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Americans are moderately concerned about the possible military conflict between China and Taiwan. If China were to threaten or use military force against Taiwan there would not be majority support for using US military force to protect Taiwan. A strong majority views Taiwan as being more like an independent country than as part of China, and feels that any reunification should be voluntary. The majority supports Taiwan becoming a member of international organizations such as the UN. If Taiwan were to take steps toward independence a majority would not want the US to oppose it, but the majority is opposed to selling advanced arms to Taiwan and favors a low key or cooperative approach to China on this issue.

Concern about the potential for armed conflict between China and Taiwan is a significant concern to Americans. Asked by Pew Research in October 2005 whether they viewed “possible military conflict between China and Taiwan” as a major threat, minor threat, or not a threat to the well being of the United States, 71% saw it as a threat (34% saw a major threat, 39% a minor threat). Furthermore, when a February 2004 CNN-USA Today presented a list of “possible threats to the vital interest of the United States in the next 10 years,” only 17% said that “the conflict between China and Taiwan” is not important, while 51% said it is important and another 23% said that it is critical.[1]

When President George W. Bush, on Good Morning America, made a commitment to defend Taiwan against China most Americans were not supportive. In May 2001, a Pew survey asked whether the US should "commit to defending Taiwan if China were to use military force against Taiwan" or whether the US should not "commit to such a position at this time." Nearly two-thirds (64%) felt the US should not commit, while just 26% felt it should.[2]

If China were to attack Taiwan, numerous polls show that there would not be majority support for using US military force to protect Taiwan. A June 2004 CCFR poll asked, “Would you favor or oppose the use of U.S. troops... if China invaded Taiwan?” Only 33% said they would favor doing so, while 61% said they would be opposed. These numbers are largely the same as when CCFR asked in 2002 (32% favor, 58% opposed) and 1998 (27% favor, 58% opposed).[3]

In surveys completed between 1998 and 2000, Pew, NBC/Wall Street Journal, CCFR and others have found majorities of 52% to 58% opposing the use of military force to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack.[4] Also, four times Gallup has asked, "If China were to attack Taiwan, do you think the United States should use its military forces to help defend Taiwan, or not?" The results have always been similar to the most recent case (May 2000), when Gallup found that just 42% thought "the US should use its military forces to help defend Taiwan…if China were to attack [it]," while 48% were opposed.[5]

In 1998 and 1999 surveys, Pew, NBC/Wall Street Journal, and others found majorities of 52% to 58% opposing the use of military force to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack.[6] In the most recent question of this type, respondents were asked what the US should do if, "In the future…an armed conflict were to arise between China and Taiwan." A 38% plurality thought the US should "help protect Taiwan militarily"-a broad phrase that could range from deterrence, to a show of force, to armed conflict-while 29% thought the US should not do this and 32% said they did "not know enough about the topic" (Investor's Business Daily/Christian Science Monitor, April 2001).[7]

Opposition was especially high in polls taken during the period of heightened cross-strait tensions in early 1996. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in March of that year, nearly two-thirds (64%) opposed "the use of US troops if China invades Taiwan."[8] A February 1996 Louis Harris survey also found that 65% opposed "America fight[ing] to defend Taiwan against China."[9]

When the question included a reminder about Taiwan's current status, the public was divided on the issue of defending Taiwan against a Chinese attack. For example, 48% opposed the US defending Taiwan when an August 1999 ABC News poll noted that "the island of Taiwan is a province of China that broke away in the 1940s and now has its own separate government"; 47% were in favor. But when those who supported US military action were asked to assume that "that meant the United States would get into war with China," support for defending Taiwan fell to just 30%. [10]

Much previous research has shown that, in general, Americans are wary of using military force without benefit of allies and a broad multilateral context for the US's actions. The possibility of having to defend Taiwan falls into the unilateral category-and it does so much more unequivocally than do most of the possible conflicts into which the US could be drawn. Thus it is not surprising that the polls give no suggestion of majority support.

Earlier polling also suggests that Americans would want the US to express strong opposition against any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. In October 1997, a Gallup survey asked whether it was "more important for the US to take a strong stand so that China does not take over Taiwan by force, or for the US to maintain good relations with China." By more than two to one (65% to 29%), respondents wanted to take a strong stand.[11]

Americans have been somewhat divided in past questions that asked whether the US should send its naval forces in the event that China takes threatening action against Taiwan. When the Chinese conducted military exercises near Taiwan in 1996, Americans showed differing responses as to whether the US should send naval forces there. In late February 1996, Harris told respondents that "China is threatening to hold military exercises off the coast of Taiwan in an attempt to influence Taiwan's first democratic presidential election in March," and asked "should the United States send an aircraft carrier to the Taiwan Straits to try to decrease China's influence on Taiwan's election, or not?" This option was strongly rejected, 68% to 26%. However, the exercises did take place, and the US did send an aircraft carrier, but it did not lead to any serious confrontation with China. Six months later the public was more comfortable with the idea of sending naval forces in such a case. When a September 1996 PIPA poll asked if the US should "send US naval forces to protect Taiwan" if China "begins to make threatening gestures towards Taiwan," a bare majority of 51% said the US should, while 38% were opposed. [12]

Perception of Taiwan’s Status

A strong majority has viewed Taiwan as being more like an independent country than as part of China. In February 1996, when China was launching missiles into the Taiwan Strait to reiterate its territorial claim during Taiwan's first democratic presidential election, Louis Harris presented respondents with two options to describe Taiwan's status. Sixty-two percent chose the description of a Taiwan as a "completely separate and independent of China." Less than one-third chose the description of Taiwan as "part of China." This does not necessarily mean that most Americans think of Taiwan as being no different than any other sovereign state, because the only other option was the description of Taiwan as part of China. But it does make clear that more Americans think of Taiwan as being more like an independent country than as part of China. Perhaps more important, in the same poll, 69% said that Taiwan and China should be reunified "only if the Taiwanese want to be"; just 18%, however, said they should "never be reunified"; and only 2% felt they "should eventually be reunified under any circumstances."[13]

Consistent with this view of Taiwan as being more like an independent country, majorities have said that Taiwan should be allowed to join multilateral organizations, just as if it were a sovereign state. A March 1997 Frederick Schneiders survey for the Taiwan Research Institute found that 72% thought the "democratically elected government of Taiwan should be allowed to join international organizations, including the UN and the World Trade Organization." Fifty-six percent would still support these moves even "if doing so angered China." Similarly, a February 1996 Louis Harris poll found that 56% would support "Taiwan's bid to become a member of the United Nations" even if that "might well anger China."[14]

A majority of Americans has expressed the view that the US should not oppose Taiwan's taking steps toward greater independence. A September 1999 poll by Mark Penn began by describing current US policy toward China, saying that it "can be summed up as 'no independence for Taiwan, and no use of force by China to compel Taiwan to rejoin mainland China.'" An alternative policy was described as "Since Taiwan has become a democracy, the US should support its moves toward independence, even if that provokes a confrontation with China." Asked to choose between these policies, only 37% chose the one that rejected independence for Taiwan while 55% chose the one that said the US should be supportive of Taiwan's moves toward greater independence.[15]

Arms Sales to Taiwan

Only about a third of Americans supported the US government's April 2001 authorization of weapons sales to Taiwan. This was the case both before and after the release by China of detained American airmen.

April 12-13 2001 (the end of the period during which US airmen from a damaged reconnaissance aircraft were detained), Newsweek asked whether Congress "should or should not approve the Bush Administration's request to sell new military equipment to Taiwan." Only 35% said Congress should approve, while a large plurality of 50% said it should not.[16]

More polling on the subject took place on and around April 20, when the airmen had been home for a week and the Bush administration was about to release its list of proposed weapons sales to Taiwan. In three different polls, only 27-29% supported the proposed sale. Only 28% thought the US should "sell advanced weapons to Taiwan" (described as "the island province that broke away from China 50 years ago" in an ABC/Washington Post question).[17] In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll only 29% thought "selling sophisticated weapons system to Taiwan…would be a good step and would send an important signal"; 48% thought "it would be unwise and would go too far" (16% took the question's option, "don't know enough to say").[18] In an Investor's Business Daily/Christian Science Monitor poll just 27% favored "the US selling advanced weapons to Taiwan," while 49% opposed it ("don't know enough to say": 24%).[19]

In an earlier, more general question, most respondents also rejected arms sales in favor of a more low-profile or more cooperative approach with China. When given three possible directions in regard to the conflict between China and Taiwan, only 26% chose the option that said "We should continue to help Taiwan defend itself from possible attack from the mainland, including arms sales to Taiwan, even if this hurts our relations with China." A plurality of 47% said instead that the US should "keep a low profile and let the Chinese deal with the problem themselves," while another 21% chose a more cooperative approach that said, "We should improve relations with the People's Republic of China first, to increase our leverage in bringing influence on both sides to find a peaceful solution." (June 1999, Potomac Associates/Opinion Dynamics)."[20]



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