A dwindling number of Taiwanese fear an impending war with China, according to a new poll that suggests the rest of the world is far more concerned than those at the center of this potential geopolitical flashpoint.
According to the poll, published Thursday by Taiwan’s Commonwealth Magazine, 35.4% of respondents said they were concerned about a military conflict breaking out in the Taiwan Strait within the next year, a drop of nearly 15 percentage points. compared to last year’s survey. The survey also found that 59.7% of people don’t think Beijing will eventually use force to take Taiwan, while more than 35% thought it would.
Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province from China and has pledged to take it by force if necessary. Some analysts see Xi Jinping’s “promise of reunification” as a key goal of his legacy, but the current democratically elected government in Taipei says the island is already a de facto independent nation.
In the year between Commonwealth Magazine’s annual polls, China has significantly ramped up its rhetoric and actual harassment of Taiwan, with record numbers of air force flights — part of Beijing’s warfare bordering “grey zone” activity — to Taiwan’s air defense identification zone .
The survey results also showed great confidence in the US coming to the rescue of Taiwan in the event of hostilities, with 54% of respondents saying they believed the US military could effectively protect Taiwan. Separately, 58.8% said there was a possibility that the US would send troops to help Taiwan in the event of a war.
The US is selling billions of dollars worth of defensive weapons to Taiwan. Washington officials have also made statements suggesting that it is likely to come to Taiwan militarily in the event of conflict. For decades, the US has pursued a policy of strategic ambiguity, not confirming or rejecting pledges to help, to deter provocative actions from both Beijing and Taipei.
Alexander Huang, the director of the opposition’s Kuomintang (KMT) International Affairs Department, suggested the results showed that the Taiwanese people were denying reality. “China’s military threat is a fact Taiwanese don’t want to face because it would come at a real cost,” he told Commonwealth magazine.
Huang Kwei-bo, a diplomacy professor at National Chengchi University and a former deputy director of the KMT, told the Guardian that Taiwanese may have been unaware of the reality due to a lack of specific military knowledge and political messages that the U.S. would come aid from Taiwan. “I think they have an illusion about our ability and the US commitment to help Taiwan,” he said.
Trust in US aid varied by age, Commonwealth Magazine reported, with those under 40 having a more favorable view of the US. The elders believed that China was stronger than the US and so were more concerned about the prospect of war.
Marcin Jerzewski, a research fellow at the Taiwanese think tank NextGen Foundation, said it was important to also acknowledge: that Taiwan had “made significant efforts to diversify its international relations”.
“As a result, while the Taiwanese public believes that the US will come to its aid if necessary, [it] also tries to reduce the risks by putting all his eggs in one basket.”
Several polls in recent years have measured the level or lack of fear of an attack or invasion in Taiwan, and numerous opinions have attempted to explain the findings. In May 2021, a survey of 1,000 residents found that more than 57% were concerned that war was a clear possibility, across party lines and age demographics.
Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University, based in Taipei, said polls depended on the wording of the question and certain local nuances and interpretations.”[But] a crucial question for Taiwan is how to build preparedness and resilience,” she said.
“How do you find that right place to get people on their toes about threats and diligently prepare to be resilient in the face of those threats when they actually materialize? You want them to be prepared, but also to live their lives.”
As China’s military capabilities grow and its government becomes more isolated on the global stage, international concern grows over an attack or attempted invasion. Last year, Taiwan’s defense minister said he believed the Chinese military would be fully capable by 2025.
Other analysts are more cautious, suggesting any possible attempt is much further afield, but there is general consensus that the risk to Taiwan is greater now than it has been in decades, especially with more military activity in the gray zone that has the potential to escalate.
Huang Kwei-bo said he was “not as optimistic” as the 60% who were not afraid of an impending war, but did not think there was a great risk. “The chance of [a] war, I think, is low, except for those times when our plane and PLA [People’s Liberation Army] planes are approaching each other,” he said. “During those 10 or 15 minutes, the likelihood of war increases.”