Concerns about Chinese views on U.S.-Taiwan relations under the Trump administration generate conflicting perceptions. Who thinks what?
Incoming U.S. president-elect Donald Trump in recent weeks has signaled revisions in U.S.-Taiwan relations, both in “the call” with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December and later with his raising the possibility of reconsidering the “One China” policy. Despite a flurry of debate regarding how these actions will potentially change Sino-American relations, or at the very least how China may respond, missing from much of this discussion is consideration of Taiwanese public opinion. According to one survey, a majority of Taiwanese approved of Trump’s call to Tsai Ing-wen. Yet surveys so far have not directly assessed to what extent Taiwanese favor increased relations with the U.S., especially if such relations heighten tensions with China.
We wanted to test to what extent Taiwanese public opinion on U.S.-Taiwan relations under Trump was conditional on the expectations of China’s response. Through a web survey conducted via PollcracyLab on December 9-15, 2016, we randomly assigned 601 people to receive one of the following statements to evaluate on a five-point scale (1= strongly oppose, 5 = strongly agree).
Version 1: The Trump administration should increase its cooperation with Taiwan.
Version 2: Even if this provokes China, the Trump administration should increase its cooperation with Taiwan.
The survey found very little difference between average rates across the two versions (3.96 for Version 1, 3.92 for Version 2). However, we found weakly statistically significant differences when subgroups were analyzed. Those who voted for the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Eric Chu in the January 2016 presidential election were less likely to agree with the increasing cooperation when receiving the second version (3.73 vs. 3.44). In contrast, those who voted for Tsai Ing-wen were more likely to support increased relations in the second version (4.17 vs. 4.33 respectively). The same pattern was observed when comparing supporters of pan-blue coalition parties (KMT, People First Party, New Party) against pan green supporters (Democratic Progressive Party, Taiwan Solidarity Union, New Power Party).
What does this mean? The KMT and its pan blue partners have long pushed for improved relations with China and the Ma Ying-jeou administration (2008-2016) focused on cross-strait stability. Thus lower support among blue supporters in Version 2 is consistent with expectations. That Tsai voters and pan-green identifiers in general would be less concerned with China’s response similarly falls within conventional expectations.
Experimental surveys are snapshots and perceptions were likely influenced temporarily by the Trump’s unexpected statements. Typical caveats aside, the results suggest that concerns about Chinese views on U.S.-Taiwan relations under the Trump administration generate conflicting perceptions based on electoral politics, distinctions that both Taiwanese and Chinese officials may wish to encourage for their own purposes.