Though India does not have formal diplomatic relations with the island democracy that Beijing considers a breakaway province, it has slowly been increasing bilateral engagements in the economic, cultural and educational spheres. This can, with some deft diplomacy, become a bargaining chip at future negotiations.
The unthinkable happened this year. On October 10, Taiwan’s National Day, a local leader of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP, put up posters outside the Chinese embassy on Delhi’s post Shanti Path with the message “Taiwan, Happy National Day”. That same day, millions of Indian social media users posted similar messages.
These were in response to a diktat from the media section of the Chinese embassy telling Indian journalists to respect the “one China policy” while reporting on the Taiwan National Day.
The Modi government, too, reacted strongly to this. It issued a statement saying the media in India is free and, therefore, reports on every subject as it deems fit.
Though India, like most other countries, does not have any formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province, New Delhi’s relationship with the island nation has increasingly featured in the national media and the country’s collective imagination as ties with China have soured following unprovoked military actions on the disputed border, which killed 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese troops.
Relations between the two vibrant democracies have improved significantly since the mid-1990s when the two sides established informal ties.
Some retired diplomats feel India should leverage its relations with Taipei to balance its ties with China and negate the latter’s “alliance” with its all-weather friend Pakistan, which, is now dangerously close to becoming a Beijing satellite.
Does New Delhi have a “Taiwan card” to play? Opinion on this sensitive subject is divided.
India has stopped the ritual mention of its adherence to the One China Policy in its joint statements and official documents since 2010 – mainly in response to Beijing’s unstinting support for Islamabad and its attempts at denying India entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) and other international for a – but its ties with Taiwan are still circumscribed by the architecture of its ties with China.
An influential group in New Delhi feels India will have to slowly start building a stronger partnership with Taiwan before it can think of establishing full diplomatic relations with it. In the interim, this group advocates a closer strategic partnership based on culture, business and technology.
Here, there is scope for convergence between the Modi government’s Act East policy, which advocates closer economic, strategic and diplomatic engagement with countries in the Indo-Pacific, and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, which seeks to enhance cooperation and exchange between Taiwan and 18 countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Australasia. Both policies aim to increase regional influence and gain political and economic benefits from their partners in the region.
Taiwan’s active support will, thus, be crucial to the Modi government’s ambitions of emerging as a globally competitive FAB manufacturing centre.
That is why there have been persistent reports – not denied by either side – that the two Asian democracies were considering launching negotiations for a trade deal. This drew an immediate response from Beijing, which asked India to approach ties with Taiwan “prudently and properly.” The statement reiterated that Beijing would “firmly oppose” any official exchanges between New Delhi and Taipei. Incidentally, India and Taiwan signed a bilateral investment agreement in 2018.
Every Indian approach towards Taiwan has met with sharp reactions from Beijing. This has considerably constrained the development of broad-based ties between the two countries beyond the realms of culture, education and, in recent years, some investments by Taiwanese contract manufacturers in India.
But the scope and potential of the relationship is immense. “What we’ve explored so far is less than the tip of the ice-berg,” said a retired Indian diplomat who has served in China. But unless India stands up to pressure from China and takes a concerted decision to engage more closely with Taiwan, the potential will never translate into reality, he added.
In this context, a serving diplomat pointed to the fact that two ruling party Members of Parliament had, in May, attended the swearing-in ceremony of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen virtually and even sent her congratulatory messages.
This raised eyebrows in New Delhi and several foreign capitals with many wondering if this was Modi’s way of sending a subtle message to Beijing. China even issued a demarche to India on this issue.
But with anti-China sentiment simmering in India and, occasionally, coming to a boil – even as business and investment ties between New Delhi and Taipei flower and bloom – this bilateral relationship, more than many others, could come to define India’s larger relationship with its aggressive northern neighbour.