Though the Indo-Taiwanese relationship has been ignored for long, this is a ripe moment for a recalibration for these natural allies who share democratic values, uphold the rule of law, human rights and a rules-based international order. The revanchist dragon has been attempting to bully both India and Taiwan in the South Asian region and this provides a mutual antagonism against Beijing that can be used to secure better bilateral strategic and security cooperation between both. Moreover, Taiwan has showcased itself as a responsible and outward-looking state which has effectively handled the pandemic domestically while also providing medical supplies to around 80 countries, including India. Expansionist and belligerent China needs to be tackled effectively by these two states and their cooperation needs to be strengthened, both, at the level of multilateral institutions, as well as bilaterally.
Though there has been a lack of political enthusiasm, the common threat of irking China and structural issues that have acted as obstacles for blossoming Indo-Taiwanese relations, Taiwan has engaged silently diplomatically in India. PM Narendra Modi and President Tsai Ing-wen, have engaged in furthering the bilateral relationship.
Contextualising the Indo-Taiwanese Relationship
The Indo-Taiwanese relations were almost non-existent for more than four decades after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was recognised by India. Marking the beginning of their ‘unofficial’ ties, in 1992, the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) set up a liaison office in Mumbai and, in 1995, India opened its representative office in Taipei and named it the India-Taipei Association (ITA) for economic engagement. In a month, Taiwan opened its office in New Delhi and called it the Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre (TECC). Now, the TECC offices are operational in Chennai, Kolkata, and Mumbai. Although they were not formal diplomatic missions, they do function as de-facto representatives of their respective governments and carry out activities like issuing of visas, carrying out trade and economic relations and facilitating people-to-people contacts. This was the beginning of bettering bilateral relations between India and Taiwan in the sphere of trade and commerce, development and research, science and technology, education, people-to-people contacts, and other related fields and thus, in the post Cold-War period, this marked an important watershed moment in the history of Indo-Taiwanese relationship. This was a pointer towards India’s ‘Look East Policy’, enunciated by the then Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao and was a marker of Taiwan’s pragmatic diplomacy.
Taiwan’s ‘pragmatic diplomacy’ is also known as ‘flexible diplomacy’ and ‘substantive diplomacy’ and focuses on enhancing its international profile and facilitating its external engagements by using ‘unofficial’ and ‘non-diplomatic’ channels in the broader economic and cultural arenas, without attempting conventional state-to-state diplomacy, so as not to invite ire from the PRC. New Delhi, in this context, has emerged as a significant factor for Taiwan’s substantive diplomatic practices. Given their shared concerns vis-à-vis China and the commonality of their democratic values, especially during the current strategic uncertainty, this seems like the perfect ripe moment to enhance relations between the two.
In 2014, Taiwan’s representative to India had attended PM Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, and in 2016, India carefully well thought-out sending a representative to President Tsai’s inauguration but eventually decided against it. Most countries, including India, have found it challenging to balance the political and strategic implications of fostering closer relations with Taiwan due to the uncertainty of China’s reaction, leading to a complex diplomatic maze. In this context, Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP) under Tsai Ing-wen seeks to expand links with countries across South and Southeast Asia with a great emphasis on building economic, investment and people-to-people ties, as well as a greater focus on India especially while New Delhi “acts east”. Given the swaying relationship between India and Mainland China, it is practical for India to shift towards greater stress on soft balancing by cultivating a fruitful relationship with Taiwan. The Indian government’s ‘Act East Policy’ provides for greater engagement between India and Southeast Asia, making Taiwan important for India’s future economic growth.
In terms of increasing economic and commercial engagement, the TECC and the ITA formalized an MoU in 2017 on the “Promotion of Industry Collaboration”, preceded by twenty-one MoUs signed earlier that year by Taiwan’s Chinese National Federation of Industries and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. In 2018, the first India-Taiwan Trade Forum was convened in Taipei with the Taipei World Trade Center inaugurating its New Delhi office in conjunction with the debut of the Taiwan Expo (a business exposition) in South Asia over the summer of 2018 with New Delhi serving as its inaugural venue. Despite all these developments on the economic front, there have been domestic and structural problems in formalising the relationship, especially due to New Delhi’s position on acknowledging the ‘One-China policy’. New Delhi has overall remained ambiguous on the matter and the investment and trade have remained relatively modest but there have been efforts to increase investment by Taiwanese firms in India and notable joint initiatives and manufacturing clusters have been proposed under the ‘Make in India’ campaign.
Upgrading the Relationship: QUAD Angle
The need of the hour for India is focusing on a practical and long term pragmatic approach for fomenting better ties with Taiwan. We have to strategically balance the ‘One-China policy’ of Mainland China (based on one country, two systems model) and cultivating a beneficial and normal relationship with Taipei. New Delhi should not use Taiwan as a pressure point or Achilles Heel against the PRC as this hampers India’s goals and Taiwan’s development. The focal point for bettering the Indo-Taiwanese relationship should be based on enhancing people-to-people, cultural and business exchanges rather than focusing on the government-to-government gimmicks. Education, tourism and technological innovations can leverage the relationship. India should actively engage with Taiwanese NGOs to create an impact over the coming years and focus on roping in an international networking capacity. Small and medium-sized enterprises too can act as significant job creation initiatives and serve as great vehicles to exchange knowledge and human capital. Taiwan can also help in meeting India’s agricultural modernisation needs and its recent support during the pandemic in healthcare facilities is a pointer in the direction of up-gradation of the relationship in a pragmatic understanding. This soft power diplomacy through developmental assistance, cultural, healthcare, academic and tourist exchanges will surely benefit and give a thrust to long term robust India-Taiwan relations.
There have been under-utilised opportunities in the bilateral relationship. New Delhi needs to engage in proper policy approach to benefit most from a healthy relationship with the core area of the Chinese economy. The reshaping of the relationship with Taiwan has not only been a prerogative of New Delhi, the other three members of the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue): USA, Australia and Japan have also upgraded their relations with Taipei.
Taiwan is significant for the QUAD countries as it is the core area that can be used to deter Chinese aggression due to its strategic location and partnership with the QUAD countries would act as a diplomatic weapon for both parties against the belligerent Dragon’s ever-rising provocations. Moreover, it is an important source of information on China, as evidenced in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the QUAD needs to protect Taiwan from diplomatic isolation and help it develop its military and defensive capabilities while also providing it opportunities for investment in a safe and incentive-based environment in the QUAD so that they can safely relocate their economic and investment ventures from Mainland China without incurring losses.
India needs to act in a strategic manner and shed its inhibitions and self-imposed restraint on engaging with Taiwan. The bilateral relationship is extremely rewarding if managed appropriately by both parties. They have to act more decisively and New Delhi has to formally acknowledge Taiwan as a development partner and the role it can play in steering the direction of Indo-Taiwanese relationship. It is an opportune moment, also thus for the QUAD to recognise Taiwan as a reliable partner and counter China’s growing footprint in South Asia that it wants to establish its hegemony over, through its bellicose and pugnacious ways.
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Times Now Digital. (2020, October 10). Quad and beyond: Is it time for India to take a tougher stance on Tibet and Taiwan?
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