On Oct. 7, the Chinese embassy in New Delhi sent letters to the Indian media asking them to refrain from calling Taiwan a country while reporting on its 109th National Day, which fell on Saturday last week. This move backfired and, on the contrary, contributed to the immense popularity of Taiwan among Indians, leading to an outpouring of congratulations for it on Twitter.
Asked about the letter, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said: “There is a free media that reports on issues as it sees fit.”
Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Tajinder Singh Bagga put up several banners outside the Chinese embassy, congratulating Taiwan on its National Day. This led to a wide discussion on Twitter and contributed to awareness about Taiwan in India.
The unprecedented support and wishes from Indians attracted the attention of the government, leading President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Vice President William Lai (賴清德) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) to thank the nation’s Indian friends in a series of tweets.
These developments demonstrate Taiwan’s increasing popularity in India. This unforeseen support is attributed to two factors.
The ongoing India-China border clashes and Beijing’s nonaccommodative stance hint at the futility of New Delhi’s China and Taiwan policies, leading to calls for engaging Taiwan proactively. The Indian leadership was criticized by Indian netizens for not responding to Tsai’s birthday wishes to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sept. 17.
The policy of overlooking the merit of engaging Taiwan in the hope to achieve a breakthrough in the boundary dispute with China is unable to yield desirable results for India, and an opportunity wasted to have closer and mutually beneficial ties with Taiwan.
There is ample evidence pointing toward China’s reluctance to genuinely move forward on the issue of the seven-decade dispute. It is Beijing’s interests to keep the dispute alive so that India remains preoccupied.
While the escalation of tensions with China is an important reason for a wider discussion on Taiwan, its exemplary response to the COVID-19 pandemic has immensely shaped the domestic discourse in India. The nation has completely mitigated the threat posed by the pandemic and has not recorded any local infection for almost 200 days. This has led to the realization that Taiwan is not a card to be played against China, but should be admired for its achievements.
Other countries are engaging Taiwan and attempting to benefit on the health front. During the visit of US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to Taiwan in August, a memorandum of understanding on health cooperation between the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the US Department of Health and Human Services was signed.
India, which has still not been able to flatten the COVID-19 curve, could also benefit immensely from Taiwan’s response and experience.
This series of episodes has provided an opportunity for India to detach its Taiwan policy from China. It holds immense relevance when cooperation with Taiwan entails the well-being and welfare of the two countries.
The Indian leadership must sense the popular sentiment and translate it into action. To achieve this and keep the momentum, Taiwan also needs to capitalize on its popularity in India and work toward making Indians and Taiwanese more familiar with each other.
Taiwan should introduce easy tourist visas to Indians. With more knowledge of Taiwan, Indians would be drawn toward visiting the nation once the pandemic eases.
Last year, the number of Indian outbound tourists was close to 30 million, and the most popular destinations included Thailand and Singapore. Taiwan offers a similar atmosphere to international tourists. More efforts are needed to attract visitors from India.
While several language-learning, master’s and doctoral scholarships are offered by the Ministry of Education, the level of awareness about such programs remains abysmally low. Enrollment of more Indian students in language and master’s courses in political science and international relations would lead to greater people-to-people ties.
Most importantly, it is time for Taiwan to encourage more academics to conduct research on India. Lack of primary data and academic work on different aspects of the relations have made India-Taiwan ties one of the most understudied, underappreciated, undervalued and underrated subjects. More collaboration between academics would lead to more awareness about the bilateral ties.
Taiwan’s flagship foreign policy, the New Southbound Policy, includes areas such as education, tourism and academic exchanges. The time is ripe to bolster the policy and showcase Taiwan’s soft power.
Taiwan’s image as a responsible and friendly nation has been established among Indians. This paves the path for cooperation between the two nations, but to sustain the momentum, it is important for Taiwan and India to take concrete steps.
Sana Hashmi is a Taiwan fellow at National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations and a former consultant with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
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