After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shocked the equilibrium of geopolitics, the world is now bearing witness to the outbreak of another destructive and potentially large-scale military conflict in the Middle East. Since the Iranian-backed organization Hamas launched a brutal surprise attack against Israel in early October 2023—the latest kinetic military conflict in a war-torn region—it has provoked an ongoing retaliatory assault that will likely last for months, if not longer. Concerningly, the conflict has the potential to escalate into a broader, regional conflagration if Hezbollah and other actors join the fight. Recognizing that their fate is intrinsically connected to what the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with its own revanchist ambitions, learns from these ongoing conflicts—and in part because Taipei increasingly sees its fate as tied to that of the free world—the Taiwan government and its people are paying close attention to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.
The other articles in this special issue examine various facets of the Middle East conflict in terms of their implications for the Taiwan Strait. In this article, I will assess what public opinion in Taiwan tells us about how its people view the outbreak of military conflict in the Middle East, as well as what knock-on effects the conflict might have on how they see other factors that bear more closely to Taiwan’s security, including the United States’ commitment to Taiwan’s defense. This initial assessment will survey preliminary public opinion polls from both Taiwan and the United States conducted in the immediate aftermath of the attack by Hamas, extrapolating their implications for public views about the Taiwan Strait based on correlated variables.
Taiwanese Sympathetic toward Israel
After Hamas—which has been designated by the United States as a terrorist organization—launched its attack on Israel on October 7, the Green-leaning Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF, 台灣民意基金會) conducted a poll on October 15-17 that asked respondents, among other questions, which party in the Middle East conflict they were generally more sympathetic toward. Israel came out on top, with 35.1 percent of respondents expressing sympathy; 14.8 percent sympathizing with Palestine; 9.8 percent sympathizing with neither; 6.8 percent sympathizing with both; and 33.6 percent expressing no opinion.
In interpreting the result, TPOF President You Ying-long (游盈隆) noted that the poll does not reflect a judgment of who the Taiwanese people feel is right or wrong, as there appears to be no clear consensus on this issue. However, he observed that Taiwanese public opinion is indeed trending toward sympathizing with Israel. You speculated that the pro-American attitude of Taiwanese people may be an important reason for this phenomenon.
Graphic: The results of TPOF’s October 15-17 poll on Taiwanese public opinion regarding the Israel-Hamas conflict. While many respondents did not express an opinion, the overall consensus was in favor of Israel. (Source: TPOF)
While the broadly pro-American attitude of the Taiwanese population is evident from multiple opinion polls, there could also be other factors at play influencing—or at least reinforcing—Taiwanese perceptions on this issue. These may include the fact that Israel is a fellow democracy (similar to Ukraine), the broadening of exchanges between Taiwan and Israel in recent years, and perhaps a general lack of awareness about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among the general Taiwanese population. This final issue could potentially be linked to the general lack of subject matter expertise within Taiwan’s expert community, as anecdotally reflected in the lack of distinction between Hamas (the actual aggressor) and Palestine in the TPOF polling question.
The Knock-On Effects of the Israel-Hamas War on Taiwanese Public Opinion
Beyond the direct indicators of support or non-support for the parties involved in the conflict, the knock-on effects of the Israel-Hamas conflict on the Taiwanese people’s views could have the most relevant implications for shaping perceptions toward a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine War, Taiwanese leaders and experts have described the invasion as a serious “wake-up call” that has increased awareness about the likelihood of war in Asia. These concerns have led to a range of measures in response, such as the rapid and unprecedented formation of civil defense initiatives on the island. The breakout of kinetic military conflict in the Middle East could further crystalize this reality in Taiwanese people’s consciousness, potentially leading to a strengthening of views about the urgency of strengthening resilience.
On October 12, a major Taiwanese online news outlet, EBC News (東森新聞), posted an online poll that has since received more than 50,000 responses from netizens. The survey prompt noted: “After the start of war between Israel and Palestine, does being in the ‘most dangerous place in the world’ [Taiwan] increase your sense of crisis?” In response to the question, a majority of the respondents (61 percent) agreed with the statement “Of course, I fear that the Chinese Communists will suddenly attack;” whereas only 26 percent of the respondents stated “Probably not, the cost of war is too high.” A mere 9 percent of netizens agreed with the statement “No, I believe there will be peace,” with the remaining 3 percent expressing alternative sentiments. While such online polls have questionable reliability, EBC’s findings could nevertheless provide at least a general if hazy gauge of public views.
Graphic: The findings of an October 12 EBC News poll on the implications the Israel-Hamas conflict for a potential PRC attack on Taiwan. The poll found that the majority of respondents were concerned that a Chinese invasion had become more likely. (Source: EBC News)
Moreover, just as Beijing is learning from the Ukraine War about Ukrainian resilience—as well as from US action, and inaction, in response to the invasion—it will also attempt to draw out lessons from the Middle East conflict. Taiwan will do so, as well. Depending on their perceptions of the US response, the conflict could have significant impacts on the Taiwanese people’s belief in the likelihood of US intervention. It is the people’s perceptions of these two factors—war readiness and US intervention—that will likely contribute most to the Taiwanese “will to fight” and form the foundation of Taiwan’s resilience.
Effects of the Israel-Hamas on American Public Opinion
For both Beijing and Taipei, it will also be critical to keep tabs on the implications of the Israel-Hamas war for American public attitudes toward the defense of Taiwan—as well as the overall US wherewithal and capacity to militarily intervene in the event of a military conflict.
As noted earlier, a key to forecasting the effects on Taiwanese perception will also be to understand the US reaction to these events. In the case of the Ukraine War, Washington’s decision to not intervene directly contributed to heightened doubts about the likelihood of US intervention in the event of a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Accordingly, the US response to the Israel-Hamas war—depending on the scale and level of support—will likely have a reverberating effect on public perceptions within Taiwan concerning US commitment to its defense. It stands to reason that stronger perceived support for Israel from the United States will likely buoy perceptions in Taipei that the US would be more likely to defend Taiwan against a PRC attack. Conversely, a perceived lack of support will likely contribute to deteriorating confidence in US support in the event of a military conflict.
It is also worth pointing out that Ukraine and Israel are not necessarily viewed as equally critical to US foreign and security policy. While debates continue to rage within the US Congress about whether supporting Ukraine is a vital US interest—with some arguing that doing so serves as an unnecessary drain on resources—there is strong, bipartisan Congressional and public support for Israel. Indeed, according to an NPR/PBS poll: “Overall, 65 percent said the US should support Israel publicly. That was true of big majorities of both parties—77 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats.”
To be sure, American public opinion on US foreign policy is far from monolithic. Such diversity of thought would also impact support for Taiwan’s defense, depending on whether Taiwan is seen more like Ukraine or Israel in the eyes of the American public.
Impact of the Israel-Hamas War on Support for the Defense of Taiwan
Relevant to this analysis is a Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, released in October 2023, that revealed how the Ukraine War has contributed to declining US support for militarily intervening in Taiwan’s defense. The poll “finds evidence that US involvement in the war between Russia and Ukraine has played a role in American attitudes on foreign policy, from dampening public support for defending US allies and maintaining US military bases abroad to continued financial and military assistance to Kyiv.” Indeed, the Ukraine War is likely dampening the American public’s willingness to commit troops to come to Taiwan’s defense. As kinetic military conflict reignites in the Middle East—and is likely to continue for months, if not years—how will public support for the defense of Taiwan shift in the coming months as these simultaneous conflicts wear on?
While it is still too early to predict with any certainty, anecdotal evidence suggests that Taiwan is seen as more analogous to Israel than to Ukraine. Despite growing fissures in the Democratic Party, Israel continues to enjoy broad Congressional and public support, much like Taiwan. Secondly, Taiwan’s crucial role in the United States’ strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China means that the same factors present in a dampening of public support for defending US allies in the Ukraine War may not be present in this current case.
Yet, it is important to note that there appears to be a general sense of war fatigue prevailing in the United States, and how these simultaneous conflicts play out in the months to come could have unexpected and compounding effects that would be hard to forecast, especially with presidential elections on the horizon in both countries.
The main point: Though it remains unclear how exactly the Israel-Hamas conflict will impact Taiwan, it is already influencing public perceptions, both in Taiwan and the United States. With wars raging in both Ukraine and the Middle East, it will be crucial to monitor public opinion and learn critical lessons.