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Taiwanese people will be reassured by Pelosi’s visit, research says

A high-level visit might boost confidence in U.S. security commitments

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) exits a plane as she arrives in Taipei, Taiwan, on Aug. 2. (AP)
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrived in Taiwan on Aug. 2, a trip that had sparked earlier warnings from Beijing that China’s military “won’t sit idly by” if the visit occurs. A day earlier, the White House urged China not to overreact to Pelosi’s likely visit. And while President Biden went to great lengths to clarify to Chinese President Xi Jinping that Congress acts independently from the White House, the U.S. administration had expressed reservations about Pelosi’s plans.

But how will people in Taiwan perceive this type of high-level visit? After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, Taiwanese citizens have become less confident about the likelihood of U.S. intervention in the case of a military crisis. Our ongoing research finds that high-level visits can be an important way to reassure weaker partners about the strength of the alliance.

Taiwanese have become less certain about U.S. support

Taiwan has faced the threat of forceful unification with China for many decades. The island has relied on an implicit U.S. security commitment and arms sales to support its defense. The United States has long followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” and does not specify what actions it would undertake if a Chinese attack on Taiwan occurred. This policy of strategic ambiguity allows the United States to maintain flexibility — in itself a form of deterrence. But pro-China groups in Taiwan point to the policy as evidence that the United States is an unreliable partner.

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However, Russia’s war in Ukraine appears to be changing Taiwan’s perception of the U.S. security commitment. A March survey in Taiwan, for instance, found that roughly one-third of respondents believed the United States would offer military aid to Taiwan. That’s a steep decline from the two-thirds who believed the United States would support Taiwan militarily when the same institute asked this survey question last October.

The importance of high-level visits

In international relations, strong countries often need to reassure their weaker partners. If partners are uncertain a stronger power will come to their aid, this could motivate a weaker partner to abandon the alliance altogether. And research suggests that weak partners could even shift their allegiance and line up with the country they find threatening if they perceive the threat to be insurmountable and don’t get reassurances to the contrary from their stronger partner.

Do high-level visits provide this type of reassurance? Our recent survey explored the effects of a high-level U.S. visit on public support for national security policies in Taiwan. We utilized a trip by three high-profile U.S. senators in June 2021 as a quasi-experiment, as their visit occurred during the survey. The delegation that visited Taiwan included Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).

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We conducted an online survey with 1,500 Taiwanese participants, designed by Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research and implemented by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, Taipei (INDSR 2021Q2). The survey polled 1,100 respondents before the U.S. senators’ visit and 400 afterward. Our survey found that the June 2021 visit significantly increased respondents’ confidence in Taiwan’s military. Moreover, we found that the effects hold across different political groups, which suggests the impact of the visit by the U.S. senators wasn’t the result of partisanship or nationalism within the survey sample.

Our ongoing research also indicates that a visit from a stronger country’s leader is likely to push the smaller partner’s public to be more supportive of the great power’s preferred security policy — and, in this case, boosting support for the Taiwan’s defense budget or strengthening Taiwan’s self-defense capacity to share the U.S. security burden. And the Taiwanese public may also be more supportive of the incumbent government and its ability to implement the U.S. preferred security policy.

Taiwan is increasingly concerned about China

Are there takeaways from other polls? An October 2021 opinion poll, for instance, asked whether Taiwanese citizens strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree with the statement that China will eventually attack Taiwan.

Most of the respondents were optimistic that China will refrain from aggression — only 28 percent said they think China will attack Taiwan, while more than 64 percent felt that military aggression is unlikely. This confidence probably stems from experience. The Taiwanese people have been exposed to such threats from China for 70 years, but the island itself has never come under direct attack.

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But those October poll results also suggest an increased concern over aggression from China. In the 2019 version of this poll, about 80 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that China will eventually attack Taiwan. And the percentage of people who chose “strongly disagree” on the question of whether China would attack dropped from 42 percent in 2019 to around 24 percent in 2021.

What explains the rising levels of concern? It’s no secret that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has upped the tough rhetoric on Taiwan. In a January 2019 speech, he remarked, “we make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.” This statement struck many Taiwanese and foreign observers as a blunt but clear indication of Xi’s intentions. And China’s clampdown on Hong Kong after the widespread protests against the proposed 2019 Anti-Extradition Law also shocked many in Taiwan.

The importance of high-level visits to Taiwan

Pelosi’s stop in Taiwan could be a dangerous moment in U.S.-China relations. But our research suggests that the visit would probably significantly reassure the people of Taiwan, enhancing public support on the island for military and defense spending as well as U.S. strategic policy goals.

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Yao-Yuan Yeh is Fayez Sarofim-Cullen Trust for Higher Education endowed chair in international studies, chair of the International Studies & Modern Languages Department and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Find him on Twitter @yeh2sctw.

Fang-Yu Chen is assistant professor of political science at Soochow University, Taiwan. Find him on Twitter @FangYu_80168.

Austin Horng-En Wang is assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Find him on Twitter @wearytolove.

Charles K.S. Wu is assistant professor of political science at the University of South Alabama. Find him on Twitter @kuanshengtwn.