Most people in Taiwan are not expecting an imminent war over the island despite high cross-strait tensions, surveys suggest – but it is a sentiment that risks complacency, according to analysts.
On Monday, 56 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighter jets – the most in one day to date – entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ), following months of such flights. Two days later, Taiwanese Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng warned that Beijing would be “fully able” to invade the self-ruled island by 2025.
Yet polling in September suggested that a majority of the Taiwanese public were not concerned about the possibility. In a survey by think tank Intelligentsia Taipei, 50.2 per cent of respondents in Taipei said they did not think that war was likely.
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Sixty per cent said they did not think there would be a war within 10 years, against 18 per cent who said there would.
In another opinion poll in March, by the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society, 63 per cent of respondents did not think Beijing would attack Taiwan within six years, as opposed to 29 per cent who thought it would.
Lai Kuo-yang, a 20-year-old university student, said he was not worried when asked whether the recent spike in sorties by PLA warplanes in Taiwan’s ADIZ was a sign of a potential cross-strait conflict.
“No, I am not worried about that, because I don’t think the Chinese communists would send forces to attack us. They are just bluffing,” Lai said, in the usual parlance used in Taiwan to refer to the Beijing government.
“They have been doing this for a long time and if they really wanted to attack Taiwan, they would have done so already,” Lai said, adding that actions such as sending warplanes and ships were merely attempts by Beijing to apply pressure.
Taiwan is viewed by Beijing as a breakaway province that must be brought into its fold, by force if necessary – a legacy of the Chinese civil war that ended in 1949 with nationalist forces fleeing to the island and forming their own government while the communists took power in Beijing.
A 38-year-old Taipei dentist who gave his name as Josh said Beijing had good reasons not to attack the island, at least in the near future.
“China has tried hard to sell the idea of a peaceful unification with Taiwan, and is unlikely to suddenly send forces to attack us if we do not declare formal independence,” Josh said.
“Besides, the United States is at our back and China would not want to risk fighting a war that might involve the Americans.”
The US has approved several deals to sell arms to the Taipei government, and its Taiwan Relations Act makes clear that Washington having diplomatic ties with Beijing instead of Taipei rests on Taiwan’s future being determined peacefully.
Public opinion on whether the US would send forces to help Taiwan was divided, with 46 per cent saying it would and 34 per cent giving the opposite view in the Intelligentsia Taipei poll in September.
If there were to be a war, 48 per cent of respondents said Beijing would win it, against just 13 per cent who thought Taiwan would win, with 8 per cent saying there would be no winners.
J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, said that most Taiwanese continued to believe that the escalation and rhetoric from Beijing were mere bluster.
They expected decision-makers in Beijing to act “rationally” and not adopt a course of action that would probably be catastrophic for everyone involved, Cole said.
Beijing has threatened force before but has not fired a shot in anger since the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, when it conducted missile tests in the waters surrounding Taiwan in the lead-up to the island’s first direct presidential election.
“Most young Taiwanese today were not born then,” Cole said. “Collectively, war remains an abstract notion, something that is talked about, written about, but not a lived experience.”
Cole said he feared that this assumption of rational decision-making could lead to complacency, given the possibility, even relatively slim, of Beijing – motivated by survival, fear of reputational damage or other domestic factors – feeling “compelled” to use force against Taiwan.
If the ruling Communist Party were to conclude that there was no possibility of Taiwan agreeing to a peaceful unification, and that the island was slipping away, the viability of the party would be threatened, according to Cole.
Miscalculations could also happen, such as Beijing mistakenly convincing itself that the PLA could prevail quickly in a conflict and that the US would not intervene, Cole said.
Bonnie Glaser, the Asia programme director at US think tank the German Marshall Fund, said the sentiment among young Taiwanese was unsurprising because they had not experienced full military action. This was in spite of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen talking increasingly about the nature of the threat and strengthening the island’s military.
“They should prepare the people and the military, but you don’t want to say that China could attack tomorrow and instil panic,” Glaser said. “I don’t think war is imminent, but I don’t rule out that sometime in the future, China might abandon the objective of peaceful reunification.”
Accountant James Liu, 48, said he was worried about a possible attack because Chinese President Xi Jinping had described reunification with Taiwan as a historic mission and an unshakeable commitment of the party.
“Xi is likely to continue as the leader in mainland China after the Communist Party congress next year, and before the end of his next term, he might want to bring Taiwan back as part of his legacy,” Liu said.
On Saturday, Xi will deliver a speech marking the 100th anniversary of the 1911 revolution, and it is expected to touch on Taiwan. The revolution in Wuchang, or Xinhai revolution, led to the establishment of the Republic of China – Taiwan’s official title – and ended China’s 2,000-year-old monarchy.
Wayne Tan, an associate professor of international politics at Taiwan’s National Chung Hsing University, said that caution was needed in interpreting poll results because survey design and the make-up of respondents could skew the results.
Very few remained of the mainland Chinese migrant generation who arrived in Taiwan after 1949, with younger generations being less familiar with the history of cross-strait relations and developing greater anti-China sentiment, he said.
Tan added that the suspension of direct dialogue between Beijing and Taipei since independence-leaning Tsai took office had reduced the chances of resolving the issue without the involvement of other countries – notably the US.
“It’s led people to be overly optimistic,” he said.
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