U.S.-Taiwan cooperation and China’s backlash

Written by Timothy S. Rich.

No U.S. President has been to Taiwan in 58 years. However, some analysts have been calling on U.S. President Donald Trump to be the first since Dwight Eisenhower to pay an official visit. Proponents claim doing so would help increase cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan as well as send a strong signal to China. After all, President Trump recently signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages senior U.S. officials to travel to Taiwan. This development follows the message sent by then-president-elect Trump’s acceptance of a congratulatory call by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016 and his administration’s approval of arms sales early last year.

While many experts believe that relations between the U.S. and longtime allies have deteriorated under President Trump, others argue that Taiwan has uniquely benefited from his presidency. However, U.S. policymakers are often quick to believe there is support for U.S. cooperation where none really exists. A delegation organized by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, recently traveled to Taiwan and found less excitement for this new period of relations than many anticipated. There should be little surprise that Americans have not found a chorus of support from Taiwanese citizens when, only a short time after taking the phone call from President Tsai, President Trump ate what he thought was the most beautiful slice of chocolate cake with President Xi Jinping. While in 2017 he may have dined with President Xi, in 2018 President Trump has risked an escalatory trade war and hired a National Security Advisor who recently argued that the U.S. should revisit its “one China” policy.

President Trump has been sending mixed signals to Beijing. On top of this, Beijing has already this year engaged in hostile acts, such as naval exercises in the South China Sea, encirclement military exercises around Taiwan, as well as live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait. These demonstrations of force were meant to warn Taipei against actions that Beijing sees as creeping independence and to dissuade the U.S. from committing itself to what it sees as more interference.

Experts in Beijing, Taipei, and Washington have very different perspectives on U.S.-Taiwan collaboration. Yet there is little survey data available on how the Taiwanese public views the possibility of increased collaboration with the U.S., especially in the Trump era. We wanted to know to what extent the Taiwanese public’s views on the Trump administration are colored by domestic partisan politics and sensitivity to cross-Strait relations. To address this, we conducted an experimental web survey through PollcracyLab at National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center in late March. Six hundred Taiwanese respondents received one of four prompts and were asked to evaluate it on a five-point Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree).

The versions are as follows:

Version 1: The Trump administration should increase its cooperation with Taiwan. 

Version 2: Even if this provokes China, the Trump administration should increase its cooperation with Taiwan. 

Version 3: The Trump administration should increase its cooperation with the Tsai Ing-wen administration.  

Version 4: Even if this provokes China, the Trump administration should increase its cooperation with the Tsai Ing-wen administration.  

Our working assumption was that Taiwanese citizens would generally be supportive of increased relations, but that mentioning that China may see this as a provocation would dampen support. We also assumed that emphasizing the Tsai administration over Taiwan would elicit different levels of support among those supportive of the Kuomintang (KMT) versus the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The figure below shows the percentage of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing that the Trump administration should increase its cooperation with Taiwan or the Tsai administration. Several patterns emerge. First, clear divisions are seen on partisanship, with DPP supporters more supportive of increased cooperation, KMT less supportive, and respondents overall somewhere in the middle. That said, across all three groups, noticeable declines are evident between versions that mention China versus those that do not. In addition, KMT supporters were more supportive of increased cooperation when presented as between the Trump administration and Taiwan, whereas DPP supporters elicited stronger support among versions framing cooperation between the Trump and Tsai administrations. Finally, and perhaps easily overlooked due to expectations of a partisan divide, among all three groups the decrease in support for cooperation when China is mentioned is greater among the “Taiwan” versions compared to the “Tsai” versions.

That only roughly half of respondents overall agree to increasing relations, coupled with the wide variance between DPP and KMT supporters for increasing cooperation, requires greater attention. For example, partisans may view the potential ramifications of increased relations differently. DPP supporters may envision stronger relations as strengthening Taiwan’s sovereignty and its de facto independence from China, perhaps even emboldening more Taiwan-centric actions with implicit American support. In contrast, KMT supporters may envision these same potential ramifications as undermining a tenuous cross-Strait stability. The tepid support for improving relations overall and especially among KMT supporters may also be an indication of concerns of the unpredictability of the Trump administration, versus wishful thinking among DPP supporters.

Additionally, among all groups, the sharp decline in support for increased collaboration when the threat of Chinese backlash was introduced suggests the difficulty in separating U.S.-Taiwan relations from cross-Strait relations more broadly. More importantly, these findings could mean that many Taiwanese citizens, regardless of party, neither trust the U.S. to protect them from a military response from China nor believe that more U.S. collaboration is worth potentially changing Chinese perceptions of the status quo.

Second, it is interesting that KMT voters gave more support to cooperation when it was between Taiwan and Trump than they gave to cooperation between the Trump administration and the Tsai administration. Support among KMT voters fell over 10 percent points when Tsai was introduced as the actor collaborating with the U.S. While this decline could be a sign of KMT supporters not fully approving of Tsai’s attempts to improve relations with the US, the decline based on the framing of the question strongly suggests that responses are not motivated necessarily by a sincere policy interest, but a more subconscious response to a partisan lens. Clearly our initial assumption that there would be a partisan divide was correct.

Finally, the decline in support for cooperation based on if China was mentioned differs noticeably in the “Taiwan” versus “Tsai” versions, with the latter version eliciting a smaller decline. This suggests that not only does the DPP have faith in the Tsai administration’s ability to handle relations that may provoke China, but also that despite concerns among KMT supporters and respondents in general, the relationship between support for cooperation in light of China’s response is more complex than often assumed.

Regression analysis finds no statistically significant difference in rates of support among DPP identifiers, while among KMT identifiers, the fourth version corresponds with a statistically significant decrease in support for cooperation. Separating respondents by their presidential vote choice in 2016 finds similar results, with those who back Eric Chu eliciting a statistically significant lower approval for cooperation on the fourth version, whereas those who voted for Tsai or James Soong did not see this same pattern.

In the broader context of former Taiwanese presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian calling for a referendum vote to decide the future of Taiwanese sovereignty, our findings illustrate that the introduction of the threat of a Chinese backlash does damper support for actions that are potentially domestically popular in Taiwan and that enhance Taiwan’s sovereignty claims. That said, the potential risks from China is not enough to convince a majority of DPP supporters that greater collaboration with the U.S. is not worth the risk.

American policymakers should also take note of the downward pressure the introduction of a potential Chinese backlash probably puts on public support for U.S. cooperation abroad. Our findings suggest that other nations’ citizens recognize that China’s military capabilities are catching up to those of the U.S. If the Taiwanese do not believe that support of the U.S. serves as an effective deterrent against Chinese aggression, Washington might need to drastically shift its strategy to adjust to new realities.

Fewer than half of the Taiwanese polled believed that the benefits of cooperating with the U.S. were worth risking backlash from China.

As the gap between military capabilities diminishes, so too might public support for cooperation with American allies in the Pacific theatre if those allies’ citizens believe such cooperation would provoke China. If the threat from China can decrease support for U.S. collaboration in Taiwan, how long will it be before the threat of Chinese provocation discourages South Korean citizens from pursuing greater ties with the U.S.? Japanese citizens? Partners in South East-Asia? The U.S. therefore must ensure that its promises of cooperation come with the promise to avoid unnecessarily provoking China. To assuage such concerns, Washington could pursue policies that build upon all parties’ mutual interests. Alternatively, the U.S. could take more aggressive actions in the Pacific theatre to convince citizens in partner nations that American commitments are credible.

Security guarantees and official visits from U.S. presidents are extremely important for building ties between government officials, but in 2018 it could be even more critical that American policymakers ensure that those offers of support are supported by the citizens of allied nations.

Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. His main area of research focuses on the electoral politics in East Asian democracies. This article was first published on Taiwan Sentinel and has been republished with permission of the editor. Image credit: CC by U.S. Department of Defence/Flickr.

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