New Opinion Polls Highlight Trends in Taiwan’s Will to Fight and Its Partisan Divide

New Opinion Polls Highlight Trends in Taiwan’s Will to Fight and Its Partisan Divide

New Opinion Polls Highlight Trends in Taiwan’s Will to Fight and Its Partisan Divide

The question of whether the people of Taiwan have the will to fight to defend themselves against a Chinese military invasion remains a critical question for strategists in Washington, Taipei—and Beijing. “Arguably, will to fight [emp. added] is the single most important factor in war,” according to a RAND study published in 2018. Indeed, Chinese strategists have long emphasized the stratagem to “win without fighting” (不戰而屈人之兵), a key component of which is breaking the people of Taiwan’s will to fight. As concerns over a possible Chinese invasion increase with tensions across the strait at their highest point since 1996, the question of the Taiwanese spirit to fight is now more relevant than ever. [1] New polling data from two organizations within Taiwan, released within days of each other near the end of 2021, shed light on the trendlines in public sentiments concerning this critical question. The survey results offer conflicting results that raise questions about the underlying implications. 

In late December 2021, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (臺灣民主基金會), a national democracy and research foundation based in Taipei, released its commissioned annual survey conducted by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University (國立政治大學 選舉研究中心). The survey revealed that nearly 72.5 percent of the Taiwanese population said that they would fight to defend Taiwan if China invaded Taiwan to compel unification, while 62.7 percent stated that they would fight if the invasion occurred because Taiwan declared de jure independence. While the survey results show that the majority of the population would be willing to fight if China invaded under the two specified conditions, the results still indicate a notable decrease from the annual survey’s 2020 results (7.3 percent and 8.8 percent, respectively).

The 2021 TFD survey contrasts sharply with a poll conducted by Global View Monthly (遠見雜誌, GVM), a magazine published by one of Taiwan’s major publishers, Commonwealth Publishing (天下文化). Released around the same time as the TFD survey, the annual “Survey of Popular Sentiment Trends in Taiwan” (台灣民心動向調查) for 2021 asked respondents a similar question relating to their will to fight. Specifically, respondents were asked: “If war erupted across the strait, would you be willing yourself or let your family members fight on the battlefield?” In contrast to the results of the TFD survey, 51.3 percent of the respondents indicated that they were “not willing,” with 40.3 percent indicating that they were “willing” to fight themselves or let their family members fight, while 8.5 percent indicated “no response.” 

In an article reporting the results, GVM dived further into the data, which revealed that a majority of female respondents indicated that they were “not willing” (61.2 percent), whereas 50.7 percent of males were either “willing” to fight or to let their family members fight on the battlefield. Among those in the 20-29 age cohort, 70.2 percent were “not willing” (which directly contradicts the data provided by the TFD poll, finding 70.2 to 78.9 percent to be “willing”); while among those in the 30-39 age cohort, 47.9 percent were “willing” to fight or let their family members fight on the battlefield. The most scathing of the results highlights the breakdown of the responses based on party identification. For those who identified as pan-Blue (Kuomintang et al.), 70.8 percent indicated that they were “not willing;” 58.6 percent of independents were “not willing;” and 62.4 percent of those who identified as pan-Green (Democratic Progressive Party et al.) expressed that they were “willing” to fight or let their family members fight on the battlefield.

Taking the average of the responses to the two scenarios posited in the TFD poll and thereby minimizing the bias of a particular scenario-based response, 67.6 percent of respondents indicated that they would be willing to fight. The near 30-point spread between the TFD and GVM polls of those generally willing to fight is striking. While there are discrepancies in the framing of the question in the two polls—which could affect how people interpret the meaning of the questions, although it would hard to conceive of that accounting entirely for the wide spread—what else accounts for the stark difference?

Polling methodology aside, other factors influencing the responses to the GVM poll could be perceived military readiness and international support, which were also surveyed by GVM. Finally, and perhaps most relevant, such issues can be heavily influenced by partisan convictions to either support the ruling party or to oppose it, especially if other incentives are not involved. .

In another question related to the prospects for war, the GVM survey asked: “If war erupted across the strait, do you think the Taiwan government has made sufficient preparations to fight a war against mainland China?” According to the survey, 52.1 percent of the respondents answered “no,” whereas 35.2 percent of the respondents answered “yes.” Again, when the responses were sorted by party identification, the results were conspicuous. For those who identified as pan-Blue, 74.8 percent answered “no” and 58.7 percent of independents also answered “no;” whereas 62 percent of those who identified as pan-Green answered “yes.” In another related question, the survey asked: “If war erupted across the strait, what do you think will be the result?” Among the respondents, 42.8 percent believed that it would result in a negotiated settlement, 30.5 percent believed that the mainland would win, and 9.2 percent believed that Taiwan would win. 

In the report “Surveying the Taiwanese Psychology on Self-Defense and Self-Determination,” Austin Wang, an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, noted: “How Taiwan’s most important security partner the United States acts would undoubtedly influence the Taiwanese people’s willingness to defend against an invasion by China.” “The descriptive analysis provides the direct evidence that manipulating perception of collective action can strongly influence Taiwanese people’s willingness to fight against China’s invasion,” Wang added.

The survey-backed observation was supported by another study conducted by Lt. Col. (ret.) Mark Stokes and others at the Arlington-based think tank Project 2049 Institute. In “Preparing for the Nightmare: Readiness and Ad hoc Coalition Operations in the Taiwan Strait,” Stokes observed:

National will and morale are also related to perceived international support. The PLA expends significant resources on manipulating morale among the general population and particularly within the ROC armed forces. The degree of perceived international support is a critical yet intangible factor in morale, particularly during a crisis.

According to the RAND study: “With very few exceptions, all wars and almost all battles are decided by matters of human will: Breaking the enemy’s will to fight while sustaining one’s own will to fight is the key to success in battle.” On both sides of the human will coin, in the case of Taiwan, the role of the United States is perhaps more critical than any other external factor. To this question, the GVM survey asked: “If a military conflict occurs across the strait, how would the United States help Taiwan?” Among the respondents: 33.7 percent said that the United States would sell arms to Taiwan, 9.0 percent said the United States would provide armaments to defend Taiwan, and only 10.2 percent believed that the United States would jointly (with Taiwan forces) fight in Taiwan.

A recent study published by the US National Defense University summed up this pressing issue succinctly: “Taiwan’s will to resist Chinese pressure depends, in part, on the speed and efficacy of U.S. intervention in a conflict.” Indeed, “China’s basic advantages in any Taiwan scenario include a high level of political will—reunification [sic] is a ‘core interest’ for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which aspires to resolve the problem on its own terms by the centennial of the People’s Republic of China in 2049.”

To be sure, it is not clear what precisely contributed to the huge difference reflected in the results of the TFD and GVM polls. At the very least, this should raise questions about the certainty of any conclusion that can be drawn from a single data set concerning Taiwan’s will to fight. But as these discrepancies demonstrate, more assessments are clearly required to understand the deeper trend and its implications.

Setting aside the reason for the stark difference between the two surveys (a matter outside the scope of this brief), and taking each poll independently of the other, two takeaways are clear: there was a notable decrease in Taiwan’s will to fight from 2020 to 2021, and there is a sharp partisan divide on the issue. What are the preliminary policy implications? For Taiwan, the political leadership must consider, as the RAND study indicated, “[t]he integration of will to fight concepts into military education, training, planning, assessments, international engagement, and operations.” In short, investments and innovation in both its civilian and military political warfare apparatuses are essential. And, as the United States and her allies consider ways to strengthen integrated deterrence for Taiwan, sustaining and enhancing its will to fight ought to be an integral part of that strategy.

The main point: New polling data from two organizations within Taiwan released near the end of 2021 indicate a decrease in Taiwan’s “will to fight” from 2020 to 2021 and a sharp partisan divide on the issue.

[1] According to the RAND study, the national will to fight can be defined as: “the determination of a national government to conduct sustained military and other operations for some objective, even when the expectation of success decreases or the need for significant political, economic, and military sacrifices increases.”