US President Barack Obama’s visit to India and the results achieved at his summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Jan. 26 have rekindled calls for Taiwan to place higher priority on strengthening its relationship with the South Asian nation, which has had less reluctance than other regional nations in engaging with Taiwan for fear of China’s ire.
Neither President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration nor the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has spoken of the significance of the evolving situation to Taiwan, but it seems that China has been quick to react. At the latest semi-annual meeting of the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Committee in Taipei on Jan. 29, China’s “one belt, one road” (一帶一路) project was brought up for discussion.
The project was announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in 2013. In it, China would set up a “Silk Road” infrastructure aid fund of US$40 billion to assist nations along the “Silk Road economic belt,” resembling the fabled trade network during the Han Dynasty that connected China with Europe through central and western Asia, and those along the “21st-century maritime silk road,” which connects China to southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.
It is unlikely to be a coincidence that China’s proposal to include Taiwan in the initiative followed a “quadrilateral security dialogue” between the US, Japan, India and Australia, formally taking shape when Obama and Modi declared a “joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” and “India-US Delhi declaration of friendship” eight years after the idea was introduced by Japan.
The emerging alliance in the face of China’s maritime expansionism poses challenges to Beijing because it has hoped to rope in India, a Silk Road nation, to develop the ambitious economic diplomacy strategy, despite various historical tensions between the two nations. Taiwan faces the challenge of maintaining rapport with China while it positions itself as an important partner in the four-way grouping that Taiwan can bank on for its security and prosperity.
Over the years, the approach adopted by the Ma administration in handling the nation’s external relations has accommodated Beijing’s sensitivities over Taiwan’s international presence, resulting in Ma’s foreign policy being dictated by China’s reaction rather than Taiwan’s own interests. There have been various signs showing India’s departure from its strictly followed approach shaped by its “one China” policy to improve its relationship with Taiwan, even though it in no way suggested any fundamental change would be made to the policy.
Some examples include the Indian Ministry of External Affairs hosting a delegation of Taiwanese reporters in 2011 and calling for the signing of a free-trade agreement with Taiwan, the ministry in the same year asking Taiwan to send 10,000 teachers to teach Mandarin as a foreign language in its high schools, and allowing Ma to make a stopover in Mumbai en route to Africa in 2012, followed by a layover in New Delhi by Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) as he traveled to the Holy See last year.
Over the years, Taiwan-India bilateral trade has remained marginal. According to the Customs Administration, in 2013, the volume was at US$6.17 billion. Despite growth of 24 percent compared with 2007, it accounted for just 1.05 percent of the nation’s external trade volume that year. Given the intricate relations between India and China, balancing Indian relations with Taiwan and China remains a challenge, even though Modi has been expected to adopt a more assertive foreign policy and his ties with Taiwan date back to 1999, when he visited the nation as secretary-general of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
At the meeting on Jan. 29, Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs Bill Chao (卓士昭) appeared reluctant to talk about how Taiwan would approach the “one belt, one road” project. It is a decision that is critical to the nation’s future.
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