Bonny Lin, Brian Hart, Chen Ming-Chi, Shen Ming-Shih, Samantha Lu. Truly Tinsley, and Yu-Jie (Grace) Liao
January 22, 2024
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The year 2024 will be crucial for Taiwan, cross-strait relations, and U.S.-Taiwan relations. On January 13, 2024, Taiwan elected its current vice president William Lai to be its next president. When he is inaugurated in May, he will usher in an unprecedented third consecutive term of Democratic Progress Party (DPP) rule. Beijing is opposed to the DPP and the current Tsai Ing-wen administration. China has spent the last eight years refusing to engage with the Tsai administration, and it has sought to isolate and punish the DPP-led government at every opportunity. Beijing is even more concerned about William Lai, viewing him as a more ardent supporter of independence than Tsai Ing-wen. His election—and how Beijing responds—will have immense implications for the future of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.
The Taiwan elections took place against the backdrop of mounting cross-strait tensions. In the wake of then U.S. speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, China provoked the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis when it held unprecedented military exercises around Taiwan and canceled or suspended eight key avenues of U.S.-China dialogue. Beijing again escalated against Taiwan in April 2023 with major military exercises and significant diplomatic measures after president Tsai Ing-wen transited through the United States and met with then U.S. speaker of the house Kevin McCarthy.
To learn more about the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, explore our series comprising five ChinaPower feature reports.
Taiwan has been at the epicenter of worsening U.S.-China tensions. Chinese president Xi Jinping and other senior People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials have repeatedly stated that “the Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s core interests” and have urged Washington to “honor its commitment of not supporting ‘Taiwan independence,’ stop arming Taiwan, and support China’s peaceful unification.”
Around mid-2023, Beijing and Washington began taking steps to stabilize the relationship. Several meetings between senior U.S. and Chinese officials culminated in a summit between U.S. president Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi in San Francisco in November 2023, where both countries agreed on measures to restart areas of cooperation and dialogue.
The stabilizing effects of these efforts are fragile. Beijing’s response to the January 2024 Taiwan elections—and the course of the U.S. elections in November 2024—threaten to spark a new downward spiral.
As the world looks to 2024 and beyond, there are critical questions about what kind of actions China might take to coerce Taiwan or force unification. Might China quarantine or blockade Taiwan, or would Beijing invade? Under what conditions would Beijing take various actions, and how capable is China? What approach should Taiwan, the United States, and its allies pursue? How do certain geopolitical developments change Beijing’s calculus?
To make sense of these questions and better understand key trends in China’s approach to Taiwan, the CSIS China Power Project conducted a survey of 52 leading U.S. experts and 35 leading experts from Taiwan from November 28, 2023, to December 15, 2023. All U.S. participants either have substantial experience serving in the U.S. government or are experts from academia or think tanks who have testified before the U.S. Congress. In selecting Taiwan participants, the CSIS China Power Project partnered with the Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), a think tank in Taiwan, to identify and invite leading Taiwan scholars. Respondents covered the political spectrum, with major U.S. and Taiwan political parties represented. For a list of respondents, jump to the bottom of the page or see Appendix A.
The survey is divided into four key areas: (1) China’s capabilities, (2) key factors shaping China’s use of force, (3) U.S. and allied approaches, and (4) implications of geopolitical developments. For the full text of the survey, see Appendix B.
The results of this survey provide valuable insights into areas of convergence and divergence in how U.S. and Taiwan experts evaluate China’s approach to Taiwan. Key takeaways are summarized below.
Quarantine or Blockade More Likely than Invasion in the Next Five Years
- Most U.S. and Taiwan experts agreed that China currently has the capabilities to execute a law enforcement-led quarantine and a People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-led blockade of Taiwan. However, most did not think China could effectively execute an invasion.
- Nearly half of the experts from Taiwan believed a quarantine is a flexible option (i.e., Beijing could quarantine Taiwan to increase significant pressure on the island and to prepare for an imminent blockade or invasion). In contrast, most U.S. experts believed Beijing would only execute a quarantine if it wanted to increase pressure on the island but did not want a kinetic conflict.
- Most respondents believed a blockade alone would not be sufficient to force Taiwan’s unification. A third of the experts from Taiwan worried a blockade would likely escalate into an invasion.
- Surveyed experts believed that in the next five years, if China seeks to coerce Taiwan, Beijing’s most likely course of action would be a law enforcement-led quarantine of Taiwan.
- If China’s goal is to force immediate unification in the next five years, a PLA-led highly kinetic joint blockade was deemed the most likely scenario, with 80 percent of experts assessing it to be likely.
- Most U.S. and Taiwan experts did not believe Taiwan could resist a PRC blockade for more than three months if there is no or very limited U.S. intervention.
- Only 13 percent of U.S. experts and 6 percent of Taiwan experts believed China’s 2027 military modernization goals would impact Beijing’s decision to quarantine, blockade, or invade Taiwan.
Lower Overall Taiwan Threat Perceptions of China
- Compared to U.S. experts, Taiwan experts viewed China as less militarily capable of executing a quarantine, blockade, or invasion of Taiwan.
- Whereas 71 percent of U.S. experts believed China would be willing to sustain a high-intensity conflict for at least one year, only 51 percent of surveyed experts from Taiwan believed China could sustain such kinetic operations for more than one year.
- About 44 percent of U.S. experts believed China would be willing to detonate nuclear weapons against U.S. or coalition forces in a Taiwan conflict; only 11 percent of Taiwan experts thought the same.
Lower Taiwan Confidence in Support from the United States or U.S. Allies and Partners
- Virtually all U.S. experts were completely confident or moderately confident the United States would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan from a PLA invasion. Both U.S. and Taiwan experts were confident of U.S. intervention at the high end of conflict (e.g., a blockade or invasion) but were not as confident of U.S. intervention in the event of a quarantine.
- Compared to U.S. experts, Taiwan experts were less confident in U.S. intervention and had even lower confidence that U.S. allies and partners would defend Taiwan. A slim majority of Taiwan experts were confident U.S. allies and partners would intervene militarily in only two out of seven scenarios: if China invaded or if China blockaded Taiwan after a failed invasion.
Dynamics after Taiwan Elections
- Most respondents did not believe recent efforts to manage U.S.-China tensions have changed the likelihood of a Taiwan Strait crisis. About 67 percent of U.S. experts and 57 percent of Taiwan experts believed a Taiwan Strait crisis is likely in 2024.
- If Chinese leaders perceive the Taiwan presidential election results to be unfavorable, only about 40 percent of experts believed Beijing would wait to act based on the new president’s policies. Over 50 percent of U.S. and Taiwan experts believed China would not wait, but they disagreed over whether China’s most escalatory actions would come before or after the president’s inauguration in May 2024.
- Nearly half of the experts from Taiwan believed if Beijing views the election results as unfavorable, the most escalatory option China would take against Taiwan before the end of 2024 would be coercive nonmilitary action. In contrast, most U.S. experts worried about the potential of a large-scale military exercise encircling Taiwan, but few thought China would quarantine, blockade, or invade the island.
- Over 80 percent of U.S. and Taiwan experts believed that if Beijing perceives the Taiwan election results as favorable to China, Beijing would seek to improve cross-strait ties. More Taiwan experts assessed that Beijing would shift its approach unilaterally, whereas more U.S. experts believed Beijing would act only after the new Taiwan leader showcases goodwill toward Beijing.
- Most U.S. and Taiwan experts believed a prolonged PRC economic downturn would either decrease or not change the likelihood of PRC use of force against Taiwan.
Beijing’s approach to Taiwan will be driven, above all else, by political and strategic factors, but Chinese decisionmakers will have to take into consideration the capabilities at their disposal.
Assessing China’s Capabilities
This survey began by asking experts to evaluate China’s current ability to effectively execute three different courses of action against Taiwan: a law enforcement-led quarantine, a PLA-led blockade, and an amphibious invasion. To see how the survey defined these terms, reference the survey at the top of the page.
Experts’ assessments of China’s capabilities were inversely correlated with the level of forces needed to execute a course of action. About 90 percent of U.S. experts and 62 percent of Taiwan experts strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that China currently possesses the capabilities to execute a law enforcement-led quarantine that would substantially reduce trade into Taiwan. Asked about China’s current capabilities to execute a PLA-led blockade of Taiwan, still 80 percent of U.S. experts and 60 percent of Taiwan experts agreed that China possesses sufficient capabilities (Figure 1).
Confidence in China’s ability to execute an amphibious invasion was much lower. Only 27 percent of U.S. experts polled agreed that China could execute an amphibious invasion given its current capabilities, and just 17 percent of Taiwan respondents believed the same.
There are two immediate explanations for lower confidence in China’s ability to invade Taiwan. An amphibious invasion would require a much larger commitment of military forces than a quarantine or blockade, and the operations involved would be significantly more complicated. Second, respondents may be factoring in the likelihood of military intervention by the United States and its allies. As Figure 10 shows, experts were more confident that Washington would intervene militarily at higher levels of conflict, such as an invasion, compared to lower end scenarios like a quarantine.
Across all three scenarios, experts from Taiwan were notably more conservative in their assessments of China’s current capabilities. For example, no U.S. experts strongly disagreed that China already has the capabilities to carry out an effective blockade, whereas 14 percent of Taiwan experts did. Taiwan experts were also more skeptical of China’s abilities for an invasion with none of them confident that China could execute this given its current capabilities.
The Efficacy of a Blockade
While most U.S. and Taiwan experts agreed that China currently has the capability to execute a blockade, a majority did not believe a blockade alone could achieve Taiwan’s forceful unification. About 60 percent of U.S. experts and 69 percent of Taiwan experts said a blockade alone could not achieve unification—either because a blockade would likely escalate to an invasion or because forcing Taipei’s capitulation would require an invasion (Figure 2).1
A sizable minority was more confident in a blockade’s ability to force unification. Approximately one- third of U.S. and Taiwan experts believed that a blockade could “potentially” achieve unification, but they qualified this assessment by adding that China would need “sufficient capabilities to credibly threaten an invasion if it were to launch an invasion.” Only three U.S. respondents—and zero Taiwan respondents—believed that a blockade and maximum pressure campaign alone could force Taiwan’s unification with the mainland.
Significance of Xi’s 2027 Modernization Deadline
Finally, while China’s capabilities are a crucial factor, respondents ultimately believed that capabilities would not be the determining factor in Beijing’s approach if it decides to take major coercive actions against Taiwan.
China is undertaking sweeping efforts to modernize the PLA, and as new capabilities come online, Beijing will have more of these at its disposal. The U.S. intelligence community has revealed that President Xi has instructed the PLA to be ready to conduct an invasion of Taiwan by 2027. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has provided similar but less concrete assessments that Xi has instructed the PLA to realize military modernization goals by 2027, which “could give the PLA capabilities to be a more credible military tool for the [Chinese Communist Party’s] Taiwan unification efforts.”2
The U.S. and Taiwan experts surveyed overwhelmingly assessed that Xi’s 2027 military modernization deadline does not have an impact on Beijing’s choice of whether to quarantine, blockade, or invade Taiwan. Only 13 percent of U.S. experts and 6 percent of Taiwan experts believed that the 2027 timeline matters with respect to how China might choose to use force against Taiwan (i.e., that China would choose to quarantine or blockade Taiwan but not invade the island before 2027 because it lacks the capabilities to invade) (Figure 3).
A majority of respondents said, regardless of timing, China would equally consider whether to quarantine, blockade, or invade Taiwan. The remaining respondents believed that Beijing would either choose to quarantine, blockade, or invade Taiwan because that course of action would best achieve Chinese leaders’ objectives.
U.S. and Taiwan responses to this question were very similar. This suggests that China would tailor its actions based on its goals, such as whether it simply intends to punish Taiwan or whether it intends to force unification. Respondents may also have taken into account the fact that the actions Taiwan takes may constrain Beijing’s responses. A separate survey conducted by the China Power Project in 2022 found that 77 percent of the U.S. experts polled believed that China would immediately move to invade Taiwan if it formally announced independence.
Factors Affecting Beijing’s Use of Force
Besides China’s capabilities, several factors impact Beijing’s decisionmaking on using force against Taiwan. These factors include Beijing’s overall objectives, its willingness to escalate to certain levels, and its determination to sustain operations for an extended period of time. Taipei also has agency, so the survey sought to assess Taiwan’s will and ability to resist Chinese measures.
Beijing’s Varying Strategic Objectives
First, political and strategic objectives will largely determine Beijing’s course of action. The survey began with two sets of questions asking experts to assess the likelihood of China taking various actions over the next five years. The first set asked about the likelihood of different scenarios if Beijing’s goal is to punish and coerce Taiwan but not immediately force unification.
Both U.S. and Taiwan experts agreed that a quarantine would be the likeliest action if Beijing’s goal is to punish and coerce, but there are important differences in their views. U.S. experts tended to think a quarantine of Taiwan’s outlying islands (such as Kinmen and Matsu) would be the likeliest scenario, with 65 percent saying so. About 66 percent of Taiwan experts also said that a quarantine of outlying islands would be likely; however, 71 percent believed a quarantine of the main island of Taiwan would be likely. In other words, Taiwan respondents thought a quarantine of the main island of Taiwan would be likelier, whereas U.S. respondents believed a quarantine of outlying islands would be slightly more likely. In fact, a slim majority of U.S experts did not think a quarantine of the main island of Taiwan would be likely under these conditions (Figure 4).
More broadly, there were notable differences between U.S. and Taiwan views on this question. Among almost all the scenarios listed, experts from Taiwan assessed that an action would be more likely. This is most noticeable in the assessments of the likelihood of blockades. Over 51 percent of Taiwan experts said a distant blockade would be likely or very likely, while only 23 percent of U.S. experts thought the same. The difference was even more stark for highly kinetic blockades: the share of respondents who said a highly kinetic blockade would be likely was three times higher for Taiwan experts than for U.S. experts.3 Taiwan experts also more readily saw an invasion as likely; however, the vast majority still did not see an invasion as likely if China merely intended to punish or coerce Taiwan.
There was one exception to this trend. A larger share of U.S. experts thought that forceful seizure of a Taiwan offshore island would be likely. This may be because more Taiwan experts simply did not think this was a likely course of action in general. Some experts have argued, for example, that a forceful island seizure may be a mistake because it could strengthen the determination of Taiwan’s people and expose Beijing’s ambitions to the world without achieving desired political or strategic gains.
The survey next asked experts to assess the likelihood of these same scenarios if Beijing’s goal is to immediately force Taiwan’s unification. As Beijing’s objectives change, so does the likelihood of various actions.
If Beijing’s objective is to immediately force unification, experts saw a blockade as the most likely scenario. About 80 percent of U.S. and Taiwan experts said a highly kinetic joint blockade would be “very likely” or “likely,” but Taiwan experts were more confident in this assessment. About 54 percent said a highly kinetic blockade would be “very likely,” while only 38 percent of U.S. experts rated this scenario as “very likely” (Figure 5).
A distant joint blockade was the second most likely scenario with 73 percent of U.S. and 77 percent of the experts from Taiwan believing this would be likely or very likely. Among Taiwan experts, the same overall share of respondents (77 percent) said an invasion would be likely or very likely—tying it with the distant blockade. However, more Taiwan experts assessed the distant blockade as being very likely, suggesting more confidence in its likelihood.
Compared to Taiwan experts, a slightly smaller share of U.S. experts assessed an invasion as likely in the next five years. This difference may not have been an assessment of Beijing’s overall willingness to escalate but may instead be because U.S. assessments were colored by the time frame in question. U.S. experts were slightly more likely to believe that China would wait until after 2027 to invade because it will have better capabilities then (Figure 3). Three of the experts who said that China may feel compelled to wait to invade until after 2027 were among those who said that an invasion in the next five years would be unlikely or very unlikely.
It is also worth noting that assessments of the likelihood of various scenarios were not mutually exclusive. For U.S. and Taiwan experts, there was a positive correlation between views on a highly kinetic blockade and an invasion. In other words, experts who saw a highly kinetic blockade as likely also tended to see an invasion as likely.
Over 70 percent of U.S. experts and 65 percent of Taiwan experts saw China’s forceful seizure of one or more outlying islands as likely or highly likely. Such a seizure could be part of a larger PRC blockade or invasion plan, or it could be executed to allow Beijing to demonstrate progress on immediate unification with a part of Taiwan.
Finally, if Beijing’s goal is immediate unification, survey respondents said a quarantine was the least likely scenario. This suggests that experts tended to view a quarantine as a lower-end scenario.
To dig into this question more deeply, the survey asked under what conditions Beijing would be likely to quarantine Taiwan. The U.S. and Taiwan experts’ responses were strikingly different. Over half of U.S. experts (58 percent) believed that if Beijing were to implement a law enforcement-led quarantine of Taiwan, the objective would be to increase significant pressure against Taiwan without escalating tensions to a point of kinetic conflict. Approximately a third of U.S. experts believed that Beijing would undertake a quarantine as a precursor to an imminent blockade or invasion (Figure 6).
Experts from Taiwan held more diverse views. Only 26 percent thought that China would launch a quarantine with the express intention to avoid a more escalatory conflict. They were more willing to see a quarantine as a more flexible option and a precursor to more escalatory PRC military campaigns.
In Their Own Words (Click to expand)
On top of the prescribed options, this question allowed respondents to write in their own responses. Five U.S. experts and one Taiwan expert did so. Their responses are quoted below, with minor edits for style and grammar.
- Taiwan #1: “Testing possible international responses and Taiwan’s social endurance.”
- U.S. #1: “Test Taiwan, the United States, and [allies’] response.”
- U.S. #2: “Beijing intends to prevent U.S. weapons deliveries [that] China considers offensive, with the immediate goal of punishing Taiwan and inducing a return to the status quo.”
- U.S. #3: “A blockade operation is part of a continuum of operations intended to pressure Taiwan’s leadership to capitulate. It should not be considered an independent course of action. The survey is unclear about the permeability of a blockade which may be only partially successful at stopping the flow of commerce, but more effective at increasing the cost of supplying the island.”
- U.S. #4: “If China assesses that they must act strongly before the U.S. can gather its forces, it will try to invade. If this does not matter to them, they will use a quarantine as the first step on an escalation ladder, with the goal of subduing Taiwan without the use of force.”
- U.S. #5: “Increase pressure but do so in a way that provides a justified narrative for the international community (and [generates] less blowback).”
Ability and Willingness to Fight
Another key factor is the willpower and ability of both China and Taiwan to hold out to achieve their objectives under various scenarios. Assessing these dynamics is difficult. As Russia invaded Ukraine, many expected Kyiv to fall quickly in the face of a larger, better-equipped military. Yet Ukraine has held out for nearly two years thanks to international support from the United States and its allies.
If China blockades Taiwan and the United States does not significantly intervene militarily, how long would the island be able to resist Chinese forces and support the needs of its people? U.S. and Taiwan experts’ responses to this question were strikingly similar. The most common answer was that Taiwan would likely be able to hold out for between one and three months. Only 27 percent of U.S. experts and about 29 percent of Taiwan experts believed Taiwan could hold off for a period of more than three months (Figure 7).
While there were significant similarities of opinion among U.S. and Taiwan experts, several variables could substantially alter Taiwan’s timelines. If a PLA blockade of Taiwan is porous, allowing some goods to get onto the island, Taiwan may be able to last for a significantly longer period. Energy and food stockpiles may prove vital since nearly 98 percent of Taiwan’s energy is imported and approximately 65 percent of its food is imported.4
Beijing’s own willpower will also play a crucial role. Experts in our poll anticipated that Beijing would be willing to carry out high-intensity military operations for long periods. Nearly 37 percent of U.S. experts said China would be willing to carry out high-intensity operations indefinitely, and another 35 percent believed China could sustain operations for over a year but not indefinitely (Figure 8).
Experts from Taiwan were more conservative. Only 9 percent believed China would carry out operations indefinitely, and about 26 percent believed China could stay in a high-intensity fight for only up to three months. Still, a plurality (43 percent) believed China could continue high-tempo operations for at least a year, though not indefinitely.
How far exactly would Beijing be willing to go in a conflict? If the United States intervenes militarily to defend Taiwan and China finds itself in a protracted war and feels threatened, would Beijing be willing to use (i.e., detonate) nuclear weapons against U.S. and coalition forces?
U.S. and Taiwan views on this issue are significantly different—more so than on any other question in the poll. A slight majority of U.S. respondents (56 percent) believed China would not use nuclear weapons, whereas about 89 percent of Taiwan respondents believed China would not resort to using nuclear weapons against enemy forces (Figure 9).
This issue is of critical importance to regional and global security. In recent years, China has embarked on an effort to rapidly and significantly build up its arsenal of nuclear weapons. The DOD assesses that China could field over 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030, rapidly closing the gap with the United States. China is also fielding new and diverse launch and delivery systems, many of which are capable of ranging the continental United States. So far, Beijing has not acknowledged its nuclear buildup and has not announced any changes to its nuclear doctrine. This lack of transparency has made it very difficult to assess the drivers of China’s buildup and what Beijing aims to achieve.
U.S. and Allied Approaches
Given the potentially dire stakes of a conflict over Taiwan, what do experts believe the United States will do in response to Chinese actions? Will U.S. allies and partners intervene militarily to help defend Taiwan? How should the United States balance threats and assurances as it tries to deter Chinese aggression? Interestingly, U.S. and Taiwan experts largely saw eye to eye on these questions.
Confidence in U.S. Intervention
An overwhelming 96 percent of U.S. experts were completely or moderately confident that if China invades Taiwan in the next five years, the U.S. military would intervene to defend Taiwan. Of these, 46 percent were completely confident of U.S. intervention in this scenario. U.S. experts were also highly confident Washington would intervene to defend against various forms of a blockade. However, few experts believed Washington would involve itself to resist a Chinese quarantine or seizure of an outlying island (Figure 10).
Taiwan experts were less confident than U.S. experts about U.S. intervention. The starkest difference was in expectations of an intervention against a quarantine of Taiwan. Whereas 63 percent of U.S. experts expressed some confidence that Washington would step in to push back against a civilian-led quarantine, only 40 percent of Taiwan experts shared such confidence.
Lower levels of confidence in the United States likely stem from a combination of factors. First, U.S. support for Taiwan is conditional. The goal of U.S. policy toward Taiwan has long been to avoid moves by either side of the Taiwan Strait to unilaterally shift the status quo. Moves by Taipei to unilaterally change the status quo would not be welcome in Washington, and if Taiwan’s actions precipitate a conflict, the United States may be disinclined to intervene. Taiwan experts were aware of such conditionality, and it may have weighed more heavily on their thinking compared to U.S. experts.
Second, in recent years, China has been stepping up efforts to spread misinformation and disinformation within Taiwan about U.S. willingness to come to Taiwan’s aid. These efforts are aimed at causing the Taiwan public to lose hope and feel that unification is their only option.
It is worth noting that Beijing has little doubt that Washington would defend Taiwan. In the 2022 China Power Project poll of U.S. experts, 100 percent of the U.S. expert respondents said Beijing assumes the U.S. military would deploy forces to defend Taiwan.
Confidence in Intervention by U.S. Allies and Partners
U.S. and Taiwan experts did not share the same level of confidence in U.S. allies and partners to intervene militarily to defend Taiwan—even if they are led by the U.S. military. Of the seven scenarios surveyed, there were only two of these in which a majority of both U.S. and Taiwan experts were completely or moderately confident in military intervention from allies and partners. These were an invasion and a post-failed invasion blockade. Notably, confidence in intervention against the post-failed invasion blockade may benefit from the fact that if an ally already intervened to defend against an invasion, it will continue to help defend against a post-invasion blockade.
On these scenarios, there were no major differences in U.S. and Taiwan experts’ responses. The greatest discrepancy pertains to a quarantine of the main island of Taiwan. While 29 percent of U.S. experts were completely confident or moderately confident that partners and allies would join U.S.- led multinational military efforts to defend Taiwan against a quarantine, only 15 percent of Taiwan experts thought the same. In fact, 40 percent of Taiwan experts were not at all confident (Figure 11).
Overall, respondents had more confidence that allies and partners would intervene in more high- end conflicts. This may be because large-scale conflicts are more likely to experience horizontal escalation, which embroils countries within the region in the fighting. This is most true for Japan, a key U.S. treaty ally that is geographically close to Taiwan and home to several key U.S. military installations in the region.
Given these assessments of Beijing’s thinking and the likelihood of various scenarios, how should the United States deter Chinese aggression? Political science literature typically emphasizes that deterrence requires a combination of credible threats and credible assurances. As U.S.-China tensions have heated up, debates have emerged over how best to adequately threaten and assure Beijing.
So, what mix of U.S. threats and assurances is most appropriate for deterring Beijing from use of force against Taiwan? While there may be differences in how U.S. and Taiwan experts would make specific policy choices, the results of this poll showed that their views on this question were very closely aligned. The majority of both groups thought a combination of 75 percent threats and 25 percent assurances was the best balance (Figure 12).
About 29 percent of U.S. experts and 20 percent of Taiwan experts said a 50–50 balance is most appropriate, and about 11–12 percent of experts thought the U.S. approach should lean heavily toward threats over assurances in a ratio of 95–5 percent. The remaining small share of respondents leaned toward more assurances than threats. Thus, there was a general consensus that the right balance consisted of more threats than assurances, but there was not an agreement on exactly what that balance looked like.
Implications of Geopolitical Developments
The final portion of this survey asked questions about key geopolitical developments and their implications for Taiwan, cross-strait dynamics, and U.S.-China relations.
The 2024 Taiwan Presidential Election
The most significant issue in question is the Taiwan presidential election of January 2024. On January 13, Taiwan elected DPP candidate William Lai as its next president. Lai won with just over 40 percent of the vote—a far weaker win than current president Tsai Ing-wen, who attracted over 56 percent of the popular vote in both of her elections. Hou Yu-ih, of the once-dominant Kuomintang (KMT) party, received only 33.5 percent of the votes. The Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je took the remaining 26.5 percent of the vote in the strongest performance of a third-party candidate in over two decades.
Crucially, the DPP lost its majority in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, and no party received enough seats in the legislature to lead it outright. This will prove a major obstacle for Lai and could force him to compromise in his pursuit of a DPP agenda. It will also leave the TPP and its leader Ko Wen-je with a strong hand to shape a multi-party coalition in the new legislature.
Beijing has long made it known that it does not want to see another DPP president. When Tsai Ing-wen won the presidency in 2016, China responded by cutting off many areas of cross-strait engagement and significantly ramping up pressure on Taiwan through all means possible.
China has already responded to Lai’s election by poaching one of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies—Nauru—and it has lodged diplomatic complaints against the United States and several of its allies and partners for congratulating the new president-elect. Will Beijing escalate further than this? How and when might it respond?
To cast light on these questions, the survey asked experts to anticipate the most escalatory action Beijing would take if it perceived the results of the election not to be in its interest. Respondents were primarily split between two options. About 60 percent of U.S. respondents assessed that China would be willing to escalate and stage large-scale PLA exercises that cause temporary blockade-like effects against Taiwan—such as the exercises held in August 2022 and April 2023. Most of the remaining U.S. respondents said Beijing would only be willing to take highly coercive nonmilitary measures against Taiwan. A handful of U.S. respondents thought Beijing would be willing to escalate beyond military exercises to a quarantine, blockade, or invasion (Figure 13).
Taiwan respondents similarly coalesced around the two actions at the low end of the escalatory ladder but placed more emphasis on PRC nonmilitary coercion. Nearly 49 percent thought China would not escalate beyond nonmilitary means. Another 43 percent assessed that China could stage PLA exercises, and the remaining 9 percent viewed China as willing to execute a civilian-led quarantine of Taiwan.
Views were also divided in terms of when Beijing would engage in the most escalatory response to a candidate it deems unfavorable. A significant minority of U.S. and Taiwan experts (42 percent and 43 percent, respectively) agreed that China will wait to see if the new president implements significant policy changes before taking action. If Beijing does take such a wait-and-see approach, it could suggest a reassessment of the existing policies, but it will require time to determine whether Beijing makes a lasting, substantive shift (Figure 14).
A slight majority of participants, however, believed China would not wait to see what policies the new president announces. Within this grouping, a bigger slice of the Taiwan participants anticipated China would engage in the most escalatory response between the election and inauguration (January 13–May 20, 2024), whereas U.S. experts anticipated the most escalatory response after the inauguration (on May 20, 2024). Only a small handful of experts believed China would escalate dramatically before the election.
Overall, experts were nearly unanimous that Beijing would respond in some significant way. Only 6 percent of U.S. and Taiwan experts believed China would take no major action.
When asked how Beijing would respond to the Taiwan presidential election if its preferred candidate won, U.S. and Taiwan experts overwhelmingly assessed that Beijing would seek to improve cross-strait ties. Only about 15 percent of U.S. experts and 17 percent of Taiwan experts believed China would maintain its existing coercive approach or increase coercion against China (Figure 15).
There was no consensus, however, on exactly how Beijing would alter its approach. About 46 percent of the experts from Taiwan assessed that Beijing would shift its approach unilaterally—whether offering carrots or reducing coercive measures—whereas 46 percent of U.S. experts believed that Beijing would act only after the new Taiwan leader showcased goodwill toward Beijing.
Likelihood of a 2024 Taiwan Strait Crisis
Given the nature of the Taiwan election and Beijing’s growing willingness to use its military to press its interests, the survey asked about the possibility of a Taiwan Strait crisis in 2024. Such a crisis was defined as “a situation similar to the 1995/1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis where there is a significant increase in cross-strait tensions that is accompanied by at least a major PLA exercise aimed at coercing Taiwan and renewed Chinese threats to use force against the island.”
The survey showed a majority of both U.S. and Taiwan experts assessed that a crisis is either likely or very likely. Taiwan experts appeared to assess a crisis as slightly less likely than U.S. experts did, but the difference was not significant (Figure 16).
The experts’ pessimism is likely driven by a combination of factors, including assessments of potential negative PRC responses to Taiwan’s presidential elections as well as the overall state of U.S.-China relations. Despite notable efforts by Washington and Beijing to stabilize relations, the bilateral relationship remains fundamentally focused on competition.
The November 2023 summit between President Biden and President Xi did not change this. About 75 percent of U.S. experts and 66 percent of Taiwan experts said that the Biden-Xi meeting did not stabilize relations such that it significantly reduced the potential of a Taiwan Strait crisis (Figure 17).
Implications of a Chinese Economic Slowdown
The final question of the survey sought to gauge experts’ views on a perennial question: if the Chinese economy suffers a sharp, prolonged downturn, how does this impact the likelihood of China using force against Taiwan? Versions of this question typically stem from theories related to “diversionary wars,” or wars launched to distract domestic populations from other mounting issues at home.
These questions have re-emerged amid signs that China’s economy is struggling. Years of self- imposed Covid-19 shutdowns, coupled with a flagging real estate sector, have left Beijing grappling with sluggish growth, high youth unemployment, and a slate of other issues. There are long-held debates about whether these issues are cyclical or structural and how long China may suffer from this current bout of malaise.
If Beijing faces a prolonged and sharp slowdown, would it consider launching some kind of military action against Taiwan to distract from its economic woes at home? Less than a third of Taiwan experts and only 21 percent of U.S. experts thought a slowdown would increase the likelihood of any use of force, including a quarantine, blockade, and invasion. Most survey respondents rejected the logic of a diversionary crisis or war against Taiwan.
In fact, about 29 percent of U.S. respondents and 34 percent of Taiwan respondents believed a slowdown would decrease the likelihood of China using force. This may stem from the belief that a sluggish economy reduces the resources available to commit to a conflict over Taiwan, and it may leave China more exposed to economic reverberations and punitive sanctions in the wake of an attack on Taiwan.
Overall, most experts from Taiwan believed that the state of China’s economy impacted Beijing’s calculus regarding use of force against Taiwan, but they were divided on what that impact would be. In contrast, half of U.S. experts did not believe a prolonged Chinese economic downturn would have a major impact on whether China uses force against Taiwan.
A total of 52 U.S. and 35 Taiwan respondents participated in this survey. The individuals listed below gave permission to publicly acknowledge their participation. An additional five U.S. respondents and 13 Taiwan respondents participated but did not wish for their names to be publicly listed.
U.S. respondents: Jeff Benson, Jude Blanchette, Dennis J. Blasko, Joseph Bosco, Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Matthew Cancian, Elbridge Colby, Zack Cooper, Anders Corr, John Culver, Brian Davis, Gerard DiPippo, John Dotson, Lukas Filler, Dave Finkelstein, Taylor Fravel, Bates Gill, Wallace Gregson, Derek Grossman, Kristen Gunness, Paul Heer, Eric Heginbotham, Lonnie Henley, Russell Hsiao, Michael A. Hunzeker, Christopher Johnstone, Shirley Kan, Ivan Kanapathy, Isaac Kardon, Jennifer Kavanagh, David Keegan, William Klein, Heino Klinck, Bonny Lin, Roderick Lee, Oriana Skylar Mastro, Matthew McInnis, Douglas Paal, Gregory Poling, Daniel Russel, Scott Savitz, Thomas Shugart, Robert Sutter, Kharis Templeman, Drew Thompson, Dennis C. Wilder, Joel Wuthnow
Taiwan respondents: Vincent Chao, Chen Ping-Kuei, Peter Chen, Alex (Yu-Cheng) Chen, Arthur Ding, Norah M. Huang, Lee Jyun-yi, Lee Che-chuan, Lee Hsi-Min, Lin Pao-Wen, Lin Tai-Ho, Lin Wen- Cheng, Lin Ying-Yu, Lin Pin-Yu, Liu Jhih-Siang, Ma Chun-Wei, Pao Cheng-Hao, Shen Ming-Shih, Shu Chin-Chiang, Yau Hon-Min, Yu Ruei-Lin, Allen Yu