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Survey: Most Americans Support Defending Taiwan if China Invades

FILE - Students protesting against a China-Taiwan trade pact occupy the legislature floor, in Taipei, Taiwan, March 20, 2014.
FILE - Students protesting against a China-Taiwan trade pact occupy the legislature floor, in Taipei, Taiwan, March 20, 2014.

More than half of Americans questioned in a new survey said they favor using U.S. troops to defend Taiwan if China was to invade the island. Analysts say that reflects a growing awareness in the United States about Taiwan and the challenges it faces.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey found that 52% of Americans support using U.S. troops to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion of the island. A smaller percentage of respondents — 19% — supported a U.S. defense of Taiwan when the council first asked the question in 1982.

The poll also found that 69% of those surveyed support U.S. recognition of Taiwan independence, a complicated topic. The survey, published Aug. 25, was conducted from July 7 to July 26 this year through an online questionnaire. The sample included 2,086 adults, age 18 or older, living in 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

"I think there's growing awareness in the United States about Taiwan and the challenges that it faces," Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the Washington D.C.-based German Marshall Fund, told VOA Mandarin.

She added that China's military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan have been widely reported, making Americans more supportive of Taiwan and more sympathetic to Taiwan's plight.

Taiwan has rejected Beijing's rule since 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party assumed power in mainland China after years of civil war.

Beijing, however, maintains that Taiwan is a renegade province. In July, in a speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of the CCP, China President Xi Jinping pledged to pursue reunification and vowed to "smash" any attempts Taiwan might make for formal independence.

The U.S. cut its formal diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1979, when it formally recognized the Beijing government. Since then, Washington has maintained a "One China" policy to guide its relations with Taiwan. In practice, however, it means that Washington recognizes the government of the People's Republic of China as "the sole legal Government of China," but it balks at acknowledging Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.

In 2019, Xi proposed that China rule Taiwan under the "one country, two systems" framework negotiated for the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. Taiwan, pointing to China's tightening grip on the former British territory, rejected the offer.

Current U.S.-China tensions factored into the survey results. The survey said that the public's distrust of China makes people more supportive of Taiwan. Thirty percent of Americans see Taiwan as an ally; another 30% see it as a necessary partner. The survey also found that 32% of respondents see China as a rival and 29% view it as an adversary.

"While a significant portion of Americans appear unfamiliar with Taiwan, a majority of Americans seem prepared to recognize independence for Taiwan should the U.S. government change its existing policy toward Taipei," the survey concluded.

"It is unclear how the public would react to a serious crisis in the Taiwan Strait involving the U.S. military given the public's relative unfamiliarity with the issues at hand," it added.

The Chicago Council's results also revealed that 65% of those surveyed support including Taipei in international organizations, and that 57% support a bilateral free trade agreement between Washington and Taipei.

Glaser told VOA she was surprised at the percentage of Americans who think the U.S. should recognize Taiwan as an independent country. "I think Americans, not surprisingly, don't understand all of the complicated factors involved in that kind of decision," she said.

She pointed out that the results of the survey had a lot to do with how the questions were asked.

"If you asked Americans, 'Should the United States recognize Taiwan as an independent country even if it would lead to an all-out war with China?' You'd probably get a different response." she said.

Julian Ku, an expert on China's relationship with international law and a law professor at Hofstra University, agreed that the polling results suggest that Americans have limited knowledge of Taipei.

He wrote on Twitter that while this trend toward much greater public support for defending Taiwan is important, "it is very iffy to use polls as a basis for foreign policy."

Glaser agreed, telling VOA that public opinion should be taken into account, but it shouldn't be the decisive factor in the formation of any policy.

"At the end of the day, what this poll reveals to me is that we need to have a lot more education for Americans about these kinds of subjects," she said.