U.S., Japanese and Australian forces conduct trilateral military drilling exercises in the South China Sea. Photo Credit: U.S. Navy
Analyzing the political trends makes one thing clear: if the United States chooses not to forcefully defend Taiwan, public or elite opinion won’t be the culprits standing in the way.
The Status Quo: Strategic Ambiguity
Joe Biden recently sent ripples through the foreign policy and international communities by staunchly reaffirming the United States’ commitment to defending Taiwan against any possible Chinese attack. “We have a commitment to do that”, he said in response to the question of whether or not the U.S. would come to the defense of the self-governing island, which China views uncompromisingly as its sovereign territory.[i] Technically, this statement is a continuation of the 40-year-long status quo existing since the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (TRA).[ii] While the U.S. ended its official recognition of Taiwan as both a sovereign state and as the legitimate government of China, the TRA set forth that the US “shall make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capacities as determined by the President and the Congress”. This deliberate vague policy of furnishing security assistance to Taiwan, while officially recognizing it as part of China has become known as ‘strategic ambiguity.’ In short, the U.S. needs to avoid alienating the world’s most populous country while still upholding its statutory commitments to its democratic ally.
What this means is that, unlike other nations in the Western Pacific threatened by Chinese maritime and geopolitical aggression such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, the U.S. is not under a legally binding treaty obligation to defend Taiwan if it were attacked.
What, then, will the U.S. do if China attempts to overrun the island with a population of twenty-four million people, the overwhelming majority of whom view China negatively?[iii] The prospect of this has been legitimized even by the U.S. military, whose head of Indo-Pacific Command stated earlier this year that China might attack Taiwan within six years.[iv]
In the absence of any clear law or policy, the most prescient way to determine the outcome of such an eventuality is to examine the political persuasions and incentives presented to top-level policymakers. Although the political data lines up with the conclusion that the U.S. will not take any kinetic aggression by the People’s Liberation Army into Taiwan lying down, bureaucratic realities suggest it will most likely stop short of risking escalation into direct conflict with China.
The Importance of Public vs Elite Opinion
Ideally, of course, any democracy responds to the preferences of its electorate. Political science literature, however, has shown that in no policy area is this ideal more demonstratively false than in foreign policy. Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page’s 2006 book, The Foreign Policy Disconnect, confirms what many Americans had felt intuitively for decades: “Actual U.S. foreign policy frequently deviates markedly from what the public wants”.[v] In around a quarter of the surveys analyzed over decades, a majority of foreign policy elites took the opposite view from the electorate they serve.
This trend was even more pronounced in the making of actual policy, where one only needs to look to the successful 2016 Trump campaign mantras: opposing trade deals, previously endorsed by elites of both parties; his visceral decrying of the poor judgment of prior administrations’ military adventurism, and — most importantly for the issue of Taiwan — is a departure from cooperative engagement with China that has continued under the Biden administration.[vi] Clearly then, in analyzing the political viability of a forceful U.S. defense of Taiwan, it is unfortunately just as important to track elite opinion than it is to track public opinion, if not, even more so.
Public Opinion on Taiwan: Fear of the Dragon
Last year the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a dataset comparing attitudes of elite and public opinion on Taiwan when presented with the same set of questions.[vii] Survey results broadly concur with the trend described in the literature of elites favoring heavier U.S. presence and military engagement around the world.
Of course, the broad concept of ‘defending Taiwan’ is one which leaves room for a large degree of nuance: the U.S. could undertake one or more of many options with varying degrees of risk, from outright war all the way down to recalling the American ambassador from Beijing. Thankfully, CSIS’s survey asks respondents to tally on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being no risk and 10 being significant risk, the exact degree to which they agree with the statement that Taiwan is worth defending in the event that it comes under attack by China. In this case, elite opinions certainly do not line up with the public, though they do find themselves on the same side of the debate, at least when measured in a binary sense.
The weighted mean for the public at large on this question came out at 6.7, with 127 of the 1,000 surveyed adults declining to answer the question. Other sources confirm this trend: The University of Chicago’s Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) conducted a more recent study which found that 52% of surveyed U.S. adults in the summer of 2021 favored using U.S. troops in the event that China invaded Taiwan.[viii] Notably, this figure has been on a steady increase in recent years, up from around 25% in the first half of the last decade.
What explains this shift in opinion? CCGA’s data further shows that Americans’ view of coming to Taiwan’s defense has shifted in line with their increasing view that limiting China’s influence is a very important foreign policy goal, something which 50% now agree with.[ix]
Elite Views: Militaristic Internationalism Persists
CSIS’s data on elite views of the situation concur with the decades-old trend of elite preferences of the intervention relative to ordinary citizens. Whereas the mean among adults at large stands at 6.7, the weighted mean in the elite survey stands at 7.9. In contrast with the at-large survey, only 2% of elites ‘don’t know,’ against more than 10% of the public. Diving into the various fields of elites surveyed, the interventionist preference is particularly strong the closer one gets to actual policymakers: 34% of those in the national security field favored a 10/10 risk response along with 41% of those in the congressional and local government field.
Caveating these findings, one should always take elite surveys with a pinch of salt. Determining who counts as ‘elite’ is, of course, a largely subjective question, and biases can occur from issues of small sampling and selection bias; it is difficult to send out a survey to a representative random selection of ‘national security elites,’ as opposed to a representative selection of American adults.[x] Nevertheless, CSIS’s findings serve to bolster the notion that if elites had their way, the U.S. would be responding forcefully to an invasion of Taiwan. As is so often the case, elites are the true stakeholders driving the country towards war.
Implications for U.S. Policy: Strategic Limits on Political Will
With news of Chinese aggressive posturing around Taiwan, along with increased hypersonic weapons’ testing hitting Americans’ front pages with regular occurrence,[xi] there is every possibility that both public and elite opinion will continue to shift in favor of a ‘risky’ response to Chinese aggression. Unfortunately for these determined elites, there exist stark realities which may preclude an elite decision to engage in a head-to-head conflict with China in the Taiwan theater.
The impact of domestic U.S. politics on the possibilities for U.S. policy requires a short elucidation of what responses may look like. Defense strategists indicate three types of U.S. responses to such aggression: denial, attempting to prevent aggression by force where it occurs; rollback, mobilizing force to restore the status quo; and punishment, the use of non-force coercion to inflict costs on the aggressor to revert back to the status quo.[xii] The latter of these, punishment by coercion, would likely take the form of a blockade to inflict severe economic pain on China, a country whose economy is largely dependent on manufactured exports, and a Chinese Communist Party whose legitimacy is dependent on increasing the well-being of its citizens.
Problematically, for those members of the public hoping that the U.S. could easily repel a Chinese incursion in a quick, contained push back akin to the United States’ expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, simulations indicate even odds or even a Chinese advantage in a conflict in the Taiwan theater.[xiii] This reality in the face of public belief that the U.S. should defend Taiwan may be the result of the fact that Americans continue to believe consistently that they are singular without peers in terms of military strength.[xiv] The puncturing of this belief in the event of a Taiwan-confined military engagement may reverse this view and in turn, reverse the relative favorability with which Americans view a Taiwan conflict.
The risk of escalation against a nuclear-armed adversary, if more forces mobilize from globally dispersed U.S. capabilities, is certainly likely to give any administration pause at engaging in a rollback or denial strategy against China vis-à-vis Taiwan.
This leaves the most likely outcome, because of the combination of political will and elite desire, for a strong response: punishment, likely in the form of blockade and sanctions. The cascading effects of such a policy are not without significant risks: global economic turmoil as the world’s most trafficked shipping lanes in the South China Sea are shut down, dramatic rise in the costs of goods as the world’s largest manufacturer is blockaded, the questionable resolve of some U.S. allies in complying with such drastic measures, and the risk of backing China into a corner and inviting further escalation. Nevertheless, if elites have the aim of pre-emptively building public support for their desired action against the People’s Republic of China in the event of an attack on Taiwan, they have certainly accomplished their goal: US attitudes have shifted dramatically both in terms of their newly negative views of China and in their willingness to spend American lives in the defense of Taiwan. If further Chinese action invokes any further shift in favor of U.S. involvement, one thing is certain: elites will have secured at least the initial permission needed from the American voter for nearly any retaliatory strategy they pursue.
Whereas elite and public opinion were diametrically opposed on this issue, this is no longer the case as of this year. There remains a disparity in determination to use force, however, where clearly elites are more comfortable with sacrificing American lives. Elites must not be too eager to respond in a manner too forcefully or too costly to American welfare; infamously, public opinion also initially supported the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. Narrow-majority support must not be misconstrued as carte-blanche for war, lest American policymakers fail to sustain the long-term political will needed to see their protracted conflicts through to the end. Elites’ ability to shape foreign policy without significant public input in the initial stages does not preclude the possibility of strategic misfiring, war, and subsequent political evisceration, as George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson would be eager to remind us.
[i] Hunnicutt, Trevor. Biden says United States would come to Taiwan’s defense. Reuters, 2021. Retrieved 11/14/2021: https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/biden-says-united-states-would-come-taiwans-defense-2021-10-22/
[ii] H.R.2479 – Taiwan Relations Act. Congress.gov, 1979. Retrieved 11/16/2021: https://www.congress.gov/bill/96th-congress/house-bill/2479
[iii] Feng, John. Taiwan’s Opinion of the Chinese Government Has Never Been Worse. Newsweek, 2021. Retrieved 11/16/2021: https://www.newsweek.com/taiwans-opinion-chinese-government-has-never-been-worse-1640380
[iv] Hille, Kathrine. Taipei warns that China will be able to invade Taiwan by 2025. Financial Times, 2021. Retrieved 11/16/2021: https://www.ft.com/content/212f44b9-a271-425b-a7cf-608d43d46288
[v] Page, Benjamin I., and Marshall M. Bouton. The Foreign Policy Disconnect: What Americans want from our Leaders but don’t get. University of Chicago Press, 2006. p228
[vi] Swanson, Anna. U.S. Signals No Thaw in Trade Relations With China. New York Times, 2021. Retrieved 11/16/2021: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/04/business/economy/us-china-trade.html
[viii] Smeltz, Dina. For the First Time, Half of Americans Favor Defending Taiwan If China Invades. CCGA Research Papers, 2021. Retrieved 11/16/2021:
[x] Kertzer, Joshua D., and Jonathan Renshon. “Experiments and Surveys on Political Elites.” Ann. Rev 25 (2022): 1-26. p.8
[xi] Hille, Kathrin. China sends record number of warplanes towards Taiwan. Financial Times, 2021. Retrieved 11/16/2021: https://www.ft.com/content/f83e7f68-12d2-438d-a0cd-64c586995166 and China tests new space capability with hypersonic missile. Financial Times, 2021. Retrieved 11/16/2021: https://www.ft.com/content/ba0a3cde-719b-4040-93cb-a486e1f843fb
[xii] Montgomery, Evan Braden. “Primacy and Punishment: US Grand Strategy, Maritime Power, and Military Options to Manage Decline.” Security Studies 29, no. 4 (2020): 769-796. pp780-782
[xiii] RAND Research Reports, An Interactive Look at the U.S.-China Military Scorecard. Retrieved 11/16/2021: https://www.rand.org/paf/projects/us-china-scorecard.html and Reuters Investigations Special Reports, T-DAY: The Battle for Taiwan. Retrieved 11/16/2021: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/taiwan-china-wargames/
[xiv] Gallup Polling. Military and National Defense, 2021. Retrieved 11/16/2021: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1666/military-national-defense.aspx