A declining number of Taiwanese fear an imminent war with China, according to a new poll suggesting that the rest of the world is far more worried than those at the center of this potential geopolitical flashpoint.
According to the poll, published on Thursday by CommonWealth Magazine, 35.4 percent of respondents said that they were worried about a military conflict breaking out over the Taiwan Strait within the next year, a decrease of nearly 15 percentage points from last year’s survey.
The poll also found that 59.7 percent of people do not think Beijing will ultimately use force to take Taiwan, while more than 35 percent believed it would.
Photo: Ann Wang, Reuters
Some analysts see Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) “unification” pledge as a key goal of his legacy, but Taiwan says it 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 “gray-zone” activity — into Taiwan’s air defense 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 percent of respondents saying that they thought the US military could effectively protect Taiwan.
Separately, 58.8 percent said that 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 an effort to deter provocative action by Beijing and Taipei.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Department of International affairs head Alexander Huang (黃介正) said that the results showed Taiwanese 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 (黃奎博), a professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University and former KMT deputy secretary-general, said that Taiwanese were perhaps unaware 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 younger than 40 holding a more favorable view of the US.
Those older believed that China was stronger than the US and were thus more concerned about the prospect of war.
Marcin Jerzewski, a research fellow at Taiwanese think tank the NextGen Foundation, said that it was important to also recognize 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,” he said.
Various polls over the past few 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 last year, a survey of 1,000 residents found that more than 57 percent worried that war was a distinct possibility, shared across party lines and age demographics.
Taipei-based Seton Hall University law professor Margaret Lewis said that polls were dependent on the wording of the question, and particular local nuances and interpretations.
“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,” she added.
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, Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) said that he believed China’s military would be fully capable by 2025.
Other analysts are more circumspect, suggesting that any potential attempt is much further away, but there is general consensus that the risk to Taiwan are higher than in previous decades, particularly with more gray-zone military activity, which has the potential to escalate.
Huang Kwei-bo said that he was “not as optimistic” as the 60 percent 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 [Chinese People’s Liberation Army] aircraft approach each other,” he said. “During those 10 or 15 minutes, the probability of war rises.”
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