Just over two weeks ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan as part of a broader congressional visit. Beijing responded with outraged denunciations and live-fire military exercises, reminding the world that it claims the self-governing island as part of its territory. While many U.S. political figures praised Pelosi’s visit, a few American observers characterized the trip as reckless.
Before the speaker’s trip to Taipei, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs fielded its annual foreign policy survey to better understand how Americans view the U.S. role in the world, including questions about the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Conducted at a time when U.S.-China relations were tense, results reveal an American public with increasingly favorable views of Taiwan, negative views of China, and a willingness to support Taipei, at least with some measures, should China invade.
American’s views of China and Taiwan
The 2022 Chicago Council Survey was conducted from July 15 to Aug. 1 by Ipsos using its online KnowledgePanel, a random national sample of 3,106 adults living in the United States, with data weighted to match Census Bureau demographic estimates of gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, region and income.
Asked to rate their feelings about various countries on a thermometer, with zero as the coldest and 100 as the warmest, Americans give Taiwan an average of 60 degrees. That’s the highest rating Taiwan has ever received in Chicago Council surveys dating to 1978. Feelings about China remain cold: 32 out of 100, tied for the lowest rating since the council first asked the question in 1978.
Americans also increasingly view China as a threat to the United States. In a March 2022 Chicago Council survey, 57 percent of Americans said China’s development as a world power was a critical threat to U.S. vital interests. That’s a big jump from 38 percent in January 2020, the last time we asked the question. And in the latest survey, 52 percent rated China’s territorial ambitions as a critical threat. Fully 76 percent of Americans think it’s likely that China will view Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a precedent, encouraging it to invade Taiwan.
As Americans grow more concerned about a threat from authoritarian China, they may also be growing more favorably inclined toward democratic Taiwan.
Americans are willing to back Taiwan — to a point
The parallel to Ukraine doesn’t stop there. If there’s a crisis, Americans say, they are willing to support aid to Taiwan that’s much like current U.S. aid to Ukraine. If China were to invade Taiwan, 76 percent say they would support imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions on China; 65 percent say they would support sending additional arms and military equipment to Taiwan; and 62 percent would support having the U.S. Navy prevent China from imposing a blockade around Taiwan. But only 40 percent of Americans would favor sending U.S. troops to help the Taiwanese government defend itself.
All those numbers are similar to what we found on Ukraine, where Americans also back sanctions and military aid but not U.S. troops on the ground.
Despite the strong partisan divides running through the United States on so many issues, we found that Republicans and Democrats had similar attitudes on all these aspects of U.S. support for Taiwan — much as party leaders have appeared to agree, no matter their party.
U.S. policy toward Taiwan is in line with public opinion
Both Pelosi’s trip and the more recent congressional delegation visit to Taiwan may be over, but the Senate will be debating the Taiwan Policy Act after its August recess — which could further rile Beijing. The bill would give Taiwan nearly $4.5 billion in security assistance along with designation as a “Major Non-NATO Ally,” and would support Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and multilateral trade agreements.
While the White House would clearly prefer less “tough-on-China” congressional involvement on these issues, American attitudes differ. In a 2021 Chicago Council Survey, most Americans viewed Taiwan as either an ally (30 percent) or a necessary partner (30 percent). Majorities also favored U.S. recognition of Taiwanese independence (69 percent), Taipei’s inclusion in international organizations (65 percent) and a U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement (57 percent). A slimmer majority (53 percent) supported the United States signing a formal alliance with Taiwan, though just 46 percent of Americans were willing to explicitly commit to defend Taiwan from attack.
Biden walks a fine line with Congress, Beijing, and the American public
Since the speaker’s visit to Taipei, Beijing has made its displeasure with the United States clear. In addition to sanctioning Pelosi and her family, China has suspended bilateral talks on climate, transnational crime and other global issues on which the United States has sought to make progress.
Given all this, the Biden administration will probably try to reassure a deeply skeptical Xi Jinping that the United States remains committed to its One China Policy and a peaceful resolution of the situation — all without letting up on the political and military support Taiwan badly needs. And while administration officials have been trying to uphold the traditional U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, Congress and the American public — and President Biden — seem to be less ambiguous in their support.
Dina Smeltz (@RoguePollster) is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Craig Kafura (@ckafura) is the assistant director of public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Truman National Security Fellow, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader.