Strong Taiwanese Identity Suggests Military Invasion of Taiwan Would Be a Challenge

July 24, 2020
R&WS Research Team
International Relations | Relations with China | Relations with the United States | Security

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During his annual Work Report in May, the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang removed the word ‘peaceful’ from descriptions of reunification with Taiwan, suggesting Beijing is not only still fully committed to bringing Taiwan into its control under the ‘One China’ system, but also considering unification by military force. 

Our poll suggests Taiwanese are aware of the high threat posed by the Mainland as it expresses its determination to unify Taiwan and the Mainland ever more forcefully. 45% of respondents think that military conflict between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is likely in the next 10 years, showing Taiwanese awareness that hopes on the Chinese side of peaceful unification are dwindling.

The belief in inevitable conflict, rather than ‘peaceful’ unification, stems in part from a growing schism between Taiwanese identity and Chinese Communist Party’s doctrine. We found that an overwhelming majority (62%) of respondents to our poll feel that Taiwan is culturally distinct from China, while just 28% did not agree. This result is problematic for the CCP’s plan on Taiwan, which rests on the ‘One China’ notion that regardless of their current various governance systems, the various ‘Chinese’ nations are all fundamentally tied together by the same culture.

Moreover, a clear majority (63%) of the Taiwanese public identify as solely Taiwanese, while just 28% would identity as both Taiwanese and Chinese. A negligible minority of those polled (4%) identify solely as Chinese.

Taken together these responses suggest that a unique Taiwanese identity has indeed been forged by Taiwan’s specific history. Taiwan was only ruled by a Chinese government under the Qing dynasty from 1683 to 1895, when the Japanese were ceded the territory. Its experience of history and governance is therefore very different from much of the Mainland.

Most interestingly, there is a significant age dimension as well. More than 75% of those between the ages of 18 and 44 identify solely as Taiwanese while less than 20% in this age range identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese or solely Chinese. Meanwhile, those aged 45 and above are more split, with around 50% identifying as solely Taiwanese and around 40% identifying as both Taiwanese and Chinese.

There is, of course, a partisan dimension to these responses: 2020 voters for Han Kuo-yu, who stood as presidential candidate for the Kuomintang (KMT) party are much more divided. 46% say Taiwan is culturally distinct while 45% say it is not. 83% of 2020 DPP Tsai voters identity as just Taiwanese, while a majority of 2020 KMT Han voters identify as both Chinese and Taiwanese (58%).

These results explain why China is always so keen for KMT candidates to win elections, despite their historical ties to Chinese republicans who fought against Mao Zedong’s army, as their rule would provide a more fertile environment for seeing China and Taiwan as of the same culture.

But the record-breaking, landslide re-election of President Tsai in January 2020 suggests the trends are against the KMT. The KMT has recently suffered another major failure, on the recall vote of Kaohsiung’s mayor, also KMT’s Presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, on June 6, of which a plurality of the overall Taiwanese public approve.

Much of the KMT’s original base are those who fled to Taiwan after the civil war in 1949 and therefore came from the Mainland themselves, making their emotional ties far greater. However, as more generations are born and raised in Taiwan and the dream, long held by the KMT, of restoring their rule on the Mainland dies out, it seems that those seeing Taiwan as culturally distinct will only gain in strength.

Furthermore, the threat from the Mainland feels more present than ever as President Xi’s rhetoric becomes more belligerent and the crackdown on protests in Hong Kong exposes the fragility of the ‘one country two systems’ model that would be used to bring Taiwan and the Mainland together. In fact, supporters of President Tsai from the DPP were overwhelmingly more likely to blame the deterioration in cross-strait relations on President Xi. Those who voted for the KMT’s candidate were more likely to blame both Xi and Tsai.

The clear support for an indigenous local Taiwanese identity therefore translates into the Taiwanese public’s views on their relations with the United States and China.

A clear plurality of respondents (46%) believe closer relations with the US would best serve Taiwan’s long-term strategic interests. By contrast, only 20% of respondents believe closer relations with the PRC would best serve Taiwan’s interests. The Taiwanese public appears to favour the country aligning itself with the US rather than China. Further alignment between the US and Taiwan would make any planned unification by Mainland forces even more difficult and complex, perhaps one element of Taiwanese support for closer ties with the US.

Moreover, while only 10% of respondents would oppose closer political and military ties between Taiwan and the US, over a third (37%) would oppose the same with China. A majority (53%) would support closer political ties with the US but only 19% feel the same about China, further undermining the Mainland authorities’ notion of the natural ties linking China and Taiwan.

At the same time, a slight plurality (38%) of the Taiwanese public do not hold an opinion on whether or not they support closer political ties between Taiwan and China, which perhaps indicates a nervousness regarding Taiwan’s geopolitical position.

A large majority (60%) would support closer economic ties with the US, suggesting a desire to not be as reliant on China for trade.

Respondents also appear highly conscious that the military threat from the Mainland means they cannot rely entirely on themselves to protect their national security but require the support of the US. Almost half the respondents (48%) feel the security of Taiwan depends on the US, with only 19% disagreeing.

Those who neither agree nor disagree might be influenced by the feeling that Taiwan is not totally dependent on the US militarily. Much is made of the country’s ‘Han Kuang’ military drills which simulate repelling an invasion from the Mainland and promote Taiwan’s self-defence capabilities. As such, our poll also found that the Taiwanese are not overwhelmingly convinced that the US can be trusted to defend Taiwan if it becomes necessary. 35% say they agree but 29% say they disagree, and 31% neither agree nor disagree.

The deterrent against an invasion of Taiwan likely comes from the threat of a protracted insurgency, whereby a population that does not at all identify as Chinese, will resist any attempt by the PRC to effectively control the island. As more and more generations of Taiwanese are educated learning about their unique history and culture, and the memory of those who fled the Mainland in 1949 fades, localist sentiment and the strength of this deterrent will increase.

Since the Taiwanese public rejects the logic that Taiwan and China are a cultural whole whose convergence is inevitable, the increasingly bellicose rhetoric from President Xi on the issue of unification makes sense. As this threat grows, however, the Taiwanese public will likely continue to militate for closer ties with US as a buffer against any Chinese invasion and a rebuke to Xi’s notion of the ties Taiwan should focus on. At the same time, it seems the Taiwanese public is aware that they have no space to be complacent as the US’ support is necessarily guaranteed forever and therefore are also prepared to wage an insurgency should an invasion ever occur.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Follow us on Twitter

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