It is time for India to invest in ties with Taiwan
The India-China border stand-off in the Galwan Valley, following China’s incursion into Indian territory, is a reminder of India’s perennial problems with China. The recent violent clashes are an indication of Beijing’s hardline approach towards India. The statements issued by Chinese officials and the ministry of foreign affairs have made it clear that the Chinese are in no mood for a rapprochement. What these clashes have confirmed is that this is not just about differing perceptions of the boundary, but China’s blatant attempts to change the status quo. This is in clear violation of the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China border areas signed in 1993. A full-fledged conflict is not in the interest of either country. In this context, India has no option but to engage China in a dialogue to defuse tensions.
But dialogue and confidence-building measures alone will not lead India towards a resolution of the problem. History shows that China goes for boundary dispute resolutions only when it finds that the gains are tangible. For now, it is in its interest to keep the dispute alive. China’s aggressive posture towards India and the boundary dispute set the right context for why there could not be a better time for India to engage Taiwan meaningfully.
While ties with Taiwan should not be solely viewed through China’s lens, this has given a chance to both India and Taiwan to introspect on their policies and reach out to each other. On May 20, two Bharatiya Janata Party parliamentarians, Meenakshi Lekhi and Rahul Kaswan, virtually attended the swearing-in ceremony of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. While this was appreciated, it is not a strong enough signal to China. It is high time India engages Taiwan bilaterally and also positions India-Taiwan ties in the regional context.
Taiwan is already a part of the United States’ Indo-Pacific vision. It is an important geographical entity in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific is inclusive and it must encourage the participation of Taiwan and other like-minded countries. India is already a major focus country in Tsai Ing-wen’s New Southbound Policy, launched in 2016. Under this, Taiwan aims to increase its international profile by expanding political, economic, and people-to-people linkages. Unlike previous governments’ Go South policies, the New Southbound Policy is not about reducing dependence on China, but reaching out to countries of importance. For the first time, Taiwan has officially started looking towards the six South Asian countries — Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. India is a steering wheel for Taiwan’s deepening engagement in the South Asian region.
India does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan yet as it adheres to the One-China policy. However, during the then Chinese premier Wen Jiaboa’s visit to India in December 2010, India took a bold step by not mentioning support for China’s One-China policy in the joint communique released on December 16. In 2014, when Narendra Modi came to power, he adopted an out-of-the-box approach by inviting ambassador Chung-Kwang Tien, Taiwan’s representative to India, along with Lobsang Sangay, president of the Central Tibetan Administration to his 2014 swearing-in ceremony.
However, such policy moves could not sustain India’s consistent approach vis-à-vis China. This is despite China’s disregard for India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, in both letter and spirit. India’s China policy and its focus on stabilising relations with Beijing have led to the marginalisation of Taiwan. When China protested the visit of an all-women parliamentarians delegation from Taiwan to India in 2018, the momentum in India-Taiwan ties further slowed down.
Taiwan has had remarkable success in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. This is interesting given how more developed and powerful states have faltered in handling the crisis. Yet, Taiwan was not even offered an international platform where it could share its best practices. Denying Taiwan a place at the World Health Assembly is a case in point. India too has not tried to engage Taiwan in dealing with the pandemic. Through its response to Covid-19, the island nation has shown that it is beneficial to engage with it.
Similarly, Taiwan’s possible role in the emerging Indo-Pacific order has been under-appreciated. India’s foreign policy priorities, particularly with regard to the Indo-Pacific, should accommodate Taiwan. Along with military preparedness and aligning interests with key countries, Taiwan needs to be included prominently in its long-term strategy towards China. India can no longer just rely on the transactional and need-based policies of major powers. It has to explore more options. This makes sense when Taiwan is willing to strengthen ties with India and even domestic debate is tilting in favour of this. It is time India reviews its policy towards Taiwan and engages with it more comprehensively.