The landslide election victory of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has significant implications for both India’s domestic politics and external relations. It could bring about a dramatic change to India’s infinitely complicated political scene, as the ruling BJP will have a working majority in parliament — the first time in 30 years — without the debilitating horse-trading and compromise necessary for a coalition.
In a huge and surprise diplomatic gesture, Modi invited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend his inauguration as India’s prime minister. Sharif accepted the goodwill gesture and led a Pakistani delegation to attend the event in New Delhi on Monday, a historic first for the two often-hostile neighbors. To observers in India and abroad, Modi’s move seems to signal a more muscular and visible Indian diplomacy.
Not a few strategic experts play down the importance of Pakistan as a military adversary and see China as a much bigger threat to India. Former Indian minister of defense A.K. Antony told the nation’s armed forces a few years ago that they should consider China rather than Pakistan the main threat to India’s security and deploy themselves accordingly, but nothing happened. Bharat Karnad of India’s Center for Policy Research blamed India’s “feeble civilian strategic direction combining with the army’s innate conservatism” for having stopped India from doing what it needs to.
Things could change under Modi. In accordance with the “Look East” strategy, which has been supported by the BJP and the Congress Party, India can be expected to play a more active strategic role in East Asia. Already, India has elevated defense and economic ties with Japan, and strengthened security relations with Vietnam and Australia. In defiance of Beijing’s warning that countries outside the South China Sea should refrain from “muddying the waters” with their diplomatic, military or economic actions, India has advocated freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as the US has done, and asserted its right to hydrocarbon explorations in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) in cooperation with Vietnam.
Whereas New Delhi turned down Beijing’s proposal to sign a Sino-Indian free-trade agreement (FTA), it took the initiative to express its intention to sign such a pact with Taiwan.
Equally significant, the announcement to forge an FTA with Taiwan was made in March 2011 not by the Indian Ministry of Economic Affairs, but by the foreign secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs. The economic organizations in both nations completed their feasibility studies in August last year, but negotiations between the two governments have yet to begin.
Over the past decades, total Taiwanese investment in ASEAN countries has topped US$70 billion, while its investment in India is approximately US$1 billion — mostly in small and medium sectors. In 2011, Taiwan-India trade increased more than 11 percent year-on-year to US$7.57 billion. Bilateral trade and Taiwanese investments in India are expected to expand significantly upon the conclusion of an FTA between the two countries. India, a major software exporter, and Taiwan, a leader in information technology and high-tech manufacturing, should forge joint ventures in India. In addition, Taiwan excels in the nano and biotechnology industries, and both countries should collaborate on these areas.
Yet, what is blocking more Taiwanese companies from going to India? It is no secret that India’s markets remain closed to foreign investors and its bureaucratic “red tape” is well known. Hopefully, an FTA can help solve some of these problems.
When Modi was still chief minister of Gujarat, he was well aware of how India’s highly centralized system obstructed and constrained the states from promoting trade and foreign direct investment, and called for liberalization and a greater role for the states in India’s economic diplomacy to harness their ability to enhance trade and investment. He will certainly apply his success in Gujarat to other parts of India.
There are indications that India’s decisionmakers increasingly care about what is going on in Taiwan. Modi visited Taiwan in 1999 when he was an official of the BJP, and during his tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister, he often met with Taiwanese business leaders and government officials visiting his state. Likewise, more Indian officials and retired senior foreign and military officers, including former president Abdul Kalam, have visited Taiwan in recent years.
India now issues visas to most Taiwanese officials, with a few exceptions, such as the ministers of foreign affairs, national defense and heads of government and state. When President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) visited Africa in 2012, he was granted a 90-minute stopover at Mumbai airport. More recently, Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) was also allowed a transit stop at New Delhi airport on his way to Europe.
Ignoring China’s protest, India’s Ministry of External Affairs approved in December 2012 the opening of a branch office of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Center (Taiwan’s unofficial embassy) in Chennai. There is no mistaking that New Delhi and Taipei want to enhance their ties.
Both Taiwan and India were ruled by foreign powers, but have become vibrant democracies. As members of the community of democracies that share common values, they can use their experience to create dramatic synergy and assist reform and changes in China, and other developing nations and emerging democracies.
China continues to engage in aggressive espionage activities, including extensive cyberoperations, against Taiwan, and India has also suffered from China’s cyberattacks. Hence, Taiwan and India should engage in information-sharing as well as cooperation on the ways and means to resist Chinese aggression.
As Taiwan stands in the pathway between India and Japan, the stability and the freedom of navigation in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea are closely related to the India-Japan trade and strategic partnership. Moreover, Taiwan exercises effective control over Itu Aba (Taiping Island, 太平島), the largest of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) in the South China Sea, and would work with fellow democracies to safeguard the freedom of navigation and promote a peaceful solution to regional disputes.
Parris Chang is professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University and chief executive of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.
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