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China-US relations

Americans say Taiwan is the least of their worries about China

Survey finds their biggest concerns are the large amount of US debt held by Beijing, threat of Chinese cyberattacks and the country’s environmental impact

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 2:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 2:02pm

Americans have ranked Taiwan – the self-ruled island claimed by Beijing – as their lowest concern on a list of eight issues to do with China in a survey carried out by a US think tank.

The Pew Research Centre released its findings on Wednesday, amid an escalating trade war between China and the US and after Beijing last week began formal diplomatic relations with another former Taiwan ally, El Salvador.

But according to the Pew report, just one in five Americans believe tensions between Beijing and Taiwan are “very serious”.

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Their biggest worries about China are the large amount of US debt held by Beijing, the threat of Chinese cyberattacks and the country’s impact on the global environment, the survey found.

Half of the 1,500 Americans interviewed by phone said the loss of US jobs to China was their top concern, while nearly 50 per cent were also worried about the US trade deficit with China.

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The survey was conducted between May and June, weeks before the two countries began imposing punitive tariffs on each other’s imports.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province subject to eventual reunification, by force if necessary. It has stepped up pressure against the island since Tsai Ing-wen, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, became president in 2016 and refused to accept the “one-China” principle.

The administration of US President Donald Trump has strengthened ties with the island, including encouraging official exchanges through the Taiwan Travel Act and promising military support to Taiwan – moves that have angered Beijing.

Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Centre in Hawaii, said the survey results reflected a long-term trend for how Americans viewed Taiwan, and it was not a salient issue for the public at the moment.

“It’s a simmering problem but not a front-page crisis, even if people in Northeast Asia feel China is increasing pressure on Taiwan to make political concessions to Beijing,” he said. “Ordinary Americans are much more aware of other issues involving China.”

Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, echoed that view, saying China was not the biggest security threat for most Americans.

“They are more concerned about domestic issues, cybersecurity, race tensions, the economy and Russia’s interference in their governance. China figures high on the priority list of the national security policy community. That’s the gap,” Le Thu said.

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Already locked in a trade war, tensions escalated between China and the US last week when El Salvador said it would switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing – the fifth country to do so since Tsai took office. The White House warned that the move would “affect the economic health and security of the entire Americas region”, but Beijing said it was “perfectly justified” and that countries should respect El Salvador’s sovereign decision.

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Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University’s Law School, said that while Taiwan may not be a top concern for Americans, the White House was “playing the Taiwan card” against Beijing.

“Americans will start focusing more on the Taiwan issue if trade relations between China and the US don’t return to normal, and if the US government decides to make trouble over Taiwan,” Tian said.