Eric Lee is associate director of programs at the Project 2049 Institute
With Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan at the beginning of August, and subsequent Chinese military activities, Taiwan has been yet again thrust into news headlines across America. At the same time, there have been increasing numbers of public opinion polls conducted in recent years on US sentiments toward Taiwan. Political elites and scholars frequently opine in print and broadcast media about issues pertaining to Taiwan—but what does the American public think about Taiwan, and what do they believe the United States should do in regards to Taiwan policy?
Public opinion polling provides a rough measurement tool to assess what the public thinks on a given issue. On Taiwan, it can provide lawmakers and policymakers with a window to see how policy decisions might be received by their constituents and the general public in the United States. Furthermore, at a time when public opinion polling within Taiwan is scrutinized to gain insights regarding Taiwanese will to fight against Chinese aggression, results from US domestic polling on Taiwan could also impact Taiwanese morale.
Of course, public opinion polls have their limitations. This is especially true in terms of assessing US domestic attitudes toward Taiwan, as the datasets available are sparse and the questions asked are not consistent. There is also an unknown, and difficult to measure, level of respondents’ knowledge of the complexities surrounding Taiwan issues. Nonetheless, polling can establish a rough baseline for how Americans view Taiwan. To inform this analysis, polling data from the last year was used from Morning Consult, Pew Research Center, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Americans are generally unfamiliar with Taiwan. In a Morning Consult poll conducted this May, while over half of respondents had some familiarity with China-Taiwan relations, only 15 percent were very familiar with the issue. And the younger a person was, the less familiar they tended to be with Taiwan. In a Morning Consult poll conducted this August, only 34 percent were able to correctly identify Taiwan on a map―the same percent of respondents who could correctly identify Ukraine on a map in a Morning Consult poll released this February.
Americans generally support a more legitimate US-Taiwan relationship. In August 2021, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported that 69 percent of respondents supported recognizing Taiwan as an independent country, and 53 percent supported a formal alliance between the United States and Taiwan. In a Morning Consult this May, respondents were presented with various hypothetical US policy measures to respond to Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Establishing formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan was the most supported of all options, polling at 64 percent. In Morning Consult’s poll this July, 63 percent supported Taiwan independence.
In their poll this August, Morning Consult informed participants that China claims Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while Taiwan maintains its independent status, despite not formally declaring independence. With this knowledge, around 70 percent of respondents supported both Taiwan’s independence from the PRC and Taiwan formally declaring independence from the PRC. Over 80 percent of respondents familiar with Taiwan supported these positions. However, it is not clear whether respondents were aware of China’s redlines vis-à-vis Taiwan or other potential triggers for war over the Taiwan Strait.
Americans generally do not view China-Taiwan tensions as a significant problem for the United States. In a March 2022 poll conducted by Pew Research Center, researchers asked Americans what they viewed as very serious problems in the US-China relationship. 62 percent of respondents said that the China-Russia relationship was by far the most serious problem. This was 15 percent more than the second-most popular response, which was China’s involvement in US politics. Next in descending order of respondent frequency were China’s military power, and China’s policy on human rights issues; China-Taiwan tensions were tied for fifth place, alongside China’s economic competition with the United States. This reflects a consistent ranking in previous Pew Research Center polls of Taiwan-related concerns as among the lowest in the major problems in the US-China relationship.
Americans generally view Taiwan as aligned with the United States—however, they tend to not view the defense of Taiwan as a US responsibility. From July to August this year, Morning Consult reported that the percentage of Americans who viewed Taiwan as being geopolitically aligned with the United States increased from 40 percent to 57 percent after Speaker Pelosi’s visit. But when asked if the United States has a responsibility to defend Taiwan against China, only 34 percent said yes. This number was down from 37 percent in an earlier poll conducted by Morning Consult in May. When asked the same question on Ukraine, 48 percent of respondents in May agreed that it was a US responsibility to defend Ukraine.
In response to Chinese aggression toward Taiwan, Americans tend to favor non-military responses. Across all polls evaluated, economic and diplomatic responses were the most preferred US responses. In Chicago Council polling this August, the most favored US responses to China invading Taiwan were imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions, accepting Taiwan refugees, sending weapons to Taiwan, and using the US Navy to prevent a Chinese blockade of Taiwan. According to Morning Consult polls this May and July, the most preferred US responses to China invading Taiwan included sanctions, bans on bilateral investment, and diplomatic negotiations. The next most preferred US responses were providing Taiwan with military intelligence and weapons.
Americans are generally not supportive of deploying US troops into the Indo-Pacific theater. In the Chicago Council poll this August, sending US troops to Taiwan ranked last among presented US policy options for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, with a difference of over 20 percent compared to the next least-preferred option. At 40 percent, sending US troops to Taiwan was the only provided option that failed to obtain majority support. In Morning Consult polls this May and July, this option also ranked at the bottom of US policy options against China, with the exceptions of recognizing Taiwan as part of the PRC and launching cyber and military attacks against China.
However, the war in Ukraine is changing perceptions on military options. While there is still hesitancy to send troops to aid Taiwan, opposition sharply declined as the Russian invasion of Ukraine reached new heights. From May to July this year in Morning Consult polls, support for sending troops to Asia increased by seven percent, while opposition decreased by 18 percent. While support for sending troops to Taiwan increased by only two percent, opposition decreased by 13 percent. Still, sending US troops to Asia and Taiwan are unpopular options: they poll at 37 percent and 28 percent in total support, respectively. But this is not a unique sentiment toward Taiwan. Rather, Americans tend to be less inclined overall to enter new conflicts, especially those that involve the use of US military force. In a Morning Consult poll this February, prior to the war in Ukraine, 72 percent of respondents were concerned about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine—yet only 36 percent supported sending US troops to Ukraine and Eastern Europe to prevent a Russian invasion.
After Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Morning Consult polling in August showed a minor increase in support for deploying US troops into the Indo-Pacific theater. In general, support for all given US policy options against Chinese aggression toward Taiwan stayed fairly consistent before and after Pelosi’s visit. A majority of respondents in August were aware of Chinese reactions to the visit, with 71 percent aware of Pelosi’s visit, 67 percent aware of Chairman Xi’s warning to President Biden, 60 percent aware of China’s missile launches, and 56 percent of China’s fighter jet incursions around Taiwan.
At the same time, Chicago Council polling has indicated increasing support for sending US troops if China invades Taiwan. From 2020 to 2021 there was an 11 percent increase in support (to 52 percent overall) for sending US troops to aid Taiwan. 2021 was the first time that the Chicago Council noted majority support for using US troops if China invades Taiwan. But even so, this level of support was still lower than using US troops to defend Israel (53 percent), NATO allies (59 percent), and South Korea (63 percent). Even in 2019, sending US troops to defend Taiwan enjoyed less support than using US troops to fight terrorists in Syria and Iraq (59 percent), to defend Japan over disputed islands (43 percent), or to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons (70 percent). Notably, in Chicago Council polling this August, support for using US troops if China invades Taiwan dropped back down to 40 percent.
Interestingly, as the Chicago Council noted, Americans generally support sending troops to defend Taiwan if China invaded rather than committing to defend Taiwan in advance, somewhat mirroring the US policy of strategic ambiguity.
Americans who are more familiar with Taiwan tend to be more supportive of Taiwan. Morning Consult is one of the few institutions that provide detailed datasets on US sentiments toward Taiwan. From their demographic data, one conclusion is abundantly clear: that a higher degree of familiarity with Taiwan issues translates into greater support for Taiwan.
For example, in Morning Consult’s May poll, when asked if the US has a responsibility to defend Taiwan against China, 37 percent agreed and 32 percent disagreed. Among respondents who said they were familiar with Taiwan, 51 percent agreed and 32 percent disagreed. While opposition stayed constant, support for defending Taiwan increased by 14 percent. When asked if the United States should establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan to prevent China from invading, 64 percent were supportive and 13 percent were opposed. Among those familiar with Taiwan, 78 percent were supportive and 13 percent were opposed. Again, opposition stayed constant while support for Taiwan increased. This trend—that greater familiarity with Taiwan correlated with greater support—held true for every question asked on US policy responses to Chinese aggression against Taiwan.
Public opinion polls regarding US attitudes toward Taiwan are worth commending, and such efforts should be continued and expanded. As US policy continues to hone in on the pacing threat from China and the pacing scenario in Taiwan, better data on domestic opinion will become increasingly significant as they can be tracked over time, collected alongside major global events, and compared to sentiments toward other flashpoints. What do Americans think about US policy options against various forms of Chinese coercion? Polling results could encourage, or dissuade, bolder US policy pursuits in response to Chinese aggression across the peace-war continuum, including direct military intervention should the Chinese Communist Party initiate an all-out war against Taiwan.
The polling results also make clear that the more that Americans know about Taiwan, the more they are likely to support actions that would favor Taiwan’s autonomy and closer US-Taiwan relations. In other words, Americans that are familiar with Taiwan tend to support a more normal, stable, and constructive relationship between the United States and Taiwan. This trend presents an opportunity to better educate the American public on one of most critical flashpoints in the world, the Taiwan Strait, as well as where current US policy stands.
Better education should start with clarifying the United States’ position on Taiwan, namely the “One-China Policy” (一個中國政策). In contrast to the PRC’s “One-China Principle” (一個中國原則), which asserts that Taiwan is a part of China and that the PRC is the sole representative of China, the United States’ “One-China Policy” simply acknowledges this claim but does not recognize it as so. The objective reality is that Taiwan, under its current Republic of China constitution, exists as an independent and sovereign state. Washington’s current position is that the United States does not take a position on Taiwan’s sovereignty—and this should be stated more explicitly. To be clear, this recommendation is separate from the debate surrounding “strategic ambiguity” and “strategic clarity.” This type of policy clarity could direct better public awareness on complex issues and hamper confusion around events such as Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Policy clarity could also substantively counter Chinese propaganda efforts to paint the American and Chinese positions on Taiwan as being one and the same. This would also benefit the global community, as other nations could more clearly understand the US position—and not view Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, for example, as an abrogation of the United States’ One-China Policy.
The main point: Public opinion polling in the United States on attitudes toward Taiwan reveals that Americans are generally unfamiliar with Taiwan, tend to not view the defense of Taiwan as the responsibility of the United States, and favor non-military US responses to Chinese aggression against Taiwan. From the data, it is also abundantly clear that Americans who are more familiar with Taiwan tend to be more supportive of Taiwan.