The clear threat perception gap between the international community and the Taiwanese public over the threat of a Chinese invasion has only widened this year. As media outlets and policy experts alike have raised alarm bells over a potentially imminent war, the Taiwanese public’s response has remained mild. So while Taiwan’s government now claims it is “preparing for war,” recent surveys show most Taiwanese do not feel the chance of invasion is higher now than five years ago and 75 percent do not believe the nation’s defenses are improving. Given how crucial psychological will in warfare is, the Taiwanese government will need to close the gap if it is serious about readying its people for a potential conflict.
In the ‘Danger Zone’
Though talk of holes in Taiwan’s physical defenses keeps filling column inches, the psychological gap surrounding threat perception is slowly becoming harder to ignore.
While increasingly ominous headlines have been circulating for some time, it was not until The Economist’s front-page cover story describing Taiwan as “the most dangerous place on Earth” hit in May that international and domestic opinion on the issue really collided.
Incensed netizens poked fun at the headline both with memes of peaceful scenes on the island and lists of “more dangerous countries.” Meanwhile, media personalities supportive of the opposition Kuomintang tried to use the report as evidence that President Tsai Ing-wen’s government was leading Taiwan into dangerous waters.
When Tsai responded, she acknowledged the threat described by the magazine is real, but stated her government is totally capable of handling it, repeated her mantra of maintaining the status quo: “To not give in when under pressure; nor to rush forward even when supported.”
The government’s messaging here reveals how it has so far skillfully bridged this gap. On the one hand, it acknowledges the stark challenges identified by the international community. On the other, it has calmly signaled to a domestic audience its confidence in protecting the country and keeping the peace, which aligns with the mainstream view that the threat is not imminent.
Yet in recent weeks, the official line has become increasingly more alarmist. In an interview with Australia’s ABC earlier this month, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told journalists Taiwan was “preparing for war.” This coincided with a new assessment by the Ministry of Defense that week which said China could launch a full scale invasion by 2025 and that the risk of conflict in the Taiwan Strait is at its most serious in 40 years. The statement came just one month after the ministry announced $8.69 billion for an additional special defense budget to bolster weapons systems to resist the “severe threat” from China.
Just because the government has dialed up the risk gauge, however, does not mean the Taiwanese public sentiment will suddenly shift gear.
An Acclimatized Mentality
The latest survey data from a Brookings Institution survey that polled over 1,000 residents shows the public is concerned but calm. Critically, most respondents do not feel the threat is higher than five years ago while only 30 percent are more worried about an invasion now than they were six months ago.
This suggests that Taiwanese view the invasion threat on a different timescale than outside observers. It also suggests that they perhaps view China under Xi Jinping as not inherently different in its approach to Taiwan as China under previous leaders, the opposite of how most experts read the situation.
For some older citizens who have watched cross-strait tensions ebb and wane over time, the threat may seem cyclical. In 1996, Taiwan survived the Third Cross-Strait Crisis unscathed – as the name suggests, not for the first time either – after the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers to its aid. Many expect something similar to happen next time around. One recent sampling of Taipei residents by CNN reflected this, with one 80-year-old woman repeating a commonly held view: “If it were going to happen, it would’ve happened a long time ago.”
Having lived with the threat for decades, a degree of acclimatization is to be expected among the Taiwanese population. It is also understandable that, as Taiwan becomes a trending topic in policy circles, security experts who paid little attention to the country previously may misread the threat in their haste to prognose the situation. This element of novelty and the effects of the media cycle on coverage of the issue has probably led to an exaggerated threat in some international reporting.
Investing in Readiness
Yet a lot more than mere media hype is afoot given that Taiwan’s own government, including both ministers appointed by the ruling party and the military leadership, now shares the same grave assessment. It underscores the need for the government to bring the public on board by investing in psychological as much as material readiness if it is serious about readying for such a conflict.
Though the government is spending big on new weapons upgrades, the increased capabilities these purchases bring need to be better communicated to the Taiwanese public. Currently, three-quarters of the population view the country’s defense capacity as static or worsening, per the Brookings survey. If such low confidence persists, it could prove a major problem for Taiwanese war planners betting on strong public will to resist an eventual assault on the island.
Considering that Taiwan prides itself on democratic governance, it would be hard for the leadership to justify holding out against China if the majority of the population saw it fighting a losing battle. Restoring confidence in Taiwan’s military might be the key to the country’s survival.