“The American people have come to the aid of foreign countries in the name of freedom many times in our history; but Americans will not in good conscience support countries that are unwilling to defend themselves.” The former U.S. representative from Connecticut and retired Army Col. Rob Simmons made the statement back in 2005 while Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan stalled in funding critical defense acquisitions necessary for the country’s defense. The defense budget was held up largely due to partisan wrangling in the fledgling democracy and the protracted delay were raising serious doubts in Washington about Taiwan’s commitment to its own defense. While the former congressman’s statement was made more than a decade ago, it touched upon a fundamental issue in U.S.-Taiwan relations that remains relevant today: Would the United States come to the defense of Taiwan if it was invaded by China?
The answer to this question is not a simple yes or no, and since the abrogation of the Mutual Defense treaty between the United States and Taiwan in 1979, which provided that if one country came under attack, the other would aid and provide military support, the official U.S. response has been an ambiguous maybe. Exploiting this ambiguity, China has preyed on the insecurity of the Taiwanese people through coercion and psychological warfare—with the aim to create a fait accompli and the subordination of Taiwan under the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the decades that have passed since the treaty’s termination, China continues to refuse renouncing the use of force against Taiwan, all the while the island transformed from an authoritarian system of government to a vibrant democracy.
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After 1979, the closest that the United States came to committing to coming to Taiwan’s aid was in 2001—after Taiwan experienced its first transfer of political power—when President George W. Bush famously stated, when asked if the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan if it was attacked by China, “Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would.” The interviewer followed up, “With the full force of American military?” President Bush said, “Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend theirself.”
Setting aside the implications of the forty-third president’s clarification of policy, the clarity imbued by President Bush’s interpretation of this American obligation, supported by the Taiwan Relations Act, raised questions of whether this new democracy and its people—whose freedom American soldiers may one day have to fight and die for—are ready and willing to defend themselves against the looming threat that it faced from its authoritarian neighbor? The legal and moral obligations notwithstanding—two additional factors are germane to this assessment of Taiwan’s threat perception: defense budget and the people’s will to fight.
As one analyst observed in 2003:
… it is not clear how high a price Taiwan is willing to pay to oppose China. Taiwan’s people have generally resisted the sacrifices that go with a high degree of military readiness. Mandatory military service for young men is unpopular, and the government has already cut the length of service several times. Some high-ranking Taiwan military officers admit that the civilian population’s willingness to fight is not beyond question. Opinion polls commonly indicate that a significant proportion of Taiwan’s trained reservists would be reluctant to answer the call to arms in the event of a war with China.
While anecdotal evidence may have supported the troubling perception that the civilian population of Taiwan would be unwilling to defend themselves against a PRC invasion, a review of publicly available polling data over time have shown quite the contrary: in fact, a high percentage of people in Taiwan are willing to fight if China invaded, and the will to fight now is even stronger than perhaps ever before, especially among Taiwan’s youth.
According to the Taiwan National Security Survey in 2003, 85.4 percent of people on the island who support “independence unconditionally” will fight if China attacks; 77.7 percent of people who support “independence conditionally” will fight; and, most notably, 60.6 percent of people who do not support independence under any condition will fight. A follow-on poll in 2017 exposed a possible crack in this psychological armor. The poll shows that 18.1 percent of respondents, asked simply what they would do if Taiwan and China go to war, stated that they would run away, 10.6 percent of the respondents stated that they would defend, and 36.9 percent of them answered that they would go with the flow. Filtered by age, 26.9 percent of respondents below the age of thirty-nine would run away, and 11.7 percent would defend Taiwan, and 26.5 percent of people stated that they would go with the flow. Whereas 13.4 percent above the age of forty responded that they would run away, 10 percent would defend Taiwan, and 42.6 percent stated that they would go with the flow. The vagueness of the survey results stood in stark contrast to the former U.S. president’s resoluteness—and their juxtaposition could have sent a cautionary signal for any U.S. president contemplating committing American lives to Taiwan’s defense.
A recent survey conducted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) unveiled a more detailed look into the question of the people’s willingness to fight. When asked specifically: “would you fight for Taiwan if the mainland China uses force against Taiwan for unification?” 70.3 percent of the respondents under the age of thirty-nine said “yes” and only 26.5 percent said “no.” Whereas, 66.1 percent of the respondents above forty years of age said “yes” and 24.9 percent said “no.” When asked: “would you fight for Taiwan if Taiwan formally announced independence that causes the mainland China to use force against Taiwan?” 63.4 percent under the age of thirty-nine said “yes,” and only 32.6 percent of respondents said “no”; whereas 49.9 percent of the people above forty said “yes,” and 39.2 percent said “no.”
Whether China will use military force to invade Taiwan—at least according to Beijing—depend on whether it sees Taipei as moving towards independence. In an oft-cited poll conducted by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University that assessed trends in views toward cross-Strait relations. In 2017, 33.2 percent of respondents stated that they prefer to “maintain status quo, decide at later date,” 25.1 percent prefer to “maintain status quo indefinitely”; 17.2 percent prefer to ”maintain status quo, move toward independence”; 10.3 percent prefer to “maintain status quo, move toward unification”; 5 percent preferred independence, and only 2.2 percent preferred unification as soon as possible. In other words, 85.8 percent of people in Taiwan prefer the status quo. Further, according to data referenced in the TFD survey, people between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine had the highest percentage compared to other age cohorts (i.e., the thirty to thirty-nine age range, and the forty years old and older age range) for the status quo at 44.3 percent. Despite the Taiwanese people’s overwhelming preference for the status quo, Beijing has escalated tensions in the Taiwan Strait by launching a comprehensive pressure campaign that include diplomatic, economic and military coercion to rewrite the status quo.
Contrary to Beijing’s belief and some concerns in Washington of Taiwan’s internal weaknesses, of which a questionable will to fight was one, polling data indicate that a majority in Taiwan will fight if China invaded. To be sure, Taiwan faces other challenges to its defense such as the budget, readiness and manpower requirements, among others, but as more people on Taiwan value democracy, the will to fight to preserve that democracy is not one of them. Indeed, the people’s willingness to fight coupled with society’s overwhelming preference for the status quo bodes well to the psychological resiliency of Taiwan. This should be seen as a reassuring signal for Washington and the American people.
Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.