Poll: Will China Attack Taiwan?

IR experts examine how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed geopolitics.

Taiwanese protesters against Russia's war in Ukraine
Taiwanese protesters against Russia's war in Ukraine
People march against the war in Ukraine during a rally in Taipei, Taiwan, on March 13. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

When U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 18, three weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, the conversation turned to Taiwan. Chinese officials are still contemplating the implications of the war for Beijing’s long-standing claim to the island nation. Many observers have noted that what happens in Ukraine could shape China’s approach to Taiwan. In a telling shift, Taiwan raised its alert level after the conflict began on Feb. 24, prompting the Chinese Foreign Ministry to assert that Taiwan is “not Ukraine.”

Does the fallout from the war in Ukraine increase or decrease the prospects for a Chinese attack on Taiwan? The united Western front on sanctions against Russia, the effectiveness of the Ukrainian resistance, and the mounting loss of Russian lives and equipment could give China pause about possible military action against Taiwan. Alternatively, Russian success and the refusal of the United States or NATO to support Ukraine with direct military action could encourage China to attack Taiwan while the world focuses on Europe.

Over the past 10 months, the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute surveyed international relations (IR) experts at U.S. universities and colleges on three occasions about the likelihood of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. This expert crowd predicted Russia’s invasion about a month before it happened, and their views may clarify the consequences of the war in Ukraine for potential Chinese military action in Taiwan.

When U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 18, three weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, the conversation turned to Taiwan. Chinese officials are still contemplating the implications of the war for Beijing’s long-standing claim to the island nation. Many observers have noted that what happens in Ukraine could shape China’s approach to Taiwan. In a telling shift, Taiwan raised its alert level after the conflict began on Feb. 24, prompting the Chinese Foreign Ministry to assert that Taiwan is “not Ukraine.”

Does the fallout from the war in Ukraine increase or decrease the prospects for a Chinese attack on Taiwan? The united Western front on sanctions against Russia, the effectiveness of the Ukrainian resistance, and the mounting loss of Russian lives and equipment could give China pause about possible military action against Taiwan. Alternatively, Russian success and the refusal of the United States or NATO to support Ukraine with direct military action could encourage China to attack Taiwan while the world focuses on Europe.

Over the past 10 months, the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute surveyed international relations (IR) experts at U.S. universities and colleges on three occasions about the likelihood of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. This expert crowd predicted Russia’s invasion about a month before it happened, and their views may clarify the consequences of the war in Ukraine for potential Chinese military action in Taiwan.

Across all three surveys, the same IR scholars reported that a Chinese attack on Taiwan is far less likely than a Russian attack on Ukraine was. In the survey that ended on Jan. 31, more than 56 percent of experts said they thought Russia would invade Ukraine in the next year. But no more than 11 percent of respondents in any of the three surveys said they thought China would attack Taiwan in the next year. The results reported below are based on answers from 812 respondents surveyed between April 28, 2021, and May 3, 2021; 760 respondents surveyed between Dec. 16, 2021, and Jan. 31; and 866 respondents surveyed between March 10 and 14. (Complete results can be found here.)

The IR experts’ views also provide some policy advice for the Biden administration in the event that China attacks Taiwan. Although an invasion of Taiwan is unlikely—or perhaps because it is unlikely—the experts believe it is important that the United States respond forcefully to such an attack, and notably more forcefully than they said the United States should respond to a potential Russian attack on Ukraine.


Will China attack Taiwan?

When asked if China would use military force against Taiwan or Taiwanese forces in the next year, the experts’ predictions were remarkably stable. Across the three surveys, the percentage of respondents who said that China would attack Taiwan fluctuated between 6 percent and nearly 11 percent; 69 to 71 percent of respondents said China would not use military force. This assessment is not merely a matter of assuming peace because war is a relatively rare event: This same group forecasted a Russian attack on Ukraine in January by a 3-to-1 margin.

In our most recent survey in March, IR experts with specialized knowledge of East Asia and China assessed an even lower probability of a Chinese attack on Taiwan (4 percent), compared to those who do not focus their research and teaching on East Asia (8 percent). (For a breakdown of our results by regional area of expertise, issue area, and other variables, see the crosstabs here.)

Furthermore, the Russian invasion of Ukraine appeared to have little effect on expert predictions of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Comparing identical questions in the most recent two surveys, taken six weeks apart, the percentage of respondents who said a Chinese attack on Taiwan was likely in the next year declined slightly from an already low level of 11 percent to only 7 percent—not a statistically significant change.

To get a more specific estimate of the effect of the war in Ukraine on the likelihood of a Chinese attack, in the March survey we asked a more explicit question and conducted an individual-level analysis to see if respondents had shifted their views. The new question asked: “Relative to one month ago, is China more or less likely to use military force against Taiwan or Taiwanese military forces in the next year?” The experts reported that the likelihood that China will attack Taiwan has actually declined since hostilities began in Ukraine, if it has changed at all.

 Almost half of the surveyed experts judged that China was no more or less likely to use force against Taiwan or Taiwanese military forces than it was prior to the Russian invasion. But a little over one-third of respondents thought China was less likely to use force, and fewer than 20 percent said that war was more likely. These results provide greater confidence in the experts’ collective wisdom that events in Ukraine have not emboldened China; broadly, they report that China is moderately less likely to use force now than it was before the conflict began.

The individual-level analysis reinforces these findings. Nearly 42 percent of respondents to the January poll who predicted that China would use military force against Taiwan changed their minds, indicating that China would not use force when they responded to the same question in March. Meanwhile, only 3 percent of respondents who said in January that China would not use force reported in March that they believed China would attack Taiwan.


Could the conflict in Ukraine affect China’s calculus in Taiwan?

Next, we used an open-ended question to help understand the factors driving the experts’ lower threat assessment since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The small group of respondents (fewer than 20 percent) who said the probability of a Chinese attack has increased provided several rationales. “The diversion of global attention to Eastern Europe furnishes [China with] an opportunity to make a move [in Taiwan],” one respondent wrote. “The US government looks weak by not having prevented the Ukraine invasion in the first place through diplomatic initiatives,” another wrote. These arguments suggest a Chinese attack on Taiwan is more likely because of U.S. choices or capacity after Russia’s invasion, but such experts are in the minority.

The respondents who said the prospect of a Chinese attack has declined since the conflict began in Ukraine (34 percent) focused on the Russian economy—the most common response to our open-ended question. “Even if they hold Ukraine, it is a pyrrhic victory, with extensive harm to future investment and trade,” one respondent wrote. Other experts focused on the military lessons: “Seeing Russia struggle so much with an invasion of a country it shares extensive land borders with … China must be more hesitant about having to mount an attack across the straits and with military forces far less well prepared for such an undertaking.”

As one respondent summed up the reason the conflict in Ukraine has reduced the prospect of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan: “The combination of moral, economic, and military reaction against Russia has given China a real-world example of what the world’s reaction to an attack on Taiwan might bring.”

Finally, the largest group of experts (over 46 percent) reported that the events in Ukraine will have no effect on China’s calculus. These experts highlighted the fact that either the situation in Taiwan remains the same now as before the Ukraine invasion or that China and Taiwan are fundamentally different from Russia and Ukraine. “China is not as belligerent as many think. China knows that economic power is more effective than military power,” one of these respondents argued. “[T]he situations are just not all that comparable in that the deterrent commitment is much higher in Taiwan than it was in Ukraine and … [Russia’s Vladimir] Putin is more aggressive/power-hungry & risk-acceptant than Xi,” another wrote.


If China attacks Taiwan, how should the United States respond?

In all three surveys, the experts were asked about how the United States should respond if China attacked Taiwan. The results reveal two major patterns: remarkable stability over time in the order of respondents’ preferences for policy tools and a preference for increasingly assertive policies in East Asia after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

IR experts favor a range of policy responses to a hypothetical Chinese attack on Taiwan. Sanctions top the list, with 87 to 94 percent of respondents supporting this option across the three surveys. Support for sending additional arms and military supplies to Taiwan is also high; 70 to 83 percent of experts favor this option. Support for deploying U.S. military forces to the region in the event of Chinese military action is also strong, ranging from 63 to 72 percent. IR scholars do not recommend initiating direct military operations against Chinese forces; support for this policy response ranged from only 8 to 18 percent across the three surveys.

At the same time, the percentage of respondents supporting the idea of the United States deploying more military forces to the region, sending more arms to Taiwan, initiating cyberattacks against the Chinese military, and especially directly engaging in military action against China all increased substantially across the three surveys. The increases were particularly large between the second survey that closed in January and the final survey in March, suggesting that the invasion of Ukraine may have influenced respondents’ views.

What Chinese officials are thinking about possible military action against Taiwan remains unknown, but the IR experts are clear: They think an attack on Taiwan is far less likely to occur than the Russian attack on Ukraine, and the conflict in Europe has had only a modest effect on the likelihood of an attack on Taiwan. If anything, they say Putin’s actions in Ukraine have made it slightly less likely that China will launch military action against Taiwan.

What has changed is expert thinking on how the United States should respond if China does attack Taiwan, which differs noticeably from the same experts’ advice on how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Only 2 percent of respondents supported direct military action against Russia compared to 18 percent in a hypothetical Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In the Taiwan case, IR experts are less restrained relative to their preferred policies in Ukraine and to their prior stances before the invasion. 

Irene Entringer Garcia Blanes is a project manager for the Teaching, Research, and International Policy project at William & Mary. Twitter: @EntringerIrene

Maggie Manson is a senior research assistant at the Teaching, Research and International Policy Project, as well as a senior at William & Mary. They are an incoming master’s student at the University of Edinburgh program of international relations of the Middle East. Twitter: @Maggie_LManson

Susan Peterson is the Wendy and Emery Reves professor of government and international relations and the chair of the Department of Government at William & Mary.

Michael J. Tierney is the George and Mary Hylton professor of international relations and director of the Global Research Institute at William & Mary. Twitter: @MikeTierneyIR

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