India and Taiwan do not have offical diplomatic relations, hence any traditional or direct security ties between the two countries are implausible. The China factor looms large over their relations like the sword of Damocles, but it is this same sword that puts them in accord.
Recently, China warned India on security ties with Taiwan following the visit of three former Indian service chiefs to Taiwan. The augmentation in overture from both sides is a cognizance of an enmeshed security-stability-sovereignty triad of economic growth, development and poverty alleviation.
This calculus gets more prominence in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and uncertainty in the Taiwan Strait.
There has been an upward trajectory in India-Taiwan relations in the recent past that cannot solely be attributed to the matters of low politics. Considerable credit can be given to the increasing Chinese belligerence in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and the Himalayas. This year’s edition of China’s standard national map is just another example of China’s territorial aggression with its neighbors, including India and Taiwan.
The increased prominence of Taiwan in India’s strategic and military circles has been evident since late July, when India Chief of Defense Staff General Anil Chauhan ordered a study to assess India’s possible options if Taiwan were to be attacked by China. The idea is to be ready if any conflict breaks out in the Taiwan Strait.
A few days later, former chiefs of India’s three services, former chief of the air staff R.K.S. Bhadauria, former chief of the naval staff admiral Karambir Singh, and former chief of the army staff general M.M. Naravane, were in Taipei to participate in the Ketagalan Forum on Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue.
Singh was also one of the key speakers at the forum and referred to Taiwan as the major flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific. He also said that India does not want the Chinese playbook in the South China Sea to be replicated in the Indian Ocean. The team also included Major General Rakesh Bhadauria, head of the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation military think tank, and Captain Kamlesh Agnihotri, a senior fellow at the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), which is headed by Singh. The NMF’s intellectual and organizational development is supported by the Indian Ministry of Defense and the Indian Navy.
It is not unprecedented that former chiefs or ex-military personnel have visited Taiwan, but the magnitude and the timing of recent visits should not be overlooked. Following the security forum, the team also held discussions at the Institute of National Defense and Security Research, visited several places and interacted with various stakeholders. New Delhi and the delegates maintained that they were visiting in their personal capacity and that there was no agenda from the Indian side, but this has generated speculation that there has been a shift in India’s position on China.
In a separate interview, Singh, Naravane and Bhadauria said that India’s official position regarding China has not changed. When asked about the study group, they said that their visit was not part of any study group. Naravane added that if China invaded Taiwan, India would provide diplomatic support to the nation and condemn the Chinese aggression, which is consistent with India’s position. India does not support any form of aggression against any country.
However, its nature and the magnitude would depend on three things: how the crisis starts, how it unfolds into conflict and how the US and the other countries in the region respond.
Naravane also believes that India should be engaging more with Taiwan. Apart from semiconductors, Naravane and Bhadauria believe that India and Taiwan should try to forge ties based on their respective capabilities in the fields of defense manufacturing, IT, module technology, R&D and space.
However, there are no ongoing military-to-military exchanges. Their views might be personal, but it highlights increasing focus on Taiwan in India’s security calculus.
Both India and Taiwan operate in realpolitik, so it would be naive to expect something drastic and overt. Their best option is to follow the art of deception. Officially, track II and track 1.5 diplomacy is at the center of India-Taiwan relations, but the possibility of working below the radar and in a multilateral framework for security or military engagements and information sharing can be explored. Experts from Taiwan’s strategic community also believe that more security dialogue between India and Taiwan is needed to make informed decisions.
Taiwan can also tap into India’s improved ties with the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia and ASEAN, as these countries already have strong ties with Taiwan. The increased naval exercises, military exchanges and information sharing between India and these countries would certainly benefit Taiwan. The increased interoperability in the region opens a multilateral mechanism and backdoor channel of communication for Taiwan.
A stronger India in the Indian Ocean is in Taiwan’s interest. India is a “threat in-being” for China. Chinese vulnerability lies in the Indian Ocean region on which China’s energy security depends. In 2021, 70 percent of China’s petroleum and liquefied natural gas exports and 60 percent of its total trade went through the Strait of Malacca. Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) might try to downplay the “Malacca dilemma,” but the fact that China is trying to explore alternate access points to the Indian Ocean via Pakistan and Myanmar tells a different story. The ambitious proposal of a Thai canal to provide an alternative to transit through the Strait of Malacca underlines Chinese attempts to mitigate its vulnerabilities in the Indian Ocean. A strong Indian position in the Indian Ocean Rim along with the presence of the US Navy in the region would certainly be a concern for China while planning an attack on Taiwan.
It is not in India’s interest for Taiwan to be unified with China, as it would further bolster China’s belligerence along the Sino-India border. A crisis in the Taiwan Strait would have far-reaching consequences for the region and the Global South where India has pitched itself as a leader. India would not be in a position to be neutral or shun the matter as someone else’s problem.
Furthermore, unification could change the entirety of Asian power dynamics, putting India in a precarious regional and global position. The recalibration in Indo-US relations, India’s strengthened relations with other Indo-Pacific partners, and India’s prominent position in the Indian Ocean would put an onus on India to take a strong position.
Taiwan needs to integrate more into the international community, to globalize security in the Taiwan Strait and increase the magnitude of its engagement with the world in general and the Global South in particular. It needs to develop asymmetric diplomacy like its asymmetric defense.
Regarding Taiwan’s approach to India, the nation must target long-term dividends by adopting a bottom-up approach whereby it engages more local-level politicians. This approach has worked well in the case of Taiwan-US relations, where Taiwan enjoys bipartisan support, and so could also work with India.
Aside from that, building sister-city projects and private-to-private collaboration (like start-ups) should be explored. To address its demographic depression, education cooperation and human resource mobility agreement to facilitate labor movement can play an important role.
The India-Taiwan relationship needs to adopt a niche diplomacy to further people-centric policymaking, promotion of peace, development, democracy and the economy. The economy might be the driving force, but the security calculus is the underlying impetus of India-Taiwan relations in the present geopolitical scenario.
Kumari Mansi is an assistant professor at Amity University Haryana, India and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs fellow at National Chengchi University.
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