have noticed any improvement. In fact, the 2020 poll found that a plurality (43 percent) of respondents believe the economic situation is worse than the previous year. Roughly 41 percent see no change and only 12.3 percent believe the economy has improved. In the 2019 survey, 65 percent saw no change and 28 percent claimed conditions were worse.
Given Taiwan’s sluggish economy and the DPP’s poor showing in the mid-term elections, Tsai tried to shift voters’ attention away from “bread and butter” issues during the 2020 campaign. Rather, she sought to capitalize on hostile words and actions from Beijing, the tragic events unfolding in Hong Kong, and her seemingly cozy relationship with U.S. President Donald J. Trump. But it was the China factor – Taipei’s troubled relationship with Beijing – that loomed large throughout the election. Consequently, DPP leaders proclaimed themselves the true defenders of Taiwan’s democracy against China.
Not surprisingly, a plurality of those polled (48 percent) now characterize the relationship with the Chinese mainland as hostile. The percentage that believes relations are “extremely hostile” has quadrupled from 3 percent in 2017 to 12 percent today. In 2017, the majority had described relations as friendly.
Despite the deterioration in cross-strait relations, a plurality of Taiwanese – 40.2 percent – still favor strengthening economic and trade relations with the mainland. But this support dropped from 53 percent in the previous poll, while those preferring a weakening of economic ties has grown to 35.2 percent. Like all past polls, a majority fears that increased economic dependence will lead Beijing to pressure Taipei into political concessions.
When it comes to strategies employed to handle cross-strait relations, 51.3 percent of Taiwanese still support diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions. Only 38.4 percent favor an increase in military capabilities. Moreover, despite the DPP’s unrelenting effort to demonize the so-called “1992 Consensus,” a plurality of respondents (46 percent as compared to 57 percent in 2019) continue to support the “one China, different interpretations” formula as the best means to handle relations with the Chinese mainland. This understanding served as the foundation for the unprecedented cross-strait détente engineered by the previous administration. And there continues to be little confidence in Taiwan’s military to prevail in a conflict should diplomacy fail. A majority – roughly 60 percent – say Taiwan cannot successfully defend itself and 75.7 percent agree that the length of compulsory military training in Taiwan, which now stands at four months, is too short. A majority supports strengthening cooperation with the United States and Japan to counter China.
Digging deeper, support for immediate unification with the mainland continues to find no market in Taiwan – it stands at roughly 1 percent – and over 60 percent oppose Beijing’s “one country, two systems” unification scheme. Support for immediate independence also remains in single digits (6 percent). Rather, a majority favors the status quo. And the percentage of people who prefer the status quo indefinitely has grown from roughly 24 percent in 2019 to 31 percent today. It’s noteworthy that an impressive majority – almost 75 percent – continue to believe that Taiwan is already an independent country called the Republic of China.
Like past TNSS polls, the 2020 survey includes questions about a cross-strait conflict. How Taiwan’s citizenry plan to respond to a war is not reassuring. On the one hand, roughly 11 percent will join the military, 11 percent will support the war effort, and 10 percent will follow government orders. On the other hand, 21 percent plan to go about their daily lives and/or do nothing, 11 percent will flee to another country, and 24 percent say they don’t know. As in the past, a majority believes that most other Taiwanese will join the fighting.
Perceptions of an American response to an attack on Taiwan merit attention. The TNSS poll normally asks respondents how they believe the United States will react to an attack by China in the event that Taipei declares independence. In 2017, 40.5 percent thought America would commit troops to a conflict, while more (43.4 percent) said it would not. In 2019, the number claiming Washington would provide troops jumped to 48.5 percent, while 35.3 percent disagreed. Today, however, a majority believes the United States would deploy its military to help defend Taiwan if it triggers conflict by declaring de jure independence from China. The 2020 poll found that 53.2 percent now expect the U.S. to protect Taiwan, and 35 percent think it would not. Like past findings, over 60 percent believe the United States would intervene in the event of an unprovoked attack.
In addition to a growing belief that Washington will support Taipei militarily if it declares independence, the new TNSS poll identifies another trend. As described, most Taiwanese seem to favor the status quo and oppose an immediate declaration of independence. In the 2017 and 2019 polls, however, almost 60 percent oppose independence if it triggers a Chinese attack. In the 2020 poll, those opposing a war over independence dropped to 51 percent, while the number supporting armed conflict jumped to 37 percent. And most Taiwanese no longer believe that unification is inevitable. For the first time, a plurality of respondents (47.5 percent) now believe that Taiwan independence is more likely than unification.
What do the new TNSS survey results mean? The TNSS has raised concerns ever since its initial release in 2002. But it’s often possible to find a few nuggets of good news in every poll. For example, almost no one supports an immediate declaration of independence. This is good news for the U.S. as de jure independence is the most likely trigger for a cross-strait war – a cataclysmic conflict that might conceivably involve the U.S. armed forces. Despite a rise in anti-China sentiment, the majority of Americans continue to oppose military intervention in any clash between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. Moreover, most Taiwanese continue to favor diplomatic efforts to resolve differences with Beijing and support an increase in economic ties. And most still believe the two sides can best resolve differences peacefully by using diplomacy and the “one China, two interpretations” framework.
Those concerned with growing threats to democracy within Taiwan – most recently illustrated by the DPP move to silence pro-KMT media outlets – should be reassured by the fact that the 2020 election does not signal an end to competitive party politics. As described, the TNSS poll found that most Taiwanese continue to refuse to identify with either party. It is conceivable that the KMT or an independent candidate not aligned with either camp could win the 2024 presidential election.
The Taiwan Relations Act – the law that guides U.S. policy toward Taiwan – does not include an “iron-clad” commitment to defend Taiwan. Therefore, the finding that most Taiwanese believe the U.S. will support Taiwan militarily if it declares independence will likely raise some eyebrows in Washington. However, it is unclear whether this shift in attitude reflects a meaningful change in public opinion or if it’s a temporary spike that will recede over time. After all, similar results may be found in some earlier TNSS polls.
Another matter that merits attention is the rise in the number of respondents who now agree that independence – not unification – is the most likely future for Taiwan. Given the fact that the majority believes China will attack Taiwan if it declares independence and fear that the military cannot defend the island, this finding might be related to the perception (or misperception) that Washington will intervene. It is also troubling that, while the majority still opposes a war over independence, the number supporting such a conflict has risen to 37 percent. This points to the possibility that the “independence-leaning” DPP might encounter growing pressure from elements within its constituency to do more than just “lean” toward independence.
In sum, the 2020 TNSS poll exhibits similarities and differences when compared to earlier surveys. Some of the changes in perceptions of island’s security equation might be traced to the Trump administration’s robust support, albeit often symbolic, for Taiwan. Others might be attributed to generational changes within Taiwan. Still others might be traced to the Tsai administration and its troubled relationship with Beijing. Irrespective of the catalysts for change, it appears likely that the most complex and challenging China-related issue that the incoming Joe Biden administration will confront is that of Taiwan. Peace and stability in the Western Pacific might well hinge on how the new administration chooses to manage its relationship with the world’s first Chinese democracy.
Dennis V. Hickey is a foreign policy analyst and professor emeritus at Missouri State University. He is the author of numerous books and articles on international security and relations between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.