Amid ongoing tensions between China and Taiwan, people here in Taipei may at times strike outsiders as blasé about the threat of Chinese attack.
Taiwan has been at odds with China’s Communist Party since the 1940s and, decades on, the tension is only heating up as China modernizes its military. China considers self-administered Taiwan a wayward province.
This apparent apathy may have peaked twice last year — from the muted response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which raised the question of whether a Chinese invasion of Taiwan might be next, and in August, when Beijing staged military exercises and fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait after a visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
An August survey by the Australian Institute, a research institution, indicated that while 25 percent of Australians said they feared an imminent attack on Taiwan, only one in 20 people in Taiwan reported the same concern.
While the results portray Taiwanese as less concerned about an attack in the short term by China than outsiders might expect, people here voice very real long-term concerns about war in the future and Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.
‘Sometimes life must go on’
“If you ask Taiwanese if we are worried about a Chinese invasion, then yes, we can feel the threat. It’s a very real feeling. However, because it happens every day, when you suffer from this kind of threat for 40 years. Sometimes life must go on,” said Wang Ding-yu, a member of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee in Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan.
“We know we have to prepare for the worst-case scenario but as Taiwanese, we have to live in an optimistic way,” he told VOA.
Kharis Templeman, a research associate at the Hoover Institution’s Project on Taiwan in Indo-Pacific, pointed to differences between Taiwan’s situation and that of Ukraine before Russia invaded.
The war in Ukraine, he said, followed smaller conflicts with Russia in 2014 before a full-scale invasion last year. That has not happened with China, he said, and neither has it ruled out “peaceful reunification.”
There have been episodes of tension, such as in the 1950s when Beijing tried to “liberate” Taiwan’s outlying islands, and in 1996, when China fired missiles toward the main island of Taiwan before its first democratic elections. Those events, though, are just one part of the threats Taiwan faces, Templeman said, and military threats may take second or third place behind China’s diplomatic and economic coercion by squeezing Taiwan out of international space, banning imports of certain products to show their anger, and otherwise engaging in misinformation and cyberattack campaigns to damage morale.
“Most Taiwanese have plenty of experience with the nonmilitary threats, and Beijing has amply demonstrated a willingness to carry out those threats, and they have zero experience with the military threat,” he told VOA.
“If Beijing were to take some kind of kinetic action against Taiwan or engage in some kind of military maneuver that results in loss of territory or death of civilians and military personnel, then that would reshape how Taiwanese think about the threat,” he said.
Polling results, meanwhile, portray a complex range of opinions, depending on conditions and hypothetical situations, according to Timothy Rich, an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. Rich researches East Asian electoral politics.
In a September survey designed by Rich and his students, 40% of Taiwanese said they were not concerned about an invasion compared to 28% who expressed concern. The number of very or deeply concerned respondents jumped to nearly 32% when they were reminded of Taiwan’s limited defense capability.
“There's a tendency I think among Westerners to think that Taiwanese must be thinking about China all the time,” he said, although attention increases during period of heightened rhetoric or military drills. Rather, questions about a hypothetical war can make people uncomfortable, he said, and many may not have made up their minds or do not feel they can make an informed decision.
“It's not a matter of Taiwanese being ignorant of the threat" he said, “but rather it's a combination of being a threat for so long without a belief that war was imminent, and that domestic issues aren't so abstract.”
Threat seen rising
Results of surveys taken between 2016 and 2022, however, show Taiwanese sensing the threat rising in the Taiwan Strait, said Austin Wang, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who also researches public opinion.
The survey from Taiwan’s National Chengchi University and designed by Duke University, indicated that residents shifted from feeling the Taiwan Strait was mildly peaceful to increasingly hostile over seven years.
This may explain why Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen was able to increase mandatory military service from four months to a year in January for most young men without pushback.
But the gap between thinking about a crisis for respondents to and being willing to take action remains wide, Chih-yung Ho, deputy director general of the culture and communications department in the opposition Kuominang, or KMT, party, said.
Despite the threat from China, enlistment rates have not grown dramatically, he said, although other experts say this may be due to the military’s long-term association with decades of martial law from the 1940s to 1980s.
Citing another study by the 21st Century Foundation, a KMT-affiliated research institution, Ho said that while 70% of respondents said they believed most in Taiwan would resist a Chinese invasion, only 26% said they were “willing to proactively resist attacks and even eager to serve in the military.”
The gap suggested in the study was on display just last week, when the National Defense Ministry was forced to withdraw a recent plan to amend mobilization laws, following public uproar.
The changes would have created a registry of 16- to 18-year-old males who could assist the military during wartime, and restricted media freedom to prevent the spread of fake news once martial law was declared during wartime.
Intended in theory to further support an island wide resistance, for many Taiwanese they went too far, with any potential war still looming far off on the horizon.