Relations between states are governed by strategic congruences, mutual respect and the dynamics of contemporary international politics.
However, in spite of the existence of several positive determinants, India-Taiwan relations continue to be characterized by underutilized potential and political inertia. The reason for this is often located within India’s alleged sensitivities toward China or an implicit support for the “one China construct.”
Howbeit, even a cursory study of India’s foreign policy would reveal that New Delhi’s strategic imagination is not contingent upon any particular nation, and is solely determined by the doctrines of “national interest” and “strategic and issue-based alignment.”
India has stopped referring to the “one China construct” in all bilateral documents with China since 2010, albeit for a brief blip in the India-China joint statement during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) visit in 2014.
As such, it can be persuasively argued that New Delhi’s approach toward Taiwan is strictly a function of India’s pragmatic reading of its own geostrategic and geopolitical realities.
While this outlook recognizes Taiwan as a concern within India’s “China policy,” it certainly does not convey any appreciation for Chinese designs or self-serving constructs. Moreover, India’s approach toward Taiwan is guided by its larger vision of peace, security and stability in the region, and should not be linked to any border situation with China as is being increasingly demanded by some quarters.
It is within the fine print of existing strategic concerns, common national interests and mutual respect for each other’s sensitivities that a India-Taiwan partnership needs to be realized.
Though the scope for a significant politico-strategic dynamic remains limited at present, India-Taiwan relations have advanced upon the constructive template of economic convergences and ideological affinities. The ideological dimension of India-Taiwan relations is underscored by the democratic ethos of their polities and societies.
It is this democratic ideal that underpins any existing or prospective economic and people-to-people relations between the two sides.
The idea of a robust economic partnership with Taiwan has long dominated the academic and strategic discourse in India.
However, at the policy level, this enthusiasm has not borne much fructification. India-Taiwan trade last year stood at US$7.5 billion. As per most estimates, these numbers represent only a fraction of the actual potential between the two economies.
In addition to the low volume, trade between India and Taiwan remains extremely lopsided, with Indian exports majorly accounting for primary or secondary products such as mineral fuels, mineral oils, iron and steel, organic chemicals, and cotton, whereas Taiwanese exports to India consist of high-end value-added products such as electrical machinery and equipment, and plastics, etc.
These are some pertinent issues that the two sides need to address in their economic negotiations.
Recently, there has been an increasing fervor within the strategic communities on both sides to situate Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy within India’s “Act East” and vice versa.
While this can provide an overarching framework for India-Taiwan economic ties, the true potential of the relationship can be realized at the meta-level by leveraging the existing complementarities between the economic policy formulations of the two sides. This approach can also partially offset the opportunity cost of the delays in inking a big-ticket free trade-like agreement, which remains mired in bureaucratic processes. At the very outset, India-Taiwan economic relations can encompass a wide array of fields, including trade, investment, tourism and education.
As a world-recognized leader in high-end technology, Taiwan can be a natural partner in “Make in India” and thereby an integral component of India’s journey toward realizing an atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India).
Foxconn has emerged as the poster boy for “Make in India” with its investments in the Indian smartphone manufacturing sector.
Such investments also tie in neatly with India’s National Electronic Policy-2019, which aims to achieve the target of zero net imports in the electronics sector. Further, with a proven track record in delivering quality digital services, Taiwan has a strong case to participate in the Digital India initiative
Under the current global headwinds, which require shifting of production facilities from China, India can emerge as the top destination for Taiwan’s semiconductor industry.
Another area with ample opportunities for India-Taiwan collaboration is the agriculture and food processing sector. This sector is one of the top priorities of the present dispensation in India, and the recent passage of the Farm Bills is a step toward advancing this mission.
Furthermore, the two areas that allow both sides to realize the twin objectives of enhanced economic partnership and people-to-people connections are education and tourism. The education sector in particular can be leveraged by Taiwan to enhance its soft power appeal among the Indian youth by tapping into the burgeoning demand for Mandarin. In addition to increasing the number of existing scholarships, this can be achieved by entering into academic partnerships with Indian universities and major think tanks.
With regards to Tourism, it would not be far-fetched to state that this remains one of the most under-utilized dimensions of India-Taiwan relations. While both sides have dedicated tourism promotion programs, and India has extended e-visa facilities for those traveling from Taiwan for tourism, informal business trips, or short medical visits, there exists general ignorance in this regard. Taiwan and India are not recognized as tourism destinations either in each other’s public consciousness, or popular imagery.
One potential way to address this knowledge deficit and encourage mutual tourism is to use the popularity of Indian cinema on both sides. Taiwan can provide opportunities and incentives to Bollywood to shoot its movies here. Indian cinema is best placed to kindle popular interest in both cultures, cuisines and landscapes. Additionally, the popularity of yoga and Buddhism in Taiwan can be utilized by the two sides to deepen people-to-people contacts.
Taiwan can also be an ideal destination for the Indian pharma industry and young professionals. The Indian leadership in producing generic medicines can help bring down the cost of Taiwan’s National Health Insurance program. The two sides should conduct feasibility studies in this regard.
To realize the aforementioned objectives, it would be extremely useful for the Taiwan Chamber of Commerce to engage with the Indian Chamber of Commerce, and facilitate direct communication channels between Indian and Taiwanese businesses. To overcome the issues of cultural differences and differing business environments, the Taiwan External Trade Development Council can organize events in partnership with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Some of these programs should be designed to specifically understand and help advance the start-up ecosystem in India. These are just a few examples where Taiwan and India can deepen their economic engagement. The field remains extremely vast and should be explored.
The India-Taiwan relationship is one of immense opportunities and unbridled possibilities. Yet, it is also a relationship of unrealized potential. It is time for the two sides to change this narrative.
Shikha Aggarwal is a recipient of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Taiwan Fellowship at National Chengchi University and concurrently serves as a senior fellow at the India Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank.
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