A declining number of Taiwanese people fear an imminent war with China, according to a new poll suggesting the rest of the world is far more worried than those at the centre of this potential geopolitical flashpoint.
According to the poll, published on Thursday by Taiwan’s Commonwealth Magazine, 35.4% of respondents said they were worried about a military conflict breaking out over the Taiwan Strait within the next year, a decrease of nearly 15 percentage points on last year’s survey. The survey also found 59.7% of people do not think Beijing will ultimately use force to take Taiwan, while more than 35% believed it would.
Beijing considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province of China and has pledged to take it by force if necessary. Some analysts see Xi Jinping’s “reunification” pledge 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 the Commonwealth Magazine annual polls, China has markedly increased its rhetoric and actual intimidation of Taiwan, with record numbers of air force flights – part of Beijing’s warfare-adjacent “grey-zone” activity – into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.
The survey results also showed high levels of trust in the US coming to Taiwan’s aid in the event of hostilities, with 54% of respondents saying they thought the US military could effectively protect Taiwan. Separately, 58.8% said it was a possibility that the US would send troops to help Taiwan in the event of war.
The US sells billions of dollars in weaponry of a defensive character to Taiwan. Washington officials have also made statements suggesting it was likely to come to Taiwan’s aid militarily in case of conflict. For decades the US has operated a policy of strategic ambiguity, neither confirming nor rejecting commitments to help, in order to deter provocative action by both Beijing and Taipei.
Alexander Huang, the director of the opposition Kuomintang’s (KMT) international affairs department, suggested the results showed Taiwanese people were in denial of the reality. “China’s military threat is a fact Taiwanese are not willing to confront because it would incur real costs,” he told Commonwealth magazine.
Huang Kwei-bo, a professor of diplomacy at the National Chengchi University and former KMT deputy director, told the Guardian Taiwanese were perhaps not aware of the reality, due to a lack of specific military knowledge, and political messaging that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid. “I think they have illusion about our capability and the US commitment to help Taiwan,” he said.
Confidence in US assistance varied according to age, Commonwealth Magazine reported, with those under 40 holding a more favourable view of the US. Those older believed China was stronger than the US and were thus more concerned about the prospect of war.
Marcin Jerzewski, a research fellow at Taiwan thinktank NextGen Foundation, said it was important to also recognise that Taiwan had made “considerable efforts to diversify its international relations”.
“Consequently, while the Taiwanese public believes that the US would come to its rescue if need be, [it] is also seeking to mitigate the risks from putting all its eggs in one basket.”
Various polls over recent years have measured Taiwan’s level or lack of fear over an attack or invasion, and countless opinions have sought to explain the findings. In May 2021 a survey of 1,000 residents found more than 57% did worry that war was a distinct possibility, shared across party lines and age demographics.
Taipei-based Seton Hall University law professor Margaret Lewis said polls were dependent on the wording of the question, and particular local nuances and interpretations.“[But] a crucial question for Taiwan is how to build preparedness and resilience,” she said.
“How do you find that sweet spot of having people clear-eyed about threats and diligently preparing to be resilient in the face of those threats should they actually occur? You want them to be prepared but also go about their lives.”
As China’s military capabilities grow and its government becomes more isolated on the world stage, there is growing international concern of an attack or invasion attempt. Last year Taiwan’s defence minister said he believed China’s military would be fully capable by 2025.
Other analysts are more circumspect, suggesting any potential attempt is much further away, but there is general consensus that the risk to Taiwan now is higher than in decades, particularly with more grey-zone military activity which has the potential to escalate.
Huang Kwei-bo said he was “not as optimistic” as the 60% who did not fear imminent war, but did not think there was a high risk. “The probability of [a] war, I think, is low except those moments when our aircraft and PLA [People’s Liberation Army] aircraft approach each other,” he said. “During those 10 or 15 minutes the probability of war rises.”