Some time ago, an article was published in the Chinese-language media about a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairperson’s low-key visit to meet members of Indian think tanks, and the business and industrial communities, to discuss how Taiwan-India exchanges could help both nations. The article analyzed the huge potential such exchanges could have in terms of trade, education, technology, democracy, security and military affairs. It was written in 2012, and the then-DPP chairperson was President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
Little has changed regarding the article’s main points, despite the eight intervening years. What has changed is the international context and the apparent openness of New Delhi to proceed with increased exchanges with Taipei. Still, it might be advisable for Tsai to proceed with caution, despite these more amenable circumstances.
The prevailing wisdom of the past two decades was that Taiwanese businesses should invest in China because of inherent advantages such as a shared language and culture, and geographic proximity, despite the dangers of engaging closely with a country so openly hostile toward Taipei.
This perspective ignores aspects of what Taiwan represents to the international community and to itself. The nation might share a language and cultural elements with China due to its past, but over the past four centuries, Taiwan’s history has been one of being passed from one colonial master to another, including “retrocession” in 1945 to a foreign regime. Its people are ethnically and culturally diverse, and they are increasingly coalescing around a national identity that owes more to Taiwan’s history than China’s.
What has brought Taiwanese together in more recent decades are values including a commitment to democracy, freedom and a respect for human rights. In that, the nation is very much divorced from the politics of China. In open trade and technological prowess, it has more in common with India. In culture, its active engagement with its own history and rich religious tradition are, again, more similar to the reality in India than in China.
As Taiwan, it is arguable that the nation is closer spiritually to India than China. As the Republic of China, the picture is far more complicated.
As part of its New Southbound Policy, Tsai’s administration has consistently pursued engagement with India, ASEAN member states, as well as Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. There are signs that the government is thinking of prioritizing negotiations with India, if remarks by an unnamed Cabinet official are accurate.
Asked about the Cabinet official’s remarks, Minister Without Portfolio John Deng (鄧振中), who manages the New Southbound Policy, merely said that all nations in the policy are considered important. His caution was warranted: The underlying politics are sensitive given Beijing’s excitability regarding other countries entering agreements with Taipei.
What has changed is not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but China’s attitude under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) concerning fair trade practices, other nations’ sovereign integrity, and democratic freedoms and human rights. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is well aware of this, and the Indian public has recently demonstrated growing empathy for Taiwan and suspicion of China.
The more egregious and concerning aspects of Xi’s reign are not out of character: They are just the beginning of what is surely his increasing assertiveness. Xi does not want to see the international world order fold, he wants to see China at the apex of it; he desires regional hegemony, and that will affect countries on his periphery, including India.
It appears to be the perfect time for Tsai to press Modi on closer ties, but she must be cautious, for however much New Delhi might be watching Beijing’s actions with concern, India still stands to lose much by courting Taiwan.
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