Tensions across the Taiwan Strait are said to be approaching boiling point, but recent polls show the Taiwanese population remains sanguine, not expecting a war with China and feeling confident that American assistance would come if needed.
In its first public opinion survey, released on September 29, Taiwan’s opposition-run Intelligentsia Taipei found that 50.2 percent of respondents weren’t concerned about the possibility of war, compared to 42.5 percent who said they were. A majority 58.8 percent thought conflict with China was unlikely to happen in the next 10 years, but 17.6 percent said it was probable. Only 2.2 percent of those polled were certain of war this decade.
The think tank, which collected 1,074 telephone surveys from Taipei City residents above the age of 20 between September 15 and 17, asked respondents what they would do if war were to break out across the Taiwan Strait. Some 40.2 percent of those polled said they would resist and cooperate with the government—the most popular answer—while 36 percent said they wouldn’t resist a Chinese attack.
The same poll reflected a 46.3 percent expectation of unspecified assistance from the United States, while 34.1 percent—the second the most popular answer—said the U.S. wouldn’t come to Taiwan’s aid.
This optimism about U.S. backing was shown even more clearly in an August 10 survey released by the pro-independence Taiwan New Constitution Foundation (TNC), which polled 1,071 people above the age of 18 across Taiwan by telephone between August 3 and 6.
TNC’s survey reflected overwhelmingly positive views of the U.S. and Japan—at 75.6 percent and 83.9 percent, respectively—as well as equally negative views of China at 70.2 percent, aligning closely with the findings of a Pew Research Center study released on June 30.
Exactly 70 percent of respondents felt that the U.S. was likely to assist Taiwan if China launched an attack, while 64.1 percent said Japan would probably help, and 64.3 percent of the those polled said they themselves would take up arms—36 percent answered with certainty.
Beijing’s expectation that democratic Taiwan will be brought under its control was emphasized by Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Saturday, when he said “unification” by peaceful means—under China’s “one country, two systems” formula—was preferred.
Taiwan’s main political parties have rejected the governing formula also used in Hong Kong, and the population’s preference for unification remains at an all-time low, according to biannual survey results released by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center in Taipei.
Keeping the Status Quo
Only 1.5 percent of respondents wanted unification as soon as possible, while just 5.6 percent said they wanted independence as soon as possible, the index pollster’s July 20 findings show. A combined majority of 87.2 percent opted for some form of the “status quo,” reflecting a preference for Taiwan’s current functionally independent status under the formal name the Republic of China.
NCCU’s Election Study Center conducts monthly telephone polling of citizens above the age of 20 across Taiwan proper, with 4,717 samples collected between this January and June.
Taiwan’s defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, told lawmakers last week that cross-strait tensions were the highest he had seen in his 40-year military career. The Chinese military would possess the capability to attack Taiwan while incurring minimal losses in just four years, he said.
A day after Xi’s speech, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said in a National Day address that Taiwan was facing greater pressure from China because of its achievements. Taiwan’s citizens don’t have the privilege of letting their guard down, she warned.
Citizens Remaining Positive
Despite the stark choice of words and continuing efforts by the Tsai administration to mobilize the population, the overall sense of alarm remains low—a situation observers can’t quite seem to fathom, given China’s refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan and its rapidly expanding military capabilities.
Taiwanese citizens remain positive about their country’s future prospects even as politicians in Washington, Tokyo and Canberra are seeing cause for concern. In August, a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found for the first time that just over half of Americans—52 percent—were in favor of using U.S. troops to defend Taiwan against an attack by China.
During an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations last Thursday, Taiwan’s former chief of the general staff, Lee Hsi-min, called the lack of urgency “quite natural.”
“It’s kind of human nature,” Lee said. “Over time, people can easily be numbed, so people need to be warned, to be encouraged, and to be guided to have this kind of sense of urgency.”
Jet trainers assigned to the Thunder Tiger Aerobatics Team of Taiwan’s air force fly over the Presidential Office in Taipei during the Republic of China National Day celebrations on October 10, 2021.
Office of the President, Taiwan