This year, India and Taiwan can look back on 25 years of so-called unofficial ties. This provides an occasion to ponder over how they can deepen collaboration and strengthen their relations. This reflection must be free from excitement and agitation caused by the ongoing China-US great power jostling as well as China’s aggressive actions against many of its neighbors, including India. It must be based on long-term trends in bilateral engagement.
To begin with, India and Taiwan, thus far, have had relations constituted by various activities, but what needs to be thought about now is whether they can transform their ties into a fruitful partnership. Further, what kind of partnership can they have? Is it possible for them to have a strategic partnership at all, and if yes, what kind of strategic partnership would it be? Does it have to be a security-strategic partnership in the conventional sense or can they redefine the term? These are the pertinent questions that should be answered before engaging in a meaningful relationship.
To find answers, one needs to probe difficult themes and issues like cross-strait relations, India’s historical position on these relations, the lack of domestic consensus on the nature of these relations in Taiwan, apprehensions about the future of Taiwan’s de facto independence, Taiwan’s official positions on India’s border and other disputes with China, what Taiwan can realistically bring to the table and China’s red lines regarding Taiwan and India’s willingness to push the envelope.
The answers will determine the nature and extent of the transformation of India-Taiwan relations into a long-term relationship. Even though growth in bilateral relations has been slow, intermittent and without a long-term vision or direction, there have been enough notable trends and markers in the past 25 years to help us determine and shape future relations.
Four elements — goals, objectives, principles and specific policy programs — are discernible in India’s strategic partnership documents. It is high time that India and Taiwan define realistic goals and objectives that they expect to achieve in their relations, as well as the governing principles that are to be employed to achieve them. Once they are in place, the exploration of the specific policy programs and projects to deepen the ties will run smoother.
Taking into account all the geopolitical considerations vis-a-vis China, the goals cannot be anything but to share democratic experiences, promote democratic values, and pursue collaborative progress and prosperity.
Taking the relations onto autopilot or self-sustainable mode should be the objective. This would enable the relations to freely respond to the requirements of people-to-people relationships, unfazed by geopolitics or changes in domestic or foreign politics.
Taiwan as a social idea should be accepted as the organizing principle for the relations. Perhaps the time has not yet come for India to start treating Taiwan as a political idea, but treating Taiwan merely as an economic idea has passed its primacy. India must embrace Taiwan as a social idea, and the relations must be granted the dignity they deserve. This social idea would be inclusive, but with reasonable, prudent limitations.
Avoiding any unwarranted geopolitical exuberance and resisting the temptations of publicity has to be part of the relationship.
As a basis for specific policy programs, leaders of academia, the media, civil society and political actors from across the political spectrum must have an abiding interest in the India-Taiwan story. Until now, their interest has been sporadic, triggered by strategic or geopolitical disturbances.
Further, a survey should be carried out to replicate Taiwan’s international successes in its ties to India. An extensive network of collaborations by identifying the avenues of cooperation across the governmental and non-governmental sectors needs to be built to make the relations self-sustaining.
Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy documents might be useful guidelines. India-Taiwan economic relations should be energized in light of the policy, and various Indian economic and regional connectivity initiatives. Trilateral cooperation and an India-Taiwan-plus-one format are also worth exploring.
However, a lot of ground needs to be covered first. For example, in view of the growing economic and other public exchanges, there is a need for police and justice cooperation between the nations. The complex, transnational nature of international crime networks requires an extradition agreement. Such an agreement would not only safeguard relations from unforeseen triangular complications between India, Taiwan and China, but would also convey a strong message about the nations’ shared democratic values.
Intellectual efforts should be directed to reinvent and renovate India-Taiwan ties, draw the big picture for the relationship and alert the authorities to the possible areas of partnership.
At the same time, experts in different fields, such as health professionals, engineers, education entrepreneurs and agricultural scientists, must take the lead. They are the ones who can take care of the nuts and bolts of cooperation in laboratories and workshops.
The representative offices in Taipei and New Delhi should come up with a vision for bilateral relations, say an “India-Taiwan action-oriented partnership for 2030” — as an agenda for the next 10 years. If that is not yet possible, the Track 1.5 diplomacy circles should take the lead to articulate India’s Taiwan policy and Taiwan’s India policy, because the understanding that the nations must act with extreme caution and deference toward China’s sentiments is fast becoming outdated.
India needs to review its Taiwan policy to recognize changed geopolitical and geo-economic realities, and also for the confirmation of the autonomy of Taiwan’s democracy. Taiwan needs to review its India policy to shape what many perceive as its unrealistic and vague expectations. A joint policy document would act as an international reference point amid an intensely uncertain geopolitical flux that the world has witnessed in the past few years pertaining to China.
A formal policy agenda for the ties, devised on the lines of India’s strategic partnership frameworks, would bring the relations into perspective. It would not only smoothen the course of relations, but also portray both India and Taiwan as mature citizens of the international community who do things differently.
Prashant Kumar Singh is an associate fellow with the East Asia Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, India.
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