Taiwan remains source of China-US conflict: poll

LACK OF TRUST::Despite positive developments in cross-strait ties, experts still see potential for armed conflict between the two nations because of Taiwan

By William Lowther  /  Staff reporter in Washington

Sat, Dec 14, 2013 - Page 1

Taiwan remains the most likely source of conflict between China and the US over the next few years, a survey released by the Carnegie Endowment in Washington on Thursday said.

The survey, Security Perceptions and the US-China Relationship, is a wide-ranging study of public and “elite” attitudes in both countries that are “exerting a growing influence.”

The study expresses surprise that even over the short term, most Chinese still identify Taiwan as a prime source of conflict.

This is “despite the positive state of cross-strait relations at present and the fact that the Kuomintang Party [Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)], which favors eventual reunification with the Chinese mainland, is in power,” it says.

Some Chinese experts said that respondents were not talking about the likelihood of conflict, but rather “what the cause would most likely be were such a conflict to occur.”

However, the experts “felt it highly unlikely” that any other factor besides Taiwan would bring the US into armed conflict with China.

“One Chinese participant explained that this is because China has not renounced the use of force on the Taiwan issue, but it has sworn off firing the first shot in other disputes,” the report said.

“Another Chinese elite pointed to the fact that the US would likely be unwilling to commit military force in other potential conflicts besides Taiwan, for example, with the Philippines over disputed islands in the South China Sea,” it said.

One Chinese expert said that the finding shows “how seriously the Chinese people take the Taiwan issue.”

Published jointly by Carnegie and the China Strategic Culture Promotion Association in Beijing, the report analyzes the results and policy implications of public and “elite” opinion surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Research Center on Contemporary China at Peking University.

So-called “elite” respondents were well-informed individuals from government, business, academia, the military and the media.

Carnegie senior associate Michael Swaine — a specialist in US-China relations — presented the key findings reached through original surveys and workshops conducted in both countries.

The survey found there was a low level of strategic trust between the US and China “which could make bilateral relations more turbulent,” but that only a small minority saw the other country as an enemy.

“Chinese respondents — especially government elites — cited US arms sales to Taiwan as a major source of tension,” the report said.

"US elites — especially retired military officers and business elites — saw alleged Chinese cyberattacks and intellectual property infringement as particularly problematic,” it said.

Among the many recommendations: “Washington should not underestimate the significance China attaches to US arms sales to Taiwan.

“Beijing should not allow this issue to prevent it from recognizing Washington’s consistent support of the ‘one China’ policy,” it added.

The two sides should understand fully the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue and avoid sending wrong signals that negatively impact bilateral relations, it said.

“There may be room for the two sides to work together to reach an understanding on the Taiwan issue — or at least that it does not have to derail the broader relationship,” the report said.

Clear majorities of the US public said it was important that the US be tough with China on economic and trade issues (56 percent), building a strong relationship with China (55 percent) and promoting human rights (53 percent), statistics in the report showed.

Much smaller percentages of the US public said the same about advocating more freedom for Tibet (36 percent) and continuing to sell arms to Taiwan (21 percent).

US arms sales to Taiwan were regarded by a significant share (45 percent) of the Chinese public as a “very serious problem for China.” Ten percent of the US public said they had heard a lot about China-Taiwan relations, while a majority (54 percent) had heard a little and a third had heard nothing.

A strong majority of US elites favored US force if China were to attack Taiwan without the nation having made a unilateral declaration of independence, but a strong majority opposed the use of force if Taiwan were to make such a declaration.

More Chinese elites (61 percent) thought the US would use force to intervene against a Chinese attack on Taiwan without a unilateral declaration of independence than thought the US would do so if such a declaration were made (46 percent).

Chinese respondents viewed US arms sales to Taiwan as a much larger issue than Americans did.

“The Chinese saw it as a major impediment to US-China relations, whereas the Americans placed it very low on a list of bilateral priorities,” the survey said.

One American involved in the survey said arms sales continued because of pressure from the US military-industrial complex, a desire to prevent the US Congress from intervening too much in the matter, and a genuine effort to deter a military solution and maximize the possibility of a peaceful resolution to any disputes that arise.

“American elites noted that although the general public does not strongly favor US military intervention in a Taiwan conflict, this would not necessarily dictate US decision-making in the event of a conflict,” the survey said.

Both sides thought that the cybersecurity issue was to Americans what the Taiwan issue was to the Chinese.

Americans take cybersecurity very seriously, but tend to discount the importance of Taiwan arms sales, while the Chinese take the opposite view.

Each side feels that the other has cheated on these two issues and one Chinese elite suggested that if the two sides can make progress on both these matters, “the relationship could be greatly improved,” the study said.

“US elites — especially retired military officers and business elites — saw alleged Chinese cyberattacks and intellectual property infringement as particularly problematic,” it said.

Among the many recommendations: “Washington should not underestimate the significance China attaches to US arms sales to Taiwan.

“Beijing should not allow this issue to prevent it from recognizing Washington’s consistent support of the ‘one China’ policy,” it added.

The two sides should understand fully the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue and avoid sending wrong signals that negatively impact bilateral relations, it said.

“There may be room for the two sides to work together to reach an understanding on the Taiwan issue — or at least that it does not have to derail the broader relationship,” the report said.

Clear majorities of the US public said it was important that the US be tough with China on economic and trade issues (56 percent), building a strong relationship with China (55 percent) and promoting human rights (53 percent), statistics in the report showed.

Much smaller percentages of the US public said the same about advocating more freedom for Tibet (36 percent) and continuing to sell arms to Taiwan (21 percent).

US arms sales to Taiwan were regarded by a significant share (45 percent) of the Chinese public as a “very serious problem for China.” Ten percent of the US public said they had heard a lot about China-Taiwan relations, while a majority (54 percent) had heard a little and a third had heard nothing.

A strong majority of US elites favored US force if China were to attack Taiwan without the nation having made a unilateral declaration of independence, but a strong majority opposed the use of force if Taiwan were to make such a declaration.

More Chinese elites (61 percent) thought the US would use force to intervene against a Chinese attack on Taiwan without a unilateral declaration of independence than thought the US would do so if such a declaration were made (46 percent).

Chinese respondents viewed US arms sales to Taiwan as a much larger issue than Americans did.

“The Chinese saw it as a major impediment to US-China relations, whereas the Americans placed it very low on a list of bilateral priorities,” the survey said.

One American involved in the survey said arms sales continued because of pressure from the US military-industrial complex, a desire to prevent the US Congress from intervening too much in the matter, and a genuine effort to deter a military solution and maximize the possibility of a peaceful resolution to any disputes that arise.

“American elites noted that although the general public does not strongly favor US military intervention in a Taiwan conflict, this would not necessarily dictate US decision-making in the event of a conflict,” the survey said.

Both sides thought that the cybersecurity issue was to Americans what the Taiwan issue was to the Chinese.

Americans take cybersecurity very seriously, but tend to discount the importance of Taiwan arms sales, while the Chinese take the opposite view.

Each side feels that the other has cheated on these two issues and one Chinese elite suggested that if the two sides can make progress on both these matters, “the relationship could be greatly improved,” the study said.