The Chicago Council on Global Affairs—a US-based think tank—recently released an update to its closely watched public opinion survey of American perceptions on Taiwan policy. The survey, which was released on August 26, 2021, provides a rare window into the sentiments of the American public on a critical foreign policy issue that has increasingly grabbed media headlines in recent years: Taiwan. While the views of US leaders are routinely expressed through policy pronouncements and official statements, the sentiments of the American public are less readily observable. With the notable improvement in relations between the United States and Taiwan in recent years, these trends raise relevant questions about whether current policies are in fact supported by the American public, and the extent to which those public opinions should, would, and could matter for Taiwan policy.
To be sure, the causal relation between public opinion and foreign policy has long intrigued scholarly research, but the academic findings thus far appear varied at best. According to one scholarly research on this connection within democracies: “Normally, public opinion is latent on foreign policy issues with decision makers only concerned about the potential activation of popular interest. In the absence of public activation, officials feel free to act.” Indeed, the executive branch is vested with broad discretion to act on matters of foreign policy and “[a]cademic analysis of decades of survey data has identified a stable set of attitude gaps between the public and their leaders.” Yet, while public opinion may not be determinative of executive action on foreign policy, it does show what policies can or will have public support and which ones will not, should decisionmakers decide to act. Naturally, the larger the gap, the more difficult a decision would be.
This gap is not imagined. As American scholar Walter Russell Mead observed: “Elite opinion normally carries outsize weight in foreign-policy decision making, but when wide gaps open between elite and popular views, elected officials cannot ignore the polls.” Taiwan policy has not been an exception—perhaps until now. Indeed, the recent Chicago Council survey, which was conducted in July 2021, was published with the headline: “For First Time, Half of Americans Favor Defending Taiwan If China Invades.” Standing at a paltry 18 percent in 1982—when President Ronald Regan was begrudgingly convinced to sign the 1982 Communiqué—against the backdrop of China’s increasing aggression against Taiwan and a growing unfavorable view toward China within the United States and across the world, the title captures a key finding of the survey and the results, on the whole, may indicate a tipping point in American public opinion on Taiwan policy.
While most coverage of the survey results have focused on the 52 percent of American people who indicated that they would favor using military force to defend Taiwan (versus 18 in 1982), other elements of the survey also warrant attention. Indeed, 69 percent favor US recognition of Taiwan as an independent country, whereas 53 percent support the United States’ signing a formal alliance with Taiwan and a plurality of 46 percent favor explicitly committing to defend Taiwan if China invades. These issues touch on important dimensions of the current Taiwan policy debates, and could shape the extent to which these issues are weighed in deliberations by the US government on which course of action to take on any of these issues.
Taken alone, the results of one survey may not be indicative of a fundamental shift. However, the Chicago Council results track with another survey conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, which was released in October 2020. Similarly, in that poll, the survey asked “On a scale of ‘1’ to ‘10’, how important is it to defend U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific if they come under threat from China?” Explaining the results of the survey, Bonnie Glaser, one of the report authors, wrote:
The results show that Americans are, in fact, prepared to take a substantial risk to defend Taiwan. With a mean score of 6.69 out of 10, respondents from among the U.S. public gave stronger backing for defending Taiwan than Australia (6.38) and comparable to Japan (6.88), South Korea (6.92), as well as an unnamed ally or partner in the South China Sea (6.97).
These results reflect that both US thought leaders and the public consider taking on a level of considerable risks to defend Taiwan, on par with that for treaty allies of the United States. While public opinion is not determinative of ultimate policy directions and no one should reasonably expect the two sides to re-establish a mutual defense treaty anytime soon, at best there may be a correlation and these results are telling of a gradual and notable shift in American public opinion.
An important backdrop to the Chicago Council and CSIS polls is the deteriorating view towards China in the United States. According to a Pew Survey released in March: “Roughly nine-in-ten U.S. adults (89%) consider China a competitor or enemy, rather than a partner.” The Pew Survey further explained:
Today, 67% of Americans have “cold” feelings toward China on a “feeling thermometer,” giving the country a rating of less than 50 on a 0 to 100 scale. This is up from just 46% who said the same in 2018. The intensity of these negative feelings has also increased: The share who say they have “very cold” feelings toward China (0-24 on the same scale) has roughly doubled from 23% to 47%.
What implications could these polls alone have, particularly in light of growing concerns about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan? To be sure, policymakers have continued to highlight the importance of deterrence in the Taiwan Strait. And, as Glaser noted in explaining the CSIS survey results:
Deterrence necessitates that China believes that the United States is likely to intervene should it attack Taiwan. The first step in making deterrence credible is ensuring that the U.S. military has the capabilities necessary to defend Taiwan and that Taiwan does its part to reinforce its security. Yet, public support for Taiwan’s defense – as evidenced by the recent CSIS study – is also critical. It demonstrates a robust commitment to overseas partners, which in turn serves to bolster peace and stability in the region.
These shifts in perceptions toward Taiwan appear to be a function of two primary factors. First, it is likely due to increased awareness about the island-democracy in light of the positive and visible support shown by the US government and media coverage in recent years toward Taiwan for its vibrant democracy and exemplary handling of COVID-19. The second reason is likely China’s growing belligerence against Taiwan and the real potential for military conflict. It also correlates with a sharp negative downturn in attitudes toward China reflected in other polls because of growing awareness about its malign behavior—not only toward Taiwan, but also toward the region and the United States. As a Chinese-speaking democracy, Taiwan stands in stark contrast to its big neighbor.
Moreover, agency matters. How the executive responds to these polling data will undoubtedly influence to some extent the practical effects of such reflection of sentiments on actual policy. According to Douglas Foyle: “The literature on elite beliefs suggests that the beliefs decision makers hold concerning public opinion may have an important influence on this relationship [on the linkage between public opinion and foreign policy].” In the context of Taiwan policy, while differences remain, there is a coalescing of views between the public, opinion makers, and policymakers.
For instance, Congress—the legislative branch whose members are elected by the American people—has by-and-large consistently demonstrated strong bi-partisan support for Taiwan by introducing pro-Taiwan legislation. At the very least, the results from these polls indicate that we are starting to see the public catch up to their leaders on Taiwan policy. This should theoretically give the legislative branch greater support for even stronger initiatives, and perhaps even hypothetically acting as a constraint on the executive branch should it consider withholding support for Taiwan in the face of growing belligerence from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
As a further reflection of leadership sentiments, Senator Tammy Duckworth’s recent statement on the Taiwan Strait is instructive: “Not having a peaceful resolution will cost us. Because we will then have to send our treasures, our men and women in uniform, there. Taiwan Straits are a key route of international economic activity, just as the Straits of Malacca in Singapore are. And we’re going to find ourselves having to defend those. Senator Duckworth added:“ […] the people of Taiwan deserve to know that America will not abandon them.”
As GTI Senior Non-Resident Fellow Mike Mazza wrote in the Global Taiwan Brief:
The task now is for American leaders, including those in the most senior ranks of government, to reinforce this support. Laying the groundwork among the public for intervention now will ensure Washington will need to spend less time doing so once a crisis is in the offing. Robust public support for defending Taiwan, meanwhile, will contribute to deterring China from acting precipitously, making such a crisis less likely to come about.
At this point, it is too early to say whether American public opinion is at a fundamental tipping point, but it appears to be a turning point. Moreover, this much is increasingly clear: The perception gap between US leaders and the public on Taiwan policy is closing.
The main point: Against the backdrop of China’s increasing aggression against Taiwan and a growing unfavorable view toward China within the United States and across the world, the results of recent American public opinion surveys may indicate a tipping point in American public opinion on Taiwan policy.
(The author would like to thank GTI Summer 2021 Intern Margaux Garcia for her research assistance.)