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Changing American Attitudes toward Taiwan Are Creating Conditions for a Crisis

Apr 28, 2023

Experts assessing the current confrontational U.S. policy toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) regarding Taiwan typically focus on the island’s economic and strategic importance.  That is undoubtedly a key reason for Washington’s hardening attitude on the issue.  Taiwan is a significant economic player in East Asia, and perhaps even more important, it is now the world’s leading producer of advanced computer chips.  In addition, it occupies an extremely important strategic location, anchoring the so-called first island chain off of China’s coast.  Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously observed that Taiwan was the U.S. military’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”  

Despite the importance of such economic and military considerations, one cannot explain the mounting support for Taiwan among political elites, the news media, and the general public in the United States without examining how American attitudes toward the island have shifted since the mid-1990s.  Americans have become ever more favorable to and supportive of Taiwan as a vibrant democracy that deserves U.S. military protection.  Such sentiment, added to the appreciation of Taiwan’s tangible strategic and economic importance, makes it highly probable the United States would intervene militarily if Beijing decided to use force in an effort to achieve reunification. 

Taiwan has always had its staunch supporters, especially among American conservatives, since Chang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government fled to the island after the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949.  Many conservatives even denounced President Richard Nixon’s outreach to the PRC and the signing of the Shanghai Communique in 1972.  Opposition also manifested itself when Jimmy Carter broke formal relations with Taipei and transferred those ties to the government in Beijing. 

Nevertheless, passionate backing for Taiwan had faded noticeably in both public opinion and the news media, and it would decline further during the 1980s. There was, for example, surprisingly little domestic push-back when Ronald Reagan signed a summit communique in 1982 pledging to gradually phase-out arms sales to Taiwan.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Americans tended to regard any remaining defense relationship with Taipei as a Cold War relic. Chiang Ching-kuo, who had succeeded his father, Chiang Kai-shek, as Taiwan’s leader, was seen as a typical autocrat presiding over a corrupt, crony capitalist economic system of no special importance to America.  Meanwhile, the PRC had become a crucial de facto U.S. ally in Washington’s geostrategic contest with the Soviet Union.  A surge in U.S. trade and investment with the PRC also strengthened enthusiasm for China and further marginalized support for Taiwan. 

However, public attitudes in the United States toward the PRC turned more negative after the 1989 bloodshed in Tiananmen Square.  And once Taiwan began its transition to a multi-party democracy under the leadership of Lee Teng-hui in the early and mid-1990s, favorable sentiment toward the island increased.  In 1996, following Taiwan’s first fully free, multiparty elections, public opinion surveys in the United States showed that favorable opinion had climbed to 60 percent.  Both trends continued as the twenty-first century progressed. 

The results shown in Gallup polls over the decades underscored the shifts.  When the United States officially recognized the PRC in 1979, 66 percent of respondents expressed very or mostly favorable views of China, while only 25 percent held mostly or very unfavorable views.  The respective figures in a February 2001 poll were 45 percent and 48 percent, showing significant deterioration, but still tolerable.  Indeed, at the start of Donald Trump’s administration in 2017 the situation had improved slightly, with the respective figures standing at 50 percent and 48 percent.  

After Beijing’s imposition of a harsh national security law in Hong Kong, and controversies over the PRC’s handling of the Covid pandemic, though, American opinion turned sharply negative.  A February 2023 survey found that only 15 percent of respondents had a very or mostly favorable opinion of China.  A stunning 84 percent now held a very or mostly unfavorable perspective.  Meanwhile, the opposite trend emerged with respect to attitudes toward Taiwan; very or mostly favorable sentiment reached 77 percent. 

Polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs also revealed a surge for tangible manifestations of U.S. support for Taiwan.  A survey taken in August 2021 found that 65 percent wanted the United States to recognize Taiwan as an independent country.  53 percent favored signing a defense alliance with Taipei, while 52 percent were willing to send U.S. troops to defend the island if the PRC launched an attack. 

Given those changes in public attitudes, it is unsurprising that U.S. government policy also has produced greater backing for Taiwan.  Indeed, by the latter stages of Donald Trump’s presidency, bilateral ties between Washington and Taipei had begun to resemble a full-fledged alliance.  Washington’s diplomatic and military support for Taiwan has continued to grow under President Joe Biden. 

Not surprisingly, both political parties have jockeyed to express their admiration for “democratic Taiwan,” and to endorse greater support for the island.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial 2022 trip to Taipei and her meeting with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen (over Beijing’s vehement objections) were indicative of the new public and political mood in the United States.  It was striking how Republican leaders in Congress, who had nothing good to say about Pelosi on any other issue, nevertheless praised her for this stance.

Michael Mazza, a nonresident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, typifies the dominant narrative within America’s foreign policy community.  “A world that is safe for the United States is a world that is safe for democracy, so the thinking goes, and a world that is safe for democracy is one populated by democracies. A contraction in the number of democracies worldwide, then, is disadvantageous to U.S. interests.  Chinese annexation of Taiwan would eliminate an important democratic partner for the United States—one engaged in its own human rights and democracy promotion efforts.”  He adds that “If the survival and proliferation of democracies is, indeed, a key U.S. interest, ensuring Taiwan’s continued existence as a de facto free and independent state is a central purpose of U.S. foreign policy.”

The surging belief that Taiwan is a vibrant democracy that deserves a firm U.S. defense commitment creates the scenario for an alarming confrontation with the PRC.  Beijing is growing less patient regarding Taiwan’s ambiguous political status and Washington’s willingness to support Taipei’s efforts to push the envelope regarding the island’s de facto independence.  The increase in China’s military exercises in waters near Taiwan is a graphic indicator of the PRC’s irritation. 

However, a rapidly solidifying public and congressional view of Taiwan as a democracy under siege by a regime that most Americans now regard with distaste also raises the domestic political stakes.  That development limits any presidential administration’s ability to respond to China’s moves in a prudent, pragmatic fashion.  As a result, we may end up in a war over Taiwan that neither Beijing nor Washington really wants.

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