For the first time since the question was asked in the early 1980s, the Chicago Council of Global Affairs found that most Americans support sending U.S. troops to fight for Taiwan if it is attacked.
It would seem that public opinion on this question has become increasingly hawkish, with the latest surge in support for going to war over Taiwan representing a significant jump from the previous year. Support for the military option rose 12 points to 52 percent since March of 2020. Unfortunately, this suggests that fearmongering from China hawks, the U.S. government’s recent focus on China as a rival, and popular backlash against China have made the public more receptive to dangerous arguments about fighting for Taiwan than they used to be.
Official exaggerated warnings from the Pentagon of a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan within the next six years, rising anti-China sentiment, frequent references to a rivalry or “new Cold War” in our foreign policy debates, and an increase in alarmist headlines in the media seem to have all contributed to this change. Increased support for defending Taiwan tracks with more positive views of Taiwan (57 percent favorability) along with increasingly negative views of China. Favorable views of China had held steady in the mid-40s for decades. Starting in 2018 that number dropped quickly to the low 30s. The growing hawkish anti-China consensus in the United States, Trump’s trade wars, and the Biden administration’s framing of its foreign policy in terms of a “contest with autocrats” have all helped to create an atmosphere conducive to promoting and embracing hawkish policies.
The Chicago Council’s report confirms this: “The 2021 Chicago Council Survey finds that those Americans who see limiting China’s influence as a very important foreign policy goal (50 percent overall) are more likely than others to support a formal alliance with Taiwan and a formal defense commitment. They are also more likely to support sending U.S. troops to the defense of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.”
Last year, there was a large gap between the views of foreign policy opinion leaders and the general public about what Washington should do in response to a Chinese attack. Among Republicans, there was much less support for sending troops (43 percent) than there was among Republican opinion leaders (83 percent). There were also significant, albeit smaller, gaps among Democrats and independents. Since then, that gap has narrowed as the public has moved to match the views of opinion leaders. When it comes to foreign policy, it is common for the public to follow elite cues, but it is still remarkable how quickly public opinion has turned on this question within a matter of months.
The record of U.S. public opinion on the question of sending troops to fight for Taiwan is strange. U.S. support for defending Taiwan was already very low just a few years after the U.S. had terminated the mutual defense treaty during the Carter administration, and then it has steadily grown despite the lack of any formal obligation to come to Taiwan’s defense. In 1982, only 19 percent supported sending troops to defend Taiwan. Over the decades, the number remained below 40 percent until 2020, and that is when it spiked. Majority support for sending U.S. troops to fight for another country is not that common, especially when the country in question is not a treaty ally.
Curiously, slightly more Americans support sending troops to fight for Taiwan than support selling weapons to Taiwan. There is also a mismatch between the percentage that favors a formal alliance (53 percent) and those that favor committing to defend Taiwan from China (46 percent). Presumably any formal alliance would require the U.S. to commit to defending Taiwan, just as the now-defunct mutual defense treaty required, but it seems that an explicit commitment to fight for Taiwan against China gives some Americans second thoughts. Nonetheless, the 46 percent support for the genuinely dangerous option of “strategic clarity” is much higher than one would expect given the substantial risks that war with China would involve. Perhaps that support would be lower if the public understood that “strategic clarity” could very easily cause the war over Taiwan that it is supposed to be preventing.
Nothing significant has occurred in the region in the last year to account for the sudden increase in support for sending troops, so it is not simply a matter of responding to a major event. The change in U.S. public opinion is even odder when we consider that the Taiwanese public is not very concerned about the possibility of an attack. The Financial Times reported last month that less than 40 percent believed that China and Taiwan were headed for conflict. The Taiwanese government has been modestly increasing its military spending, but it is not acting like a government that fears an invasion within the next decade. Americans are being encouraged to support going to war for Taiwan when most of the people there don’t think there is going to be a war and their government isn’t preparing for one.
For all the caterwauling from pundits about the dangers of lost credibility following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, most people in Taiwan have far too much confidence that the U.S. will show up to bail them out in the event of a war with China. Instead of being seen as unreliable, it seems that the U.S. has the exact opposite problem in this case. Most Taiwanese are so sure of U.S. support that they feel no great need to bolster their own defenses.
Recent signals of closer ties between the U.S. and Taiwan may have encouraged this complacent attitude. The August 22 Financial Times article quoted Liu Kuan-yin, editor of the news magazine CommonWealth, who said, “The public will think that we are so safe, America loves us and will come to our rescue when push comes to shove — it takes away the urge to be self-reliant.” In addition to its other pitfalls, an explicit security guarantee would give the Taiwanese public another incentive to neglect their own defenses.
Public support for sending troops to fight for Taiwan may be ephemeral. As the sudden change in polling on this question suggests, public opinion on these questions is malleable, but it has been moving in the wrong direction for several years. If the public were made more aware of the significant risks and costs that a war over Taiwan would entail, it is likely that support for military options would weaken. As the U.S. gradually extricates itself from decades of ill-considered and unnecessary wars in Central Asia and the Middle East, it is imperative that the American public resist efforts to push them towards another avoidable conflict in East Asia.