The Ukraine War and Its Impact on Taiwanese Perceptions on Defense Issues

The Ukraine War and Its Impact on Taiwanese Perceptions on Defense Issues

The Ukraine War and Its Impact on Taiwanese Perceptions on Defense Issues

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has become a global geopolitical event affecting governments and general populations alike. Appalled by Moscow’s unjustified and unprovoked aggression, the international community—with notable exceptions—has broadly condemned the invasion. These public reactions in turn are spurring changes in the policies of many countries. In Germany, for instance, the invasion has convinced Berlin to finally commit more resources to its national defense. Similar outcries in other countries are also shaping public opinions on hotly debated policy changes. While the response in Europe has understandably been strongest given the proximate effects of the war, the reactions in Asia have not been insignificant. In Taiwan, the changing perceptions of the general public may increasingly weigh in on important domestic debates about critical national defense issues. This preliminary assessment examines several recent public opinions polls on Taiwanese perceptions of the Ukraine War and its correlated effects on defense-related matters. 

Will to Fight

In recent years, analysts studying Taiwan’s defense have devoted increased attention to the resolve of the people of Taiwan to fight in the event of a cross-Strait military conflict. This is an issue that is critical to an effective defense of Taiwan and has been an area of concern in the past. According to the pan-Blue-leaning media outlet TVBS Polling Center (TVBS民調中心), which released a survey from March that polled respondents on this question, 62 percent of respondents expressed their willingness to go to war to defend Taiwan, whereas only 26 percent of the people were not willing to fight and 11 percent expressed no opinion. Diving further into the results, the survey found that 72 percent of people aged 40-49 were willing to go to war, a sentiment shared by more than 60 percent of those aged between 20-29, 30-39, and 50-59, as well as 54 percent of those over the age of 60.

The TVBS poll is consistent with a survey taken by another pan-Blue-leaning organization, the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society (TISSS, 台灣國際戰略學會), a think tank headed by Wong Ming-hsien (翁明賢). In a poll it released in March, TISSS found that 70.2 percent of respondents were willing to defend Taiwan if China took military action against the country. As a point of comparison, this represented an increase of 29.9 points from the 40.3 percent who said they would fight in a poll conducted in December 2021, months before the war in Ukraine.

Mandatory Military Service and Reserve Training

The issues that have perhaps seen the most dramatic change as a result of the invasion of Ukraine are Taiwanese public perceptions towards mandatory military service and reserve training. These hard defense issues have been hotly debated in recent years, both within Taiwan’s defense establishment and the public, as a result of increasing concerns about the threat facing Taiwan. Since the country began its transition to an all-volunteer military force in the mid-2010s, it has been largely unsuccessful in meeting recruitment quotas. In turn, this has compounded concerns about the psychological resiliency and combat readiness of the military and the general population. 

According to the TISSS poll from March, 69.6 percent now support an extension of the country’s four-month compulsory military service. Similarly, 70.4 percent support the new 14-day reservist training program designed to improve the country’s combat readiness, with only 19.1 percent disapproving of the initiative. These results echo the findings of an April 26 poll taken by the pan-Green-leaning Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF, 台灣民意基金會), which asked respondents whether the current requirement of fourth months of compulsory military service is reasonable in light of the threats facing Taiwan. The survey found that 76.8 percent thought it was unreasonable for current draftees to only serve 4 months, while 15 percent thought it was reasonable. Delving deeper, the poll asked whether it would be reasonable to extend the service to at least one year. In response, 43.6 percent stated that they “strongly agree”; 32.3 percent “somewhat agree”; 10.3 percent “disagree slightly”; 7.5 percent ”strongly disagree”; and 6.4 percent either have no opinion, do not know, or refuse to answer. 

Threat of Military Invasion

One of the most surveyed issues by pollsters focused on Taiwan is the threat perception of its people. Outside observers have long been confounded by the general lack of a sense of urgency within Taiwan regarding the military threat it faces. On this issue, the public opinion poll conducted by TPOF in April found that 38.6 percent of the respondents either thought it was “somewhat likely” or “very likely” that China could suddenly start a war with Taiwan, whereas 50.6 percent thought that it was either “somewhat unlikely” or “not likely at all.” While the overall balance between the two perspectives has not changed, these results represent a sizeable increase of 12 points from 26.6 percent, and a decrease of 12.3 points from 62.9 percent, respectively, from February (before Russia invaded Ukraine). The TPOF poll is consistent with another poll conducted by My Formosa Weekly (美麗島電子報)—a pan-Green-leaning organization—which found that 37.4 percent of the respondents thought that China’s use of military force against Taiwan was “likely” under the current cross-Strait situation, while 55 percent thought that it was “unlikely.” 

Due to the hyper-partisan nature of Taiwanese politics, there can be significant differences in how the public responds to public policy polls conducted by pan-Green- or pan-Blue-leaning organizations. It is therefore noteworthy to highlight how the results of these two polls—conducted by green-leaning organizations—are seemingly consistent with the findings of a major blue-leaning media outlet. According to the TVBS Polling Center survey released in late March, 57 percent of the public stated that they were not worried about whether China would take advantage of this opportunity to attack Taiwan, with 37 percent saying that they were worried and the other 6 percent expressing no opinion. 

These results show that while the Ukraine War has heightened the public’s concern about the possibility of a military invasion of Taiwan, the majority of the people of Taiwan still think that a Chinese invasion of the island is unlikely. 

Independence versus Unification

The debate over the people’s preference for independence or unification has long been one of the core issues of division within Taiwan. According to the TVBS poll from March, 59 percent prefer to maintain the status quo, whereas 23 percent prefer independence, only 5 percent prefer unification, and 13 percent have no opinion. By contrast, the survey conducted by TPOF found that 52.8 percent preferred Taiwan independence (with 26 percent indicating that they “agree” with Taiwan independence but will not “insist” on it, and 26.8 percent indicating they “insist” on Taiwan independence), only 22.4 percent preferred maintaining the status quo, and 11 percent supported cross-Strait unification. [1] While nuanced, long-term academic polling surveys indicate that the overwhelming majority still prefer to maintain some form of the “status quo,” there are indeed variations within people’s preferences for the status quo that signal a tilt towards favoring independence. [2]

Although it is difficult to determine with certainty the degree to which the war in Ukraine has impacted public perceptions on this issue, it is worth noting that the TPOF poll found a noticeable increase in those who favor asserting independence from the December 2021 data to the April 2022 data. Specifically, the survey found that the percentage of respondents “insisting” on Taiwan independence increased by 7.5 points (from 19.3 percent to 26.8 percent); while the percentage of respondents who agree but do not insist on Taiwan independence decreased by 7.4 points (from 33.4 percent to 26 percent). Meanwhile, the percentage of respondents who wish to maintain the status quo also increased by 5.5 points, from 16.9 percent to 22.4 percent. Finally, the percentage of people who agree with unification but will not insist on it and those insisting unification decreased to 9 percent (from 13.5 percent) and 2 percent (from 2.5 percent). 

Arms Sales

Another relevant matter for Taiwan’s defense that is less well-understood outside of the island is the people’s perceptions toward US arms sales and the country’s defense budget, both of which are critical to the security relationship between the United States and Taiwan. It should be noted upfront that since polling data on this question has not been released since the start of the war in Ukraine, there is no basis to objectively assess the impact of the war on people’s attitudes on this issue. The point of this section is to address existing public opinion data on the matter to provide an available reference point when further data becomes available.

To be sure, US government and defense analysts have long implored Taiwan to spend more on its defense. On the specific question of whether Taiwan should spend more and purchase more arms, a 2020 poll conducted by ETtoday (ETtoday 新聞雲) found that 42.1 percent of respondents supported the government expending large sums to purchase weapons from the United States, whereas 51.5 percent do not support doing so. In another poll released in September 2020 by Global View Magazine (遠見雜誌), 39.1 percent of respondents supported purchasing more defense weapons to prepare for war (representing an increase of 11 percent from September 2019). However, the poll also indicated that 51.6 percent believed that good relations should be maintained across the Taiwan Strait, and that resources should be saved for investments elsewhere (representing a decrease of 11.1 percent from the previous year). Other polls have revealed differing attitudes toward arms sales on a partisan basis.

These polls clearly reflect the conflicted opinions within Taiwan toward arms sales from the United States. These attitudes may be attributed in part to public concerns or “myths” about the fairness of US arms sales, or beliefs that Washington is not selling the type of arms that Taipei wants or needs. 


As the survey data collected in this article show, the Ukraine War has had a noticeable impact on Taiwanese perceptions related to defense matters. The significant and ostensibly bipartisan resolve to defend Taiwan—as reflected in the polling data from both pan-Blue- and pan-Green-leaning organizations—as well as changing attitudes toward longer and tougher military service and reserve training, are indicators of this trend. 

Although the Ukraine War has not yet had a clear impact on public preferences toward independence versus unification, the proximate and subtle variations in terms of people’s particular preferences suggest that there is a strong correlation between the war in Ukraine and these shifts in Taiwanese perceptions. While the data on the impact of the Ukraine war on people’s views toward arms sales is currently unavailable, a cursory review of the past data suggests the need for greater clarity and more consistency in US messaging about its policies and objectives for its security assistance policy toward Taiwan. 

It is clear from these polling data that the general population in Taiwan does not think that a war is imminent as a result of the Ukraine War, but there does seem to be a greater sense of urgency within Taiwan about the need to prepare its defense. As Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) recently stated: “It is not just the Taiwanese government that has learned the lesson, it is also the Taiwanese people. The people here in Taiwan are more determined to defend ourselves than ever before.” Whether this will lead to concrete policy changes remain to be seen. 

The main point: The perceptions of the Taiwanese public on many defense issues are shifting as a result of the Ukraine War. This in turn could influence critical ongoing defense policy debates within the country. 

[1] The difference in the two results could be explained in part by how the polls present the preferences differently. By not permitting variations of the status quo such as status quo independence later or unification later and also offering the option to agree with a position but not insist on a preference, TPOF has adopted a more limited definition of the status quo and also broader interpretation of independence, respectively.

[2] It should be noted that even among those preferring to maintain the status quo, the move towards favoring independence in this poll has increased considerably since 2018, increasing from 15.1 to 25.1 (by 10 points). (https://esc.nccu.edu.tw/PageDoc/Detail?fid=7801&id=6963)