On Wednesday, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs posted on Twitter a condolence message regarding a fatal train crash in Taiwan that on Friday last week killed 50 people.
It was probably the first time that the ministry posted online about Taiwan. It was a humanitarian gesture; however, it also indicates a subtle policy shift. It might not mean that India will proactively engage Taiwan in the near future, but it is a positive development.
India’s preference to manage its ties with China has led it to overlook Taiwan for a long time, but recent developments have compelled New Delhi to rethink its policy and approach toward Beijing.
India is well aware that a protracted India-China boundary dispute is no more about differing perceptions, and China has no interest in maintaining the “status quo.”
While a dialogue between the two sides in the hope to achieve a breakthrough in the dispute is on, India is also exploring other options to deal with the China challenge.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue summit last month is a case in point. While India’s outlook on China has drastically changed, China’s aggression against India and its other neighbors continues, despite New Delhi being cautious about Beijing’s sensitivities.
Skeptics believe that engaging Taiwan would bring the wrath of China. The truth is that China has been nonaccommodative and aggressive toward India at the mutual border, and Taiwan has not been a reason behind Beijing’s aggressive postures.
China has primarily been motivated by certain factors: for example, its efforts to consolidate its territorial claims; keeping India preoccupied with the dispute; its age-old practice of “teaching countries a lesson;” and preventing India from cooperating with like-minded countries, especially the US.
However, Taiwan has hardly been a cause for the standoffs. Seemingly, China, which has resolved border disputes with 12 of its 14 neighbors in the past 60 years, has no intention to resolve the dispute with India.
This makes sense from China’s strategic viewpoint. India has the potential to challenge China’s hegemonic tendencies in the Indo-Pacific region, and India-China relations are characterized by a mix of conflict and competition.
However, it does not make sense for India to pay excessive attention to China’s interests when the latter does not reciprocate.
In fact, not engaging Taiwan is hurting India’s regional aspirations. Engaging Taiwan does not mean that India has to change its adherence to the so-called “one China” policy. There are multiple ways to extend cooperation with Taiwan without touching upon this topic.
It is immensely important for the Indian establishment to realize that Taiwan has not been a factor, and India should treat relations with Taiwan separately. Clarity on Taiwan’s place in the India-China border dispute is crucial.
Additionally, enough emphasis has not been given to Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy. It is important to pay attention to the fact that Taiwan, whose foreign policy previously was US-centric, now has a policy focused on South Asia, with India as a focus.
It cannot be denied that China still looms large over the prospect of Taiwan-India relations, but it would be mutually beneficial to bolster ties within the framework of the New Southbound Policy, and India’s Act East Policy.
Like-minded countries are promoting a rules-based order and democratic values — all this is endorsed and diligently practiced by Taiwan — and yet no overt efforts are made to include Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific region.
New Delhi’s regional and foreign policy calculations should be independent of what China desires India to do. Once and for all, India should realize that China cannot drive the course of India’s foreign policy.
India should aim to have a three-pronged approach toward Taiwan — bilateral, regional and multilateral.
At the bilateral level, it is proven beyond doubt that engaging Taiwan is mutually beneficial. The time is ripe to devise a synchronized strategy to engage each other.
Both countries should take a step further. Taiwan should be more proactive with India, while India should carefully nurture its engagement with Taiwan, while adhering to the “one China” policy.
However, not everything is about this policy. There are hundreds of noncontroversial areas where the two countries have not even initiated a dialogue, and all this can come before India and Taiwan head toward a security alignment.
This includes higher education, especially in information technology, engineering, biomedical fields, aeronautics and health sector degrees such as nursing, as well as Mandarin-language training.
A long-term framework to further increase cooperation in the economic, cultural, educational, people-to-people, and science and technology fields should be developed.
A holistic approach for exchanges between the two nation’s governments, businesses and citizens should also be adopted.
At the regional level, India should take cues from the approaches of countries such as Japan and Singapore on how to devise a consistent Taiwan policy.
India is collaborating with Japan in third countries. The two countries might also find ways to work with Taiwan in the connectivity and infrastructural domains.
India should also consider taking part in the Global Cooperation and Training Framework, which involves Taiwan, the US and Japan, to learn from Taiwan’s best practices.
Finally, India should have a multilateral approach toward Taiwan. Now that the Indo-Pacific region is embraced by several countries, it is crucial to consider Taiwan an important part of it, and a multilateral/collective effort is needed to include Taiwan in the evolving regional order.
India is a key country in the region and should take a lead in facilitating Taiwan’s inclusion.
Sana Hashmi is a visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.
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