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Taiwanese determined to fight for country, new research shows

Nation shows strong, historic willingness to defend itself if China invades, according to unpublished research paper

Taiwanese soldiers salute during National Day celebrations in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei, 2021. (AP photo)

Taiwanese soldiers salute during National Day celebrations in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei, 2021. (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A clear majority of Taiwanese are prepared to fight for their country in the event of war, new research shows.

The findings contradict an oft-repeated narrative peddling the line that Taiwanese are unwilling or unable to defend themselves against attack. The subtext here is that Taiwan intends to rely on the U.S. and its allies to do so instead.

This “free ride” claim is not borne out by the data unearthed by Josh Wenger, an American postdoctoral research associate at the Academia Sinica Institute of Sociology, where he is part of a project studying Taiwan's civil-military relations. In fact, Taiwan is, historically, among the most willing of nations to defend itself, according to his as-yet-unpublished paper, Taiwanese Public Opinion on Defense Issues.

The “willingness to fight for country” in Taiwan is consistently “above 60% and bipartisan,” among the highest in global polls since the mid-1990s, Wenger tells Taiwan News. His evidence is primarily based on five major surveys from 1995 to the present day.

One graph (33) looks at “willingness to protect your country,” and is divided into four time periods. Taiwan is compared to five other “select developed democracies”: South Korea, Japan, Germany, Australia, and the U.S.

Taiwan stands at the top of the index in every case, with nearly 80% willing to fight in the latest survey, 2017-2022, while South Korea is second. From 1995-2022, Australia was generally third, followed by the U.S., with Germany and finally Japan least likely to go to war in defense of the motherland.

Taiwanese determined to fight for country, new research shows
Graph 33. (Josh Wenger, All graphs)
Taiwanese determined to fight for country, new research shows
Graph 34.

Taiwanese determined to fight for country, new research shows
Graph 36.

Taiwanese determined to fight for country, new research shows
Graph 35.

Related findings are the will to fight was “not affected significantly by the Ukraine War or military exercises after (U.S. House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi visit,” according to Wenger’s research (graph 34). Also, this willingness was not “significantly impacted by how war starts” — meaning respondents were not concerned by whether the cause was a declaration of independence on behalf of Taiwan’s leadership, or was unprovoked and started by China.

Here, Wenger also references a Taiwan Foundation of Democracy poll in December 2022 about the will to fight if China makes an unprovoked attack (70%), or Taiwan declares independence (63%).

Given the choice, in 2022, a record-high 28% of Taiwan’s population said they would join the Army if there was a need (graph 36). This response followed an “open question” that asked, “What action would you take if there’s a war.”

Furthermore, Taiwanese believe their compatriots, or fellow citizens, would also resist China if it attacked (graph 35). Between 2002-2020, the percentage of resistors in the event of a Chinese invasion was considered to be in the range of 52% to 72%, mostly hovering around the mid-60s.

These findings contradict naysayers like Daniel Davis, a former U.S. lieutenant colonel and author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” He wrote in a 19FortyFive column: “There is no justification for sending American men and women to die on the seas and in the air around Taiwan when the citizens of Taiwan are themselves cool to the idea of dying for their own country.”

Such assertions frequently underline the importance of Taiwan adopting a “porcupine strategy” of asymmetric defense, meaning it needs to hold out as long and as strongly as possible before U.S. forces arrive to save the day. It is a position that is also discussed by writers such as the Rand Corporation’s Raymond Kuo, who instead point to the role of Washington and its policy of “strategic ambiguity” as a reason for Taiwan doubting U.S. intentions.

Taiwanese determined to fight for country, new research shows
Graph 26.

Taiwanese determined to fight for country, new research shows
Graph 25.

Josh Wenger (graph 26) provides evidence for the view that Taiwanese generally doubt the U.S. will become directly involved in a war with China if it invades Taiwan. Most Taiwanese believe the U.S. will only provide weapons, and not send troops – though this latter figure does rise significantly from 19.3% to 33.8% if Taiwan maintains the status quo and does not declare independence.

“Taiwanese are definitely skeptical about security guarantees and the confidence of U.S. military intervention,” Wenger comments, pointing to a graph that gives an idea of how the U.S. decision not to support Ukraine with boots on the ground led to significant concern of a similar reaction if there was a Taiwan-China conflict (graph 25). Confidence in U.S. military intervention went down to a historic low of 40% after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and subsequent U.S. inaction.

“Those who believe the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s defense will also want stronger self-defense and to invest in their defense,” Wenger observes. “I have found some evidence of a correlation between U.S. support and investing in defense.”

This upends the perception that Taiwanese are counting on the U.S. to come to their defense without being prepared to make a similar sacrifice, making it an issue for Washington rather than Taipei.

“It poses an interesting argument, which is whether U.S. ambiguity encourages free riding,” Wenger continues. His answer appears to be yes, even as the majority of Taiwanese continue to be willing to fight on, regardless of the U.S. position.

The four main findings in Wenger’s illuminating and sometimes surprising paper can be summarized as:

  1. While there has been increasing awareness of the possibility of war, there has been a willingness to face the facts, not go with the flow, and think more seriously about war preparedness. As evidence for this position, Wenger mentions United Microelectronics Corp. founder Robert Tsao’s (曹興誠) backing for a 3 million strong “civilian warrior” program at the Kuma Academy, along with co-founder Puma Shen (沈伯洋); the civil defense national security organization Forward Alliance (壯闊台灣) and other civil defense groupings.
  2. Interestingly, and counterintuitively for Wenger, considering Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters tend to be more youthful and independence-leaning, young people are relatively less willing than other age groups to sacrifice their lives for the country. They are also less willing to support an all-citizen-army approach like Israel, and prioritize defense spending.
  3. The willingness to fight was not shaken by the Afghanistan withdrawal, or Russian invasion (graphs 25, 26), though confidence in the U.S. was shaken by the flight from Kabul and lack of direct support for Ukraine. Wenger suggests there could be a message to the U.S. embedded in this data of clear support for Taiwan being the best strategy, rather than ambiguity.
  4. The message to China is that Taiwanese now know the “one China, two systems” formula is not a consensus and is “not acceptable to the vast majority of Taiwanese.” After the imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law in 2020 and the clampdown on dissension, the threat of a Chinese attack on Taiwan has increased.

Taiwanese determined to fight for country, new research shows
Graph 14.

Taiwanese determined to fight for country, new research shows
Graph 20.

Returning to figures like Daniel Davis, who pour scorn on Taiwan’s willingness to fight, confidence in the military, and willingness to invest in defense, the facts largely undermine these views.

Confidence in the military declined after 1995 but rebounds during the presidency of Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). Currently, it stands at 63.2%, higher than Germany or South Korea, but less than Australia and the U.S., with Japan top (graph 14).

However, while the willingness to invest in defense has only risen since 2019, after a long-term focus on economic growth in the noughties (graph 20), Wenger describes opinion as “divided,” mostly along party lines.

This is not to say that Taiwan is perfectly prepared vis-a-vis potential conflict: “If you look at that question about what would people do if there was a war, that is very troubling to me. In European countries, people would go to the civil defense center. Here, too many people don’t know, or go with the flow.”

“Some say they want to fight, but how do you prepare for that moment?” Wenger adds. “I think the government has a responsibility to prepare the population for this, and it's civic groups that are doing this at the moment. I would also advocate improving civil defense preparedness education.”

Wenger acknowledges his research findings reflect national political biases. This means DPP supporters are generally more willing to fight, while KMT supporters are more distrusting of the Tsai administration and its institutions, such as the military, and have less confidence in Taiwan’s warfighting capabilities.

He then adds the caveat that survey results could be skewed by the way questions were framed, or because of social desirability bias, meaning people may give replies they think society wants to hear, and don’t want to sound cowardly or unpatriotic.

“Even so, taking into account 10% social desirability bias still leaves about 60% willing to fight,” Wenger says.