Parsing Taiwanese Skepticism about the Chinese Invasion Threat

Parsing Taiwanese Skepticism about the Chinese Invasion Threat

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Parsing Taiwanese Skepticism about the Chinese Invasion Threat

Timothy S. Rich is a professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics in East Asia.

In 2021, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) stated that the threat from China grew “every day.” The combination of China’s increased military capabilities, incursions into the Taiwanese air defense identification zone (ADIZ), and continued rhetoric from Beijing about unification has led some analysts to believe that China could invade the country by 2027, if not sooner. Meanwhile, public opinion polls in Japan and South Korea have found that nearly three quarters of respondents believe that China will try to invade Taiwan, while the limited number of Taiwanese polls show conflicting results regarding the public’s willingness to fight if invaded.

An invasion would be politically and economically costly for China, requiring “history’s largest amphibious attack,” a feat that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) currently seems ill-equipped to accomplish, despite outspending Taiwan approximately 25-to-1. Although polls show conflicting results regarding a readiness to fight China, one must presume a public that increasingly identifies as Taiwanese would hamper Chinese efforts. Any action would also likely result in economic if not military responses from other states. Even if the PLA’s capabilities improve considerably by 2027, this does not necessarily indicate an intent to act. Yet, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平)—about to enter his third term leading a party that has long tied its political legitimacy to unification—may see such risks as acceptable if convinced either of success, or that waiting would further enhance Taiwanese independence sentiment—especially if Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were to hold on to the presidency in 2024. 

However, what is often lacking in such discussions is the extent to which the Taiwanese public is concerned about invasion, and whether concern is predicated on China’s or Taiwan’s military capabilities.  Existing survey work tends to ask about concerns regarding military conflict with China in the abstract. For example, My-Formosa polls in 2021 and 2022 found that majorities believe that war is not inevitable across the Taiwan Strait; while a 2021 Intelligentsia Taipei poll found 50.2 percent not concerned about war, and that 58.8 percent thought it unlikely in the next decade. Other polls put concern within the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, such as a March TVBS poll that asked if China would use this opportunity to attack, with 57 percent not worried at all or not too worried, compared to 14 percent who were very worried. Such polls, however, give us limited indication as to what is motivating concern (or lack thereof) for possible military conflict.

Public concern would have several implications. An unconcerned public may be reluctant to support efforts to enhance the country’s security, such as increasing the defense budget; or may be overly optimistic about the United States’ willingness to defend Taiwan, especially after recent statements from President Joseph Biden. In contrast, analysts have often linked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to a possible cross-Strait conflict. Despite many fundamental differences between the two issues, these comparisons do not seem to have led many Taiwanese citizens to think that they are next, although only 34.5 percent of respondents in a March Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF, 台灣民意教育基金會) survey believed the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an invasion. Yet, the extent to which awareness of China’s capabilities, or Taiwan’s defensive capabilities, influences such concerns remains unclear. For example, in the same March TVBS poll, 48 percent expressed no confidence in Taiwan’s ability to defend itself militarily compared to 42 percent confident, but whether this lack of confidence enhances concerns has not been explicitly tested.

To capture Taiwanese concern about invasion, I conducted a national web survey in Taiwan via PollcracyLab on May 18-20, 2022. After a series of demographic and attitudinal questions, 640 Taiwanese respondents were randomly assigned one of the three following prompts to evaluate, designed to identify whether or not prompting respondents to consider the military capabilities of China or Taiwan influenced their concerns of conflict:

Version 1 (V1): How concerned are you about China invading Taiwan?

Version 2 (V2): Considering China’s military capabilities, how concerned are you about China invading Taiwan?

Version 3 (V3): Considering Taiwan’s defense capabilities, how concerned are you about China invading Taiwan?

Starting with Version 1, roughly a quarter of respondents (24.88 percent) stated that they were very or extremely concerned, while 45.07 percent stated they were not at all concerned or only slightly concerned. Shifting to Version 2, Taiwanese were generally less concerned when the prompt emphasized China’s military capabilities, a somewhat surprising result. Here, a majority (52.09 percent) stated that they were slightly or not at all concerned, compared to 20.46 percent who were very or extremely concerned. Finally, when the question emphasized Taiwan’s defensive capabilities, concern increased, with 30.66 percent of respondents very or extremely concerned.

Next, I separated out respondents by party identification, finding limited differences between supporters of the two largest parties, the DPP and the Kuomintang (KMT). Across all three versions, a plurality—if not an outright majority—of both DPP and KMT supporters claimed to be not at all or only slightly concerned about an invasion. In response to Version 1, nearly identical rates of supporters of both parties claimed to be very or extremely concerned (DPP: 23.25 percent; KMT: 22.5 percent). Version 2 elicited the largest difference between the parties, with 25.64 percent of KMT supporters versus 19.23 percent of DPP supporters very or extremely concerned. At the other end, in Versions 1 and 2 KMT supporters were roughly six percent more likely than DPP supporters to be not concerned at all or only slightly concerned. Finally, in response to Version 3, DPP supporters were the least concerned, with a 9.22 percent gap between themselves and KMT supporters.  

In addition, the survey found that Taiwanese claim rarely to think about China, with two-thirds stating they had not thought of China at all in the last week. Moreover, attention to China did not correspond with concern about invasion in any of the three versions. Evaluations of current relations between China and Taiwan however did negatively correspond with concern, but only significant for those receiving Version 1.

The findings suggest that, despite increased rhetoric from Beijing, Taiwanese do not seem particularly concerned about invasion. This may be for several reasons—ranging from China’s long history of threats towards Taiwan without an invasion, to miscalculation of Chinese military capabilities, to beliefs that American assistance is enough to deter China. It is also important to note that this survey predates President Biden’s statement on defending Taiwan. Taiwanese may also view Russia’s difficulties in its invasion of Ukraine as a sign that Chinese leaders will be cautious of similar hubris in terms of invading Taiwan. Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made similar claims, arguing that evidence from Ukraine may have delayed Chinese efforts, although Chinese officials have suggested otherwise

Yet, the fact that the highest levels of concern appear in the version that mentions Taiwan’s defensive capabilities suggests an underlying acknowledgment of the difficulties in defending the country from a much larger military. The results also perhaps suggest a means for the Tsai Administration to frame its campaign to increase defense spending (currently at roughly two percent of GDP), as well as broader efforts to prepare the public for possible conflict. These efforts could include not only expanding military conscription, which according to the Taiwan’s Election and Democratization Study (TEDS) March survey has overwhelming support, but also bolstering first aid training and shelter capacities to strengthen Taiwan’s ability to withstand the initial days of any conflict. 

Admittedly, public concern about an invasion may vary considerably over time based in part on the actions of Chinese, Taiwanese, and American leadership. As is often the case with hypothetical situations in survey questions, original statements may also poorly reflect later behavior. If taken at face value, the results here suggest at the very least a perceptual challenge. Taiwan’s defense will ultimately require a multipronged approach, one that not only leverages American commitments—despite a formal policy of “strategic ambiguity”—but increases domestic capabilities as well, potentially necessitating a military reorganization to confront the changing threat from China. A reformulation is also necessary in regards to Taiwan’s traditional policy of requesting large weapons, which the United States fears China would destroy early in any conflict, in favor of weapons such as mobile missiles. Yet, such efforts will be hampered if the Taiwanese public undervalues the potential threat from China, or is overly optimistic of America’s depth of commitment to risk war with China to defend Taiwan.

The main point: Despite China’s growing efforts to intimidate Taiwan into submission, a recent survey has shown that the Taiwanese public remains skeptical of the threat posed by Beijing. In turn, this skepticism could potentially undermine efforts to strengthen Taiwan’s defense.