China’s increased military capabilities in recent years, coupled with frequent military exercises near Taiwan, raise concern about a military invasion. Once rare acts, provocative actions such as China’s entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone now occur frequently, in part to coerce Taiwanese officials towards policies more in their favor. War may still be unlikely, with less than a quarter of international relations experts polled earlier this year expecting war across the Taiwan Strait this year. That the United States remains a key defensive partner for Taiwan likely depresses Chinese confidence in such an invasion, with Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu stating war with America would be an “unbearable disaster” for the world.
However, does the Taiwanese public believe the United States is committed to Taiwan’s defense? At one extreme, an overly confident public may balk at increased defense spending or military reforms in the belief that these shortcomings will be covered by Washington. Meanwhile, a public with no confidence may feel its options are limited to increase defense spending, in which it cannot expect to match that of China or find a means to placate it.
Several factors presumably lead to a confident Taiwanese public. After all, the United States has a long history of aiding Taiwan’s defensive capabilities, even after the abrogation of the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1979, as the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) has provided the framework for continued arms sales and military training. Taiwan also remains strategically important as a barrier to Chinese naval expansion into critical sea lanes, and defending Taiwan serves as a deterrence against further Chinese aggression elsewhere. Moreover, not only has every president pledged support for Taiwan since the enactment of the TRA, but also a broad bipartisan consensus exists alongside an American public that appears increasingly sympathetic to efforts to bolster Taiwan’s defense capabilities.
However, there are many reasons for the Taiwanese to be less optimistic. The United States maintains a deliberate policy of strategic ambiguity regarding its commitments to Taiwan in part to deter actions from either side of the strait that would alter the status quo. Despite beliefs that President Joe Biden may have been signaling a shift in policy with a firmer commitment to Taiwan’s defense, White House officials clarified no intention of such. Nor have criticisms of strategic ambiguity, including suggestions that the policy has “run its course” and fails to restrain China, led to its revision.
Likewise, even if the Biden administration and members of Congress were sincere in their statements about defending Taiwan, the potential costs of a military conflict with China would be significant, especially after decades of Beijing investing in military modernization, making any intervention on behalf of Taiwan beyond arms sales much more difficult. Simulations also suggest the difficulty that the United States could defend Taiwan. Simulations by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found the United States able to defend Taiwan, but with tens of thousands of U.S. casualties and associated equipment losses, opening questions as to whether Washington and the broader American public are ready for such a commitment. Related, while the United States repeatedly references commitments to Taiwan, where this falls within the broader priorities of U.S. foreign policy is less clear.
To identify Taiwanese public concerns, I surveyed 1,105 Taiwanese via a web survey (implemented by Macromill Embrain) from May 25 to June 5, using quota sampling for age, gender, and region. I asked respondents: “How confident are you that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China were to start a war against Taiwan?”
Overall, only 35.47 percent of respondents stated they were fairly or very confident in U.S. defensive commitments. However, confidence largely divides on partisan lines, with 73.65 percent of supporters for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) fairly or very confident, compared to only 15 percent and 18.98 percent of supporters of the two main opposition parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) respectively. Additional analyses found that, despite assumptions to the contrary, concern about a potential Chinese invasion did not correspond with levels of confidence, while the partisan divisions remain statistically significant after controlling for age, gender, income, education, and general views of both the United States and China. The results suggest that, despite strengthening informal relations, including “the most comprehensive trade agreement” since 1979, and reiteration by the Biden administration of commitments, the Taiwanese public remains skeptical of this commitment.
One interpretation of the partisan divergence would suggest that the DPP base, in part responding to elite cues from party officials, has engaged in wishful thinking, overconfident about the depth of American defensive commitments and the appeal to protect democracies in light of recent efforts to strengthen bilateral ties. Another interpretation would suggest that KMT and TPP supporters are more likely to view American commitments as cheap talk, however well-intentioned, in the absence of incurred political and economic costs to defend Taiwan and that the United States, acting in its own national interests and constrained by a loss-sensitive public, would fail to meet expectations. Unfortunately, my survey did not unpack confidence further in terms of specific actions (e.g., providing additional arms, and coordination of air and naval forces), but the results may suggest how strategic ambiguity contributes to divergent perceptions in Taiwan.
While the United States remains Taiwan’s strongest security partner and the only one to provide arms sales, ultimately Taiwan’s defense requires both external assistance as well as broad investment in domestic production and reforms in training and personnel. Last year, efforts to address the former were clear as Taiwan increased its defense budget by 13.9 percent for 2023. However, my survey found a divided public on this increase as well, with 44.62 percent believing it was about the right amount, 35.48 percent too much, and 19.91 percent too little. Again, views diverged sharply on party lines, with a majority of DPP supporters (59.14 percent) thinking the current about was about right, compared to 59.38 percent of KMT supporters and 43.07 percent of TPP supporters stating it was too much, likely in part a function of lower expectations of conflict or that such spending may exacerbate miscalculations on China’s part. Regarding training and personnel, the expansion of military conscription currently maintains broad public approval. However, its effects may be limited without a shift in training towards increasingly technology-dependent specialized knowledge.
Timothy S. Rich is a Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab at Western Kentucky University. His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics, with an emphasis on Taiwan and South Korea.