India is playing its own Taiwanese card on China

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Somewhat surprisingly, India took ten days to comment on US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the large-scale live-fire exercises launched by China.

On August 12, New Delhi said it was seeking “de-escalation of tensions”. Then, on August 28, New Delhi accused Beijing of militarizing the Taiwan Strait through its high commissioner in Sri Lanka.

Absent from statements from New Delhi, there was no confirmation of support for the One China policy. India has not publicly supported the “One China” policy for more than 12 years in protest at Beijing’s practice of issuing stapled visas to visitors from Arunachal Pradesh – a border region administered by India but which China claims as part of southern Tibet.

India’s strategic ambiguity over the “One China” policy affects its relationship with Taiwan. New Delhi has been slow to take advantage of the opportunity offered by Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, an initiative that aims to strengthen Taipei’s relations with ASEAN, South Asia and Oceania.

This must change if New Delhi is to become a major player in the Indo-Pacific region.

India should strengthen its trade and people-to-people relations with Taipei by explicitly mentioning Taiwan in its Indo-Pacific policy. The deepening ties are not just a response to the current chill in India’s relationship with China, it reflects the congruence of interests between the two democracies and growing public support for better relations in Taiwan and India.

Despite pursuing multilateral partnerships under the aegis of pacts such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), India has been reluctant to explicitly formulate an Indo-Pacific strategy for fear to antagonize Beijing – a reluctance that has gradually disappeared over the past five years.

After China and India were embroiled in a standoff along Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau in 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented India’s first Indo-Pacific Policy Framework in June 2018. The document explicitly states that this is not a China containment strategy while stating that ASEAN is central to India’s Indo-Pacific vision.

He then underlined the importance of the peaceful settlement of disputes, an open trading regime and the sustainable development of maritime resources and security.

The strategy also emphasizes deepening regional connectivity. Strengthening relations with Taiwan would fall under support for an “open trade regime” and “deepening connectivity” – both of which align with India’s “Act East” approach and the “New Policy towards the south of Taiwan.

Indian Army fighter jets on the deck of an aircraft carrier during the second phase of joint naval exercise Malabar in the Arabian Sea. Photo: AFP / Indian Navy

India’s Indo-Pacific position has been further calibrated since 2018. India has intensified its engagement with its Quad partners during five Quad meetings.

India has also begun to take a more vocal stance on disputes in the South China Sea, declaring in July 2020 that the region should be considered part of the “global commons”. It has since deployed frontline warships to the South China Sea.

India has also worked with Japan and Australia to ensure regional supply chain resilience. During their first official conversation in September 2020, Modi and former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga agreed that “the economic architecture of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region must be based on resilient supply chains” .

Meanwhile, New Delhi’s Oceania division aims to bring India’s administrative and diplomatic attention to a region stretching from the Western Pacific to the Andaman Sea.

Strengthening ties with Taiwan would be a valuable addition to India’s Indo-Pacific policy. Following Doklam’s standoff in 2018, the Foreign Office submitted a report calling for a “flexible approach” in relations with China, including increasing connections with Taiwan.

Taiwanese are showing a growing, though still divided, level of support for closer ties with New Delhi.

Despite strong support for strengthening bilateral relations, India-Taiwan relations have significantly underperformed. While trade has grown from US$1 billion in 2000 to over US$7 billion in 2019, it represents only 1% of Taiwan’s total trade. The number of Taiwanese tourists to India was only 33,500 in 2016, about the same as the number of Indian tourists to Taiwan.

Some argue that India should designate Taiwan as a trading partner, wrap up free trade talks that began in 2021, and prioritize deepening people-to-people ties in politics, think tanks and academia.

Taiwan-based TSMC may have an incentive to invest in India’s emerging chipmaking industry. Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh

The free trade agreement, once concluded, will likely have a strong semiconductor component, with companies such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC) being invited to set up shop in India.

The growing diaspora of highly skilled Indian professionals in Taiwan, numbering around 5,000, could also play a major role in strengthening people-to-people ties. The projected increase in the number of Indian students pursuing university studies in Taiwan, from about 1,000 in 2015 to 2,239 in 2020-2021, could help increase connectivity between the two countries.

It’s time for India to stop being too deferential to Beijing and seize its Taiwanese moment by moving quickly on two fronts: trade and people-to-people. New Delhi could achieve this by integrating Taiwan into its Indo-Pacific policy and by strengthening tourism and educational ties with Taipei.

Narayanan (Hari) Gopalan Lakshmi is a UBC MPPGA graduate and postdoctoral fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Yves Tiberghien is a professor of political science and director emeritus of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. He is also a Fellow Emeritus of the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada.

This article was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based at the Crawford School of Public Policy within the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. It is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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