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Dispatch from Taiwan: Taiwanese Views on U.S. Policy

January 30, 2023
James Lee

Talking Policy Podcast

Tensions between the U.S. and China, and between China and Taiwan, continue to simmer. In our third Dispatch from Taipei, Talking Policy host Lindsay Morgan talks with James Lee about what Taiwanese people think about U.S. policy towards Taiwan. James is an assistant research fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, and an affiliated researcher at the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. This interview was conducted on January 24, 2023. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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It’s been four months since our Dispatches series began in September. That was on the heels of a visit by Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, and fears were high that China might invade Taiwan almost at any time. The urgency of those fears seems to have subsided or been overtaken by other global events, like the abrupt end of China’s zero covid policy. And yet, in December, President Biden signed a defense spending bill that authorized up to $10 billion in military aid for Taiwan over the next five years. Can you catch us up on the state of things in Taiwan? What has happened in the intervening months since you and I talked, both in terms of the conflict and in general in Taiwanese affairs?

In terms of the strategic aspects of Taiwan’s security, the most significant developments in the last few months have been that the United States seems to have settled on a policy in which the Biden administration has resisted pressure from Congress to put strategic clarity—guaranteeing a U.S. military response to an attack on Taiwan—in writing. So the official policy is still ambiguous. But Biden has delivered verbal remarks on a number of occasions indicating that he would support U.S. intervention in the Taiwan Strait. So right now the U.S. has a policy of written ambiguity and verbal clarity. I find this very confusing. Bonnie Glaser and Zack Cooper have aptly called this a policy of strategic confusion.

In terms of the cross-Strait military situation, ever since Nancy Pelosi visited in August, China has shown an increasing willingness to challenge the median line in the Taiwan Strait, which for many years was regarded as a de facto boundary between Taiwan and mainland China. Meanwhile, the United States has been authorizing new military sales to Taiwan and it was reported recently that the National Guard is training Taiwanese troops. So there has been an increase in U.S. military support for Taiwan. But there’s also a question of whether Taiwan will be able to implement the defense reforms that are needed to prepare for an invasion from China. The president of Taiwan announced recently that the Taiwan government would extend conscription from four months to a year starting in 2024. But that’s just the first stage of the process.

In terms of domestic politics, there was the Communist Party Congress in mainland China, of course, and Taiwan also had its own local elections in November. In that election, the current ruling party in Taiwan, the DPP, which has historically leaned more towards independence, suffered a loss, and the historically China-friendly party, the KMT, gained many seats. But it’s not clear that this will predict the outcome of the race for the presidency in 2024. The current president of Taiwan resigned as the chairwoman of the DPP, and the new chair, William Lai, is seen as a contender for the presidency in 2024. And the KMT has its own candidate, but both the KMT and the DPP will need some time to form their campaign strategies for 2024 and to show they can manage the relationship with the United States and tensions with China.

The new chairperson of the DPP is also known for being more vocal in support of independence. Is that right?

He said in the past that he was “a political worker for Taiwan independence.” That set off alarm bells, not only in Beijing, but also in Washington. But recently, Lai has said that he believes that Taiwan is already an independent and sovereign country called the Republic of China (Taiwan). In Taiwanese politics, that means he’s taking a moderate position of saying Taiwan is already independent, and therefore Taiwan does not need to declare independence. So it’s a way of asserting Taiwan’s sovereignty without creating the concern that he’s going to try to change the status quo.

You referred to strategic ambiguity, the official U.S. policy towards Taiwan in which the U.S. does not say if or under what conditions it would intervene in the defense of Taiwan. The assumption on which this policy rests is that the lack of clear U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense will discourage the players from making any kind of unilateral moves to change the status quo. A recent survey suggests that this thinking may be flawed.

The survey found, among other things, that 43 percent of respondents think that the U.S. will intervene in Taiwan’s defense if Taiwan tries to unilaterally change the status quo. What do you make of this finding? Why are so many people in Taiwan confident that the U.S. will intervene?

This survey was sponsored by the Institute of European and American Studies at Academia Sinica, and it’s a project I’m working on with Hsin-Hsin Pan, Chien-Huei Wu, and Wen-Chin Wu. U.S. foreign policy debates on strategic ambiguity often make certain assumptions about the nature of Taiwanese domestic politics and the nature of Taiwanese preferences, and how Taiwan would respond to a change in U.S. policy. We wanted to test whether those assumptions were right.

There are a number of arguments in favor of strategic ambiguity, but the one we focus on is the argument you just raised about dual deterrence, wherein the ambiguous U.S. position on whether or not it would intervene in Taiwan’s defense serves as a restraining factor that prevents Taiwan from unilaterally declaring independence. What we found was that the public opinion data doesn’t support this interpretation. If the dual deterrence argument accurately captures what’s happening, then we would expect to find that most Taiwanese would express a preference for independence, but would believe that if Taiwan were to declare independence unilaterally, the United States definitely would not intervene in Taiwan’s defense. What we found, however, was that quite a number of people believe the U.S. would intervene in Taiwan’s offense, regardless of whether it was Taiwan or mainland China that changed the status quo first. And yet, the vast majority of respondents exhibit a preference for the status quo. This suggests that the United States isn’t acting as a restraining factor. Rather, there’s an innate preference for the status quo in Taiwan. And actually, what explains a respondent’s perception of the likelihood of U.S. intervention in Taiwan’s defense isn’t whether or not Taiwan changes the status quo or China changes the status quo. It’s what the respondent believes about the underlying credibility of the United States. And that’s an interesting variable that doesn’t come up very much in other surveys on U.S.-China-Taiwan relations—that the Taiwanese public is polarized about whether the United States is credible.

When we talk about credibility, what are we talking about exactly? Because, again, the commitment to Taiwan has been ambiguous. So is this about what people believe about U.S. credibility in terms of human rights and support for fellow democracies around the globe? Or something else? What is the basis of credibility in the minds of Taiwanese people?

Our survey can’t speak to that directly, but generally speaking, I infer this as a view on the credibility of the United States along the lines that you suggest—that respondents have different views about whether the United States is going to support Taiwan as a fellow democracy, or whether the U.S. is acting in its own self-interest and simply using Taiwan as a pawn in its competition with China. There’s a more idealistic view of the United States versus a much more realistic or perhaps even cynical view of the United States.

To what extent did the Trump years affect American credibility?

Early on in his presidency, Trump got a lot of people worried when he said that the United States may not adhere to its One China Policy. But then he set off alarm bells in Taiwan, and among Taiwan experts, when he said, “I don’t understand why we have to keep to a One China Policy unless they’re willing to make a deal with us on other things, like trade.” It seemed Trump was treating Taiwan as a pawn and had a very transactional way of thinking about Taiwan in the U.S.-China relationship.

Growing questions about the degree to which allies can depend on the U.S. as part of their defense against China isn’t a phenomenon unique to Taiwan. Isn’t it something we’re also seeing more broadly among allied partners in the region?

I think so. There is this question about how committed the United States is to the Indo-Pacific, especially given the tensions that arose during the Trump administration and the U.S. concern about defense burden sharing (in which the United States expressed skepticism about the value of its alliances)—what that signals about the United States’ investment in the region over the long term and the United States’ willingness to commit to its allies and partners.

What we’re seeing in Taiwan resonates more widely in the region, but it’s particularly acute for Taiwan, given the fact that Taiwan has a very ambiguous status in international politics. Taiwan is under seemingly constant threat from the other side of the Taiwan Strait. It’s difficult to imagine what it’s like—the future of their democracy depends on decisions that are made on the other side of the world. There are fears that the U.S. may not actually show up when tensions with Beijing rise to a dire point. It’s something that weighs on the minds of the Taiwanese. Taiwan has a sense of being stuck in the middle between two great powers competing for influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

I’ve talked to you before about whether an invasion by China is likely. In the past, you have said that it’s probably not likely, but are the new authorizations in the defense spending bill for military aid to Taiwan a signal that some kind of armed conflict is getting more likely? Or is this just part of a posture of deterrence?

It’s meant to achieve deterrence. But there is a risk that the U.S. is thinking about this issue too much in military terms, and isn’t doing enough to achieve deterrence on the political side of things. The 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego sponsored a study on how to prevent a war in the Taiwan Strait. One of the key findings was that the United States needs to balance threats and assurances: the threat of maintaining a credible U.S. military posture and capacity to intervene, but also the assurance to Beijing that if Beijing refrains from using force against Taiwan, the United States will not support Taiwan’s independence. A lot of the signals coming from the U.S. and statements of support for Taiwan have come across to some observers as the United States not being as careful on the sovereignty issue as it has been in the past, and this may escalate tensions. But I should say that in our survey we found that these kinds of signals from the United States are working in Taiwan in the sense that survey respondents believe that if President Biden says the United States will defend Taiwan, it increases their confidence that the U.S. will show up, and high-level visits from U.S. officials increase Taiwanese confidence in the United States.

I’m curious about the extent to which Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the response on the part of the U.S. and the European Union, have affected how Taiwanese people think about their own situation. Is it shifting views in particular ways?

It has shifted views on issues like civil defense and Taiwan’s overall military posture. There is a general belief among the public that Taiwan needs to do more to get ready for a potential conflict with China. A lot of the defense reforms that we’ve seen recently, such as extending conscription, reflect that heightened sense of threat among the Taiwanese public. In our survey, around 80 percent of respondents believe the threat from China against Taiwan has increased. But the public in Taiwan is not panicking. They aren’t preparing for a war to start tomorrow. When you live here, you don’t feel like this is a country that is getting ready for an imminent conflict.

In terms of the government’s messaging on Ukraine, the government here says that Taiwan is and is not like Ukraine. It downplays the similarities between Taiwan and Ukraine when there are attempts to say, for example, the U.S. didn’t show up in Ukraine, and the U.S. won’t show up in Taiwan. The government pushes back against those kinds of very lazy analogies. But on the other hand, the government has emphasized the fact that Taiwan and Ukraine are both beleaguered democracies under threat from authoritarian great powers. There have also been stories of Taiwanese going to Ukraine and fighting with the Ukrainian foreign legion because of the belief in solidarity between Taiwan and Ukraine.

The conscription thing is interesting. Four months is just a blip in most people’s lives, but a year is pretty significant. What’s the response been?

We didn’t test this directly in our survey, but other surveys I’ve seen have indicated that over 70 percent of the public supports extending conscription.

Given the results of the survey, does the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity still make sense or should the U.S. be clearer and more official about its position to come to Taiwan’s defense?

Beyond dual deterrence, there are other strong arguments in favor of ambiguity. One is, how would a change in the policy toward clarity affect Beijing’s perceptions of the trend lines in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, and would it trigger Beijing to accelerate its timeframe for unifying with Taiwan? That is still a major issue that our survey can’t really speak to. Another concern is the implications of strategic clarity for U.S. domestic law. Not even the NATO Treaty guarantees a U.S. military response to an attack on NATO, even though U.S. officials say this kind of thing all the time. There’s always the caveat of “in accordance with constitutional processes.” Look at the history of the Taiwan Relations Act. The original reason why the United States did not provide a guarantee of U.S. intervention in Taiwan’s defense didn’t have to do with dual deterrence or any of these kinds of strategic arguments. It was actually a domestic legal issue. This was after Vietnam, and members of Congress didn’t want to give the president a blank check for deploying U.S. military forces in Asia again. That was actually the original concern.

Guaranteeing a U.S. response would have all kinds of ramifications in terms of domestic law and the separation of powers. And right now, the Taiwan Relations Act still says that the “President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger” against Taiwan.

You mentioned the polarization in Taiwan in terms of how ordinary citizens view the U.S. To the extent that Taiwanese people feel a connection to the U.S., what’s that connection based on?

There definitely is a very strong political and cultural affinity between Taiwan and the United States. In our survey, we found that most respondents in Taiwan had a relatively high rating of U.S. democracy. And as you mentioned, a fairly high proportion of respondents were skeptical that China’s power is going to surpass the United States in the coming years. The U.S. has a relatively positive image in that respect. At a social and cultural level, there is also a very strong affinity between Taiwan and the United States. One interesting anecdote is that in Taiwan, they don’t call English “English,” they often call it “Americanese.”

But there is also an underlying fear that the United States won’t show up if China uses force against Taiwan. Something that doesn’t get noticed very much in the United States is, we don’t really know what is driving this doubt about U.S. credibility. From my personal observation, when you watch the news in Taiwan, people here are very, very attentive to the semiconductor industry, and how important it is for Taiwan’s security. Turn on the TV in the daytime and a cable talk show will be talking about TSMC. They’re very concerned that TSMC is going to come under pressure to export its technology to the United States. Generally, we’ve seen that that’s not true. If you follow how much TSMC is investing in the United States, and compared with what’s happening in Taiwan, there’s always a lag in which the technology going to the U.S. is one generation behind the technology that exists in Taiwan. But still, there is a great deal of public anxiety about whether TSMC will come under pressure to transfer this technology to the U.S.

The government has given many public assurances saying we’ll keep the most advanced technology in Taiwan. But I don’t think that the signaling coming from the United States is doing much to relieve these concerns among the Taiwanese public. On the one hand, the U.S. is saying that it is committed to Taiwan’s security. But on the other, the United States is starting to panic about the fact that most of the computer chips in the world are manufactured in Taiwan. And it seems like the United States isn’t confident in Taiwan’s future if the U.S. is trying to move a lot of technology back to U.S. shores. The geoeconomic and geostrategic messaging coming from the United States often works at cross purposes. And there’s a lot of concern right now in Taiwan, that the semiconductor industry could come under a lot of political pressure to comply with U.S. preferences on this issue.

Last question: what are you going to be watching over the next year in Taiwan?

Looking forward to the presidential election in Taiwan in early 2024 and looking at the two candidates for two major parties: for the DPP, it’s probably going to be William Lai, and for the KMT it’s probably going to be Eric Chu. Both of these candidates have a challenge ahead of them—to demonstrate to voters that they are able to handle the relationship with China and the United States. William Lai has said before that he is “a political worker for Taiwan independence.” Eric Chu has emphasized that he’s pro-U.S. (he said that publicly), but the KMT has its own version of a “One China Principle,” in which it believes that Taiwan is part of China, but China being the Republic of China, which is in Taiwan, and not the People’s Republic of China. Roughly speaking, this is a position of saying, “Taiwan is not part of China; China is part of Taiwan.” That appeal to Chinese nationalism of a different sort than what exists in the mainland is something that people in Washington who aren’t familiar with Taiwan security don’t fully understand. They don’t always know how to distinguish between KMT Chinese nationalism versus CCP Chinese nationalism. They’re going to have a lot of questions about Eric Chu’s platform and what his party stands for when it says it believes Taiwan is part of one China called the Republic of China. Those kinds of questions are going to affect both candidates in terms of whether they will be seen as credible candidates by the United States and whether they will be able to manage the relationship with the United States, and that’s going to be an important factor for them in their appeal to voters in Taiwan.

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