If social media interaction is any yardstick, India remained one of the top countries for Taiwan last year. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has on several occasions expressed enthusiasm to strengthen cooperation with India, one of the 18 target nations in her administration’s New Southbound Policy.
The past year was instrumental in fostering Taiwan-India ties and will be remembered for accelerated momentum in bilateral relations. However, most of it has been confined to civil society circles.
Even though Taiwan launched its southbound policy in 2016, the potential of Taiwan-India engagement remains underutilized. It is crucial to identify what is obstructing greater momentum in bilateral relations, and what could be done to remove the hurdles.
First, India is sticking to its decades-old “one China” policy, so it is implausible to push for that decision to change. Although India has never included Taiwan in its acknowledgement of the policy — in written form at least — and since 2010 has stopped mentioning the policy in joint statements and other official documents, its adherence remains unmoved.
However, there is a need to explore suitable and effective alternatives so that the “one China” policy does not obstruct the path to a higher degree of India-Taiwan partnership.
Second, India is the most recent victim of China’s unlawful territorial incursions, with the two countries’ armed forces engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation over the past 10 months. China has clearly changed its approach from extending an olive branch — for example, the India-China informal summits in Wuhan and Mamallapuram — to a direct confrontation with New Delhi.
Beijing is sending forceful signals that it aims to maintain its belligerent position if New Delhi does not go China’s way. If India overtly decides to elevate ties with Taiwan, it is aware that it would need to deal with further Chinese aggression. To address the Chinese challenge, India is attempting to formalize the quadrilateral security dialogue and form a concerted policy in the Indo-Pacific region.
Third, India-Taiwan relations are widely perceived as a cluster of mixed opportunities. The China factor looms large over the countries’ relationship, while bold steps are anticipated from both sides. Like other major stakeholders, India cannot discount the danger of jeopardizing for good its relations with China by formally engaging with Taiwan.
However, China has been ambivalent toward India’s territorial concerns. Almost one year into the standoff, Beijing has not shown any sign of resolving the issue, but has rather chosen to escalate the impasse.
Stalling engagement with Taiwan has done no good for India’s relations with China. Taiwan and India need to rethink their bilateral relationship. Given the New Southbound Policy’s sustained focus on India and the vitality of their bilateral relations, this is an apt time for New Delhi to extricate its Taiwan policy from India-China relations.
Fourth, over the past several decades, it has made sense for Taiwan to be US-centric in its foreign relations, but with the emergence of the Indo-Pacific construct and the rise of Asian countries, Taiwan should shift its focus toward regional issues and closer engagement with Indo-Pacific countries.
The growing interest of the US and major European countries, such as France and Germany, in the Indo-Pacific region presents Taiwan and India with new opportunities for engagement. Taiwan can combine a greater focus on the region with its ties with the US and other major stakeholders to help make the Indo-Pacific order — of which India is a central component — a reality.
Even though Taiwan-India relations require greater attention, the two nations are reaching out to each other. In Taipei, the appointment of Tien Chung-kwang (田中光), former representative to India, as deputy minister of foreign affairs is a welcome move, while in New Delhi, an encouraging step would be to include Taiwan in its Act East Policy. Dialogue between senior officials should be initiated in areas such as policymaking, cybersecurity and the Indo-Pacific region.
For Taiwan, bolstering the New Southbound Policy by identifying specific areas of cooperation with India is crucial. Cultivating scholarship on India would also help in shaping local discourse on India and the Indian subcontinent.
Over the long term, Taiwan must diversify its economic partnerships. It cannot afford to overlook the economic and soft power benefits of engaging with India. The same applies to India when it comes to benefiting from high-tech partnerships and linking with regional supply chain mechanisms.
A systemwide, coordinated plan of action to overcome these hindrances is the best way to improve Taiwan-India relations.
Sana Hashmi is a visiting 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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