What you need to know
Survey shows Americans who view China more positively are less likely to support recognizing Taiwan as an independent country.
On December 15, 1978, President Jimmy Carter announced that, as of January 1st, the United States would sever all official ties with the government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and establish formal relations with the People’s Republic of China. Since then, the U.S. and Taiwan have relied on creatively working around the lack of formal diplomatic ties to build bilateral relations. While still a presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan had suggested re-establishing formal ties with Taiwan. But none of his successors has suggested such a deviation in policy. Each president has reconfirmed the existing unofficial relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, maintained via the Taiwan Relations Act, which requires the U.S. to sell arms to the island for its own defense.
While the U.S.’s ambiguous stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty remains a point of contention between China and the U.S., Taiwan historically has not been at the forefront of Americans’ concerns. However, as both Sino-U.S. and cross-Strait relations worsen, the percentage of Americans who rate tensions between China and Taiwan as a very serious problem has increased, rising 7% from 2021 to 2022, according to Pew Research Center.
Despite this, whether Americans view Taiwan as an independent country or support recognition of Taiwan has been left out of policy making. Of the few surveys directly addressing this, the 2021 Chicago Council on Global Affairs found 69% of Americans favored recognizing Taiwan as an independent country. However, these statistics give little insight into what might be causing those perceptions and, in particular, if this level of support is predicated upon a growing acknowledgement of Taiwan’s security situation or growing anti-China sentiment.
To answer these questions, we conducted a web survey via mTurk Amazon of 1,228 American respondents on February 28, 2023. After a series of demographic and attitudinal questions, we asked respondents, “Do you believe the U.S. should recognize Taiwan as an independent country?” Here, a clear majority overall (79.9%) said yes, with little difference between Democrats and Republicans. There was also little difference with regard to age, with age cohorts (those in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s+) varying by less than 4%. Admittedly, most Americans may not be aware that recognizing Taiwan precludes diplomatic recognition of China, a non-trivial tradeoff that would likely depress support for Taiwan’s recognition. However, if taken at face value, the results suggest a broad acknowledgement of Taiwan’s status.
We found larger differences when asking respondents to evaluate both countries on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being very negative and 5 very positive. As views of China become more positive, support for recognizing Taiwan decreases. 82.37% of respondents who rated China most negatively demonstrated support for recognizing Taiwan, but only 69.84% of respondents who rated China most positively were supportive of recognition. This latter finding was much higher than expected, especially assuming that most respondents are more aware of China than Taiwan. A much starker contrast emerges in evaluations of Taiwan. Among those with very negative views of Taiwan, 42.86% supported recognition, while among those who held more positive views of Taiwan, 83% supported recognition. We assumed that these views were in part a function of long-held beliefs about Taiwan and China.
Surprisingly, those who were neutral on both measures had nearly identical rates of support, and limiting the sample to just those who gave both countries a neutral score, 83.77% supported recognizing Taiwan. Likewise, 60% of those who gave China higher evaluations than Taiwan supported recognition. As this finding would seem counterintuitive, one explanation for this result may be that these respondents have positive impressions about aspects of China not including its leadership or political ambitions regarding Taiwan. Another reason could be that respondents were simply unaware of China’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan.
Additional statistical analysis finds these patterns largely endure even after we control for age, gender, ideology, and education. Surprisingly, beliefs on the likelihood of war between China and the U.S. in the next decade failed to produce a statistically significant decline in support for recognition of Taiwan once we control for the same factors and pre-existing views of both China and Taiwan.
Acknowledging the standard caveats about such online surveys (e.g., representativeness of a national population), and that recent events may have influenced the findings (e.g., the Chinese balloons over the U.S.), the findings here potentially have several implications. Although the public may not know much about cross-Strait relations or China’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan, the results suggest that the public is generally open to stronger relations with Taiwan, whether out of increased affinity for a fellow democracy or as a means to thwart Chinese ambitions. Our findings similarly show that support for recognition corresponds with support for arms sales and defending Taiwan from China. Among those who did not support recognizing Taiwan, 38.02% agreed that the U.S. should continue its arms sales, and 60.84% agreed with the statement among supporters of Taiwan’s recognition. Surprisingly, Republicans are more sensitive to the framing that sales could harm relations with China. This is in contrast to previous survey work, as a YouGov survey found that Republicans are more supportive of a strong stance against China to protect Taiwan.
Even when arms sales are couched as potentially harming relations with China, we see a similar distinction between respondents not supportive and those supportive of recognition of Taiwan (36.59% and 57.58% respectively). Likewise, only 25.64% of respondents opposing recognition agreed that the U.S. should commit to the country’s defense, increasing to 56.62% among those supportive of recognition. Some Americans may be concerned that formal recognition of Taiwan not only would be harmful to U.S. relations with China, but also that recognition could cause China to take military action against Taiwan. Our data shows that American support for Taiwan’s defense increases when the question specifically states that this support would not include U.S. troops in Taiwan (40.96% among those opposed to recognition versus 58.17% in favor).
Although it is unlikely that any U.S. administration would re-establish formal relations with Taiwan, the results may shed light on the durability of the Taiwan Relations Act in that the American public generally views Taiwan as a viable diplomatic partner. Furthermore, the implications of this survey may encourage lawmakers to ramp up indirect or symbolic support for Taiwan. This might also signal a potential shift in American political rhetoric regarding the island, as officials on both sides of the aisle are displaying a strong stance against China by voicing support for Taiwan.
Timothy S. Rich is a Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics, with a focus on East Asian democracies.
Sean Denham is an Honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University studying Chemistry and Political Science.
Carolyn Brueggemann is an Honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University studying Chinese, International Affairs, and Spanish.
This survey work was funded by generous resources from the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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