Since Joseph Biden began his presidency in January 2021, the 46th president of the United States has stated on four occasions that he would come to Taiwan’s defense if Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to invade the island. Amid growing concerns about China’s increasingly “acute” military threats to Taiwan—coupled with the geopolitical turmoil caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and renewed kinetic conflict in the Middle East—Biden’s incremental clarity on the US commitment to Taiwan’s defense underscored the need for stronger assurances, both for deterrence and in response to intensifying People’s Republic of China (PRC) coercion of Taiwan. Yet, as China’s military threats against Taiwan have become ever more severe over the last decade—especially since August 2022—and as the possibility of war in East Asia looms on the horizon for many senior defense planners, a crucial question must be asked: what does the American public think about coming to the defense of Taiwan against the PRC?
Support for Military Intervention over Taiwan Ebbs, Implications of Ukraine, and Broader Trends
While the views of US leaders are routinely expressed and parsed from policy statements and official pronouncements, the sentiments of the American public are less readily observable, generalizable, and therefore less well-understood within the broader policy discourse. To address this issue, the US-based think tank Chicago Council on Global Affairs (hereafter “Chicago Council”) provides an invaluable contribution by conducting the most consistent and rigorous opinion polls in the public domain that cover the views of the American public on pressing international issues—including their views on Taiwan and US policy on Taiwan’s defense. This and other opinion polls provide important gauges of how Americans think about the potential for military conflict over Taiwan, and their views on US responses. In the last several years, as the possibility of a potential military conflict over Taiwan has become more pronounced, the Chicago Council—alongside other independent survey-takers—have conducted and released more opinion polls on the subject.  This article will provide a cursory summary of these survey results, particularly as it relates to US support for the use of the troops.
Surveys of American Public Opinion on Use of Troops to Defend Taiwan
|Support Use of Troops||Oppose Use of Troops|
|Leaders: 50%||Leaders: 34%|
|If force only option||44%||44%||46%||54%|
|Leaders: 73%||Leaders: 47%|
Graphic: Public support for US military involvement in a Taiwan Strait contingency, as measured in polls conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Morning Consult, and Reuters/Ipsos.
In the polls conducted by the Chicago Council—which the organization has been conducting since 1982—there was a noticeable and significant increase in the number of Americans who support the use of troops if China invaded Taiwan, rising from 35 percent in 2018 to a historic high of 52 percent in 2021—versus just 19 percent in 1982. This sharp increase tracks with the noteworthy improvement in bilateral relations between the United States and Taiwan in recent years, with American favorability ratings of Taiwan hitting record highs. However, another poll conducted a year later in 2022 showed a sharp drop in support for committing troops to the defense of Taiwan, plummeting from 52 percent to 44 percent. A further decline was observed in a separate Reuters poll in 2023, with only 38 percent expressing support. What then could account for the sharp increase and subsequent decrease in support for the use of troops to defend Taiwan?
Graphic: US public support for committing troops to the defense of Taiwan against a PRC invasion. (Graphic Source: Chicago Council on World Affairs)
Ukraine War Fatigue?
One plausible interpretation is that the March-July 2021 spike in support for the deployment of US troops in Taiwan’s defense was in fact an anomaly in the historic trendline. This momentary surge may have been the result of residual US appreciation of Taiwan’s support during the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with widespread animosity toward China for its heavy-handed response to the virus. Indeed, the drop back to around 44 percent in 2022 was more likely a return to the pre-pandemic average and is more consistent with historic rates.
Furthermore, the subsequent drop may be further attributable to the outbreak of war in Ukraine in February 2022. The Russian invasion sparked heated—and ongoing—debates over the United States’ readiness to respond to the “pacing challenge” of China’s rise as a result of the diversion of finite resources to Ukraine and more broadly about America’s military footprint in the world. The proximate drop in support corresponds to the beginning of the Ukraine War, and there appears to be a correlation between the two. This may be attributable to a rising feeling of war fatigue in the United States, which was amplified by the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. With kinetic military conflict reigniting in the Middle East, it remains unclear how public support for the defense of Taiwan will shift in the coming months. However, it is worth bearing in mind that correlation is not the same as causation.
Nevertheless, another Chicago Council survey released recently in October 2023 provided support for the notion that the war in Ukraine has contributed to declining US support for militarily intervening in Taiwan’s defense. Specifically, 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.” It thus stands to reason that the ongoing war in Ukraine has had a measurable impact on American support for Taiwan, and is likely dampening the American public’s willingness to commit troops to come to Taiwan’s defense. However, the reasons for such views are not precisely clear.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that 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. This divergence in opinion suggests that overall opinion toward US foreign policy is far from monolithic. Such diversity of thought could have significant impacts on public support for Taiwan’s defense.
Partisan Trends and Generational Differences in Views of Defending Taiwan
Despite the overall downward pressure on US public support for committing troops to a war over Taiwan—among both Republicans and Democrats—a silver lining for the island is that support for the use of troops to defend Taiwan when use of force is the only option remains exceedingly high among Republican leaders at 73 percent. While support for Taiwan remains strongly bipartisan, it is also true that the issue has traditionally received stronger support from Republicans due to its GOP’s conservative base, which is staunchly anti-communist and supportive of democracies based on ideological grounds.
Despite this traditional Republican position, polls have increasingly found a distinctive generational difference in support for defending Taiwan. Notably, a survey conducted by Morning Consult in 2022 showed that Republican-leaning respondents under 50 are equally supportive (42 percent) and opposed (42 percent) to the statement that it would be in the US interest to defend Taiwan against China, whereas there are significantly more Democratic-leaning respondents from the same age group who are supportive (47 percent) than opposed (22 percent) to the statement. Moreover, according to the same Morning Consult poll, members of Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) were most supportive of sending US troops to Taiwan, with 37 percent expressing support and 35 percent expressing disapproval. All other generations were more opposed than supportive.
According to one American political observer, the shift in younger Republicans’ views on foreign affairs is emblematic of a broader trend. Indeed, “[t]his isn’t just about views on Ukraine. In fact Ukraine may be one of the areas where there’s the least generational divide on the Right. It is about a general shift in young voter views away from supporting an assertive (or muscular, choose your preferred adjective) foreign policy in general.”
With hindsight, the 2021 Chicago Council poll, which saw a historic high in US public support for the use of troops to defend Taiwan, was likely more an aberration than a new baseline. However, against the backdrop of China’s increasing aggression against Taiwan and growing unfavorable views toward China within the United States and across the world, support for Taiwan remains substantial, especially when compared to the paltry 19 percent who supported involvement in 1982.
It is important to note that there is still bipartisan support among policy elites for Ukraine. However, even though the mainstream of the Republican Party remains generally in support of Ukraine, there are still strong populist currents within the Party—and in the American public in general—who view Ukraine as a distraction from the strategic competition with China or a symptom of the United States’ general over-commitment internationally. It bears watching whether these dynamics will shape the policy deliberations within the party over its position on other foreign policy issues.
While Taipei should feel reassured by President Biden’s statements, they cannot and should never be taken as a given, and certainly not in unqualified terms. Biden’s clear statements concerning his commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense do not have the legal force of a defense treaty—and even a treaty is not itself unconditional. The key has always been whether—absent a defense treaty—there is a sufficient level of clarity necessary to satisfy a minimum threshold of reciprocal commitments to establish a division of labor between the United States, Taiwan, and other potential allies.
As always, American public support will be an important factor. As Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the German Marshall Fund, wrote, “public support for Taiwan’s defense […] is also critical. It demonstrates a robust commitment to overseas partners, which in turn serves to bolster peace and stability in the region.”
At this point, it is too early to say whether American public opinion is at a tipping point. But this much is increasingly clear: there appears to be a degree of fatigue in US public opinion over Ukraine settling in, which could in turn exert a dampening effect on support for Taiwan. Whether this trend continues will also depend on the course that the war in Ukraine takes over the coming months and years.
While the apparent downward pressure exerted on American public support—especially among Republicans—for the deployment of troops to defend Taiwan should be worrisome for Taipei, the Chicago Council survey from October 2023 ends with an important caveat: “[T]he data show that Republicans who want to stay out of world affairs do not differ so much from those who prefer active engagement when it comes to issues such as the rise of China or immigration policy. Instead, the effects of the debate over US involvement in the war in Ukraine seem—thus far—to be limited to other questions about the US global military presence and the use of US troops in scenarios not involving top concerns for Republicans.”
Given recent trends in both public and private exchanges between the United States and Taiwan, there should be no doubt that Taiwan remains a “top concern” for all Americans.
The main point: As several recent polls have shown, US public support for committing troops to Taiwan’s defense has declined significantly since its 2021 peak, potentially as a result of rising war fatigue and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, Taiwan continues to enjoy strong bipartisan support, suggesting that the island remains a major priority for many Americans.
 According to a 2020 CSIS study, “The results show that Americans are, in fact, prepared to take a substantial risk to defend Taiwan. With a mean score of 6.69 out of 10, respondents from among the U.S. public gave stronger backing for defending Taiwan than Australia (6.38) and comparable to Japan (6.88), South Korea (6.92), as well as an unnamed ally or partner in the South China Sea (6.97).”