Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened the possibility that Chinese President Xi Jinping might take a similar action toward Taiwan. Xi has made no secret of his ambition to annex the island, and may be emboldened to act sooner rather than later absent a strong international response to Putin’s aggression.
Recent polling from TIPP provides insights into Americans’ views on a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which are remarkably consistent across the political spectrum in our supposedly-polarized nation. Not surprisingly, most Americans are not interested in getting into a war in Asia; in no group surveyed does support for direct military support for Taiwan top 20%. But there is even less appetite to do nothing, as in no group surveyed does allowing China to take Taiwan top 10%.
The majority of respondents favor economic sanctions – or a combination of military support and economic sanctions – as the appropriate response to an attack on Taiwan. America’s unparalleled economic strength appears to be the tool of choice, and might be the one that gives Xi the most pause if he understands just how damaging it can be.
What has happened to Russia in the weeks following the invasion of Ukraine is a case in point. Following the U.S. sanctions on the Central Bank of Russia, there was an unprecedented private sector exodus from the country as companies from McDonalds to Shell pulled out as the ruble cratered.
President Biden said when the sanctions were first levied that it would to take a month to see if they had real bite. Unfortunately, a month is now up and the results are at best mixed. While Russia’s energy production has declined and a potential debt default looms, it is still finding buyers for oil and gas, and the ruble has rebounded.
If Washington truly wants to force a change in Moscow’s belligerent behavior, more robust actions will be needed in short order—first and foremost the sweeping energy-sector sanctions that President Biden has been hesitant to implement. Facing sharply spiking gas prices at home, he is clearly concerned that these sanctions could drive prices higher, even though they are probably the strongest tool in his economic arsenal.
The current stalemate absent these measures is unfortunate, first and foremost for the suffering people of Ukraine. But it also sends a counterproductive message to Xi that the Biden administration is not willing to vigorously deploy America’s economic might to protect a threatened ally because of domestic political concerns, thereby weakening the deterrent effect their threat may have.
Decoupling the world’s two largest economies seemed unthinkable before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent shunning of Russia, but now those difficult discussions have begun. The widely-discussed SWIFT sanctions to cut China off from the international banking system would only be the beginning of it, and while China claims it can sustain itself through Yuan-based transactions there is little evidence that the rest of the world is ready to reject the dollar.
That is not to say that the United States would not share in the economic pain from such a separation, but interestingly the TIPP polling indicates substantial majorities of Americans understand this price and are willing to bear it to defend Taiwan. Once again, there is little deviation from this position across the political spectrum, with 68% (Republicans) to 75% (Democrats) responding favorably.
Americans appear to understand the seriousness of the threat from China, and are willing to contemplate strong action to counter it and are willing to pay the price. As I have noted in previous analysis of TIPP polling on Afghanistan, President Biden appears to have misread the desire of the American people to conclude the war in Afghanistan as a mandate to withdraw as quickly as possible and do so at any cost. Given the clear bipartisan support for a strong response to Chinese aggression revealed by the TIPP polling, he should not make the same mistake on Taiwan. A reluctance to engage militarily is not an indication of general apathy.
Victoria Coates is a Distinguished Fellow in Strategic Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. In the Trump administration, she served as Deputy National Security Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of Energy.