President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has focused on improving relations with South Asian countries under the New Southbound Policy. It is in this context that Thursday’s meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hon Hai Precision Industry Co chairman Young Liu (劉揚偉) has been viewed as important — not merely because a Taiwanese company is planning to establish an electric vehicle plant in India, but also because the meeting indicated India’s willingness to engage at the highest political level.
While this development is certain to boost ties between Taiwan and India, several measures have also been taken to improve Taipei’s relations with other South Asian countries.
In September 2016, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Indians who hold permanent resident certificates issued by the US, the EU, Japan and other Western countries would be eligible to apply for an e-visa to visit Taiwan.
In April 2017, the ministry further granted visa privileges to Sri Lanka and Bhutan, allowing citizens of those countries to apply for tourist visas.
At the same time, businesspeople from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan were enabled to apply for an e-visa to Taiwan upon obtaining recommendations from branch offices of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council.
In March 2017, the Ministry of Education announced the New Southbound Talent Development Program, committed to mobilizing US$3.3 million to fund projects aimed at promoting education cooperation with New Southbound Policy target countries, with a focus on attracting students from South Asia.
The council also signed memorandums of understanding with Sri Lanka and Nepal to foster economic exchanges, boost trade and explore investment opportunities with those countries.
The Bhutan Chamber of Commerce for the first time participated in the Taiwan New Year Market Fair in 2018.
However, Taiwan’s relations with South Asian countries remain weak. Taiwan’s trade with the region totaled about US$9 billion in 2019, with India (US$7 billion) and Bangladesh (US$1.2 billion) having emerged as the two largest trading partners in South Asia.
There are several reasons for the limited engagement between Taiwan and the region. One obstacle is China’s proximity to South Asian countries, except India. It has been observed that at China’s request, countries such as Nepal and Pakistan have not shown an inclination to foster ties with Taiwan.
Additionally, Taiwan does not have official engagement with South Asian countries. With the exception of India, there is a complete absence of communication with national governments in the region, at times leading to confusion, uncertainty and policy chaos.
Due to the absence of Taiwan offices in most South Asian countries and poor flight connectivity, there is also a lack of interpersonal dialogue. This factor is especially true for a country like Bhutan, which, despite an absence of diplomatic ties with China, and facing a similar aggression as Taiwan, has not received significant outreach from Taipei.
Trade barriers imposed by South Asian countries are another obstacle preventing ties with Taiwan, particularly in the field of economics.
These challenges notwithstanding, there is no denying that improving bilateral ties would be beneficial for Taiwan and South Asian countries. It is time for Taiwan and countries in the region to consider meaningful steps to promote bilateral cooperation.
The financial crisis in Sri Lanka can be viewed as an opportunity for Taipei to extend a helping held to Colombo. This is important because one of the reasons for Sri Lanka’s financial problems is China’s debt-trap diplomacy. This has created strong resentment among Sri Lankans, who believe that their political leadership has sold some of of the country’s sovereignty to China. The 99-year lease to China of the Hambantota Harbor is an example. Taiwan should explore ways to help Sri Lanka and create goodwill among its people.
Taiwan could also cultivate ties with Bhutan through its economic and cultural office in India.
A lack of understanding of each other’s culture, languages and other issues has been a factor limiting trade and commerce with the region. Taiwan should establish at least one Taiwan center in a country neighboring India.
In this context, National Quemoy University in collaboration with the foreign ministry launched a short-term study program under the New Southbound Policy to attract students from across Asia, including its southern region.
However, it is equally true that Taiwan alone cannot transform relations with South Asian countries. It is imperative for these countries to reciprocate Taiwan’s efforts to build a durable relationship.
While South Asian countries have become concerned about the damage China’s Belt and Road Initiative has imposed on them, they should look to Taiwan as a reliable trade partner. Taiwan’s expertise in agriculture, electronics, green energy, medicine and other areas can play a crucial role in South Asia’s development.
Therefore, countries in the region should restructure their trade policies so that Taiwanese companies can consider South Asia a viable option for shifting manufacturing and other operations out of China.
Taiwan can also help these countries affordably create skilled workforces through its world-class education system. In addition to encouraging South Asian students to pursue higher education in the nation, Taiwanese universities could also establish satellite schools in South Asia.
Additionally, the deputy representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Center in Delhi has rightly said that India could attract Taiwanese students by promoting yoga and Hindi education in Taiwan.
Lastly, South Asian countries should try to learn from Southeast and East Asian nations about how they fostered a strong relationship with Taiwan without affecting their ties with China.
The time has come for South Asian countries to realize that relations with Taiwan can open many new opportunities for them, given that China has set its sights on swallowing up these nations.
Sumit Kumar is a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs visiting fellow at National Chengchi University and a postdoctoral fellow at the Indian Council of Social Sciences.
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