How Worried Is Taiwan About a Chinese Invasion?

How Worried Is Taiwan About a Chinese Invasion?
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

Survey shows the Taiwanese public is far less concerned about a Chinese invasion than citizens of other countries in the region.

In response to the visit by the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August, China conducted live drills in areas around Taiwan for four days. President Tsai Ing-wen called the “deliberately heightened military threat” irresponsible. In the same month, Beijing published a new White Paper on Taiwan, reiterating their preference for “peaceful unification” while suggesting the possibility of prolonged military occupation after the unification. 

Some analysts believe it’s increasingly likely that China will invade Taiwan. According to Foresight Magazine’s public opinion poll, conducted following Pelosi’s visit, more than half of respondents were concerned about an invasion. A September survey by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF) indicated that only 29.6% believe Taiwan would win if China were to invade. In our survey, we ask to what extent the Taiwanese public worry about an invasion under certain circumstances. 

To ask whether Taiwan could defend itself from an invasion, we have to evaluate the capabilities of both sides as well as take into account whether the United States would intervene. President Biden signaled several times that he would deploy military force to defend Taiwan, but the White House scrambled to roll back on his comments each time. As China’s military drills stoke fear, Taiwan has proposed a double-digit increase in defense spending. China may not yet have the naval capabilities for a large-scale landing necessary for an invasion. But the Chinese President Xi Jinping might launch an attack either out of military hubris or in response to a growing international sympathy for Taiwan.

Outside Taiwan, the level of concern over a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is high. According to a survey by the Australian Institute, one in four Australians believed that China would invade Taiwan soon, compared with one in 20 Taiwanese people. Similar polls by Yomiuri Shimbun and Hankook Ilbo found an average of 73% of Japanese and South Koreans feel China will try to invade. Meanwhile, existing work on Taiwanese public opinion shows a public that does not expect an invasion in the next decade or that an invasion is inevitable

Our survey, conducted by Macromill Embrain, asked 867 Taiwanese respondents from September 19-26, selected based on quota sampling by age, gender, and region. After a series of demographic questions, we randomly assigned respondents to one of these three versions of question:  

Version 1: How concerned are you about China invading Taiwan? 

Version 2: Considering China’s military capabilities, how concerned are you about China invading Taiwan? 

Version 3: Considering Taiwan’s defense capabilities, how concerned are you about China invading Taiwan? 

The figure below shows the breakdown of responses by version. Here we see that across all three versions, more respondents stated they were not at all concerned or slightly concerned than those stating very or extremely concerned. The results are consistent with my previous research in May. In the baseline version (Version 1), 40.49% were not very concerned, compared to 28.03% that expressed considerable concern. Reminded of Chinese military capabilities (Version 2), respondents showed a marginal decline in concern (28.03% vs. 24.92%), but reminded of Taiwan’s defense capabilities (Version 3), they expressed a noticeably greater level of concern, with a third (32.87%) claiming to be very or extremely concerned. 

image1

The next figure breaks down respondents among supporters of the two largest parties, the DPP and KMT. First, DPP supporters showed less concern in all three versions than their KMT counterparts, with the largest difference among those answering Version 1. Here, 38.46% of KMT supporters stated they were very or extremely worried, compared to only 17.55% of DPP supporters. Secondly, DPP supporters appeared more sensitive to the experimental design, with concern increasing by roughly 8% when the question references Chinese or Taiwanese capabilities. In contrast, KMT supporters remained consistently concerned. When reminded of Chinese military capabilities or Taiwanese defense capabilities, their concern dips just slightly (4.18% and 0.36%). 

image2

In addition, we find via regression analysis that none of the demographic factors (age, education, income, gender) have a statistically significant influence on concern about an invasion. No difference exists between the supporters of the two main parties once either of these factors are considered. In fact, the only factor significant is, predictably, one’s preferred future for Taiwan, with those supportive of independence less concerned about invasion.  

A public not concerned about a Chinese invasion or Taiwan’s military vulnerabilities is unlikely to call for increased military spending or necessary military reforms to aid in Taiwan’s defense. This has serious implications for the future of Taiwan. If they don’t take the threat seriously, then there are concerns over whether or not Taiwan is militarily prepared for the scenario. 

Also, the Taiwanese public is far less concerned about Chinese invasion than citizens of other countries in the region. They might not believe that China would actually invade due to the high political and economic costs for itself China or believe that an invasion would be unsuccessful due to U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan. 

Furthermore, China seems to have normalized its military activities in areas around Taiwan. Observers might not have been caught off guard by the drills following the Pelosi visit. For KMT supporters, their concern might not stem from fear of an invasion but from Taiwan’s souring relations with China under President Tsai’s administration. 

Timothy S. Rich is a professor of political science and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL) at Western Kentucky University. 

Shane Stryker is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in International Affairs and History. 

Serena White is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Chinese and International Affairs.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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