In the first two years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, India has taken many transformative initiatives in its relations with the rest of the world. One such initiative of the government has been to foster closer ties with East Asian countries under the “Act East” policy. However, efforts have not been made to improve ties with Taiwan, which can play a vital role in India’s strategic and economic interests.
The genesis of India-Taiwan relations can be traced in the period of pre-Independence India. However, bilateral ties between the two ceased to exist in 1950 when India accorded diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China. Further, during Cold War, the prospect of having even informal ties between New Delhi and Taipei remained remote, as Taiwan jointed the US-led bloc and India followed the non-alignment policy. But in the 1990s, the P.V. Narasimha Rao government reoriented India’s policy towards Taiwan, as India faced some serious domestic and foreign policy challenges. Domestically, India had to deal with one of the worst economic crises in the post-Independence era. Externally, India needed to adapt to a new international order, where its time-tested friend, the Soviet Union, was no longer available to provide it financial and defence cover. Consequently, India and Taiwan established “unofficial” relations in 1995, with the establishment of the India-Taipei Association (ITA) in Taipei. The two countries signed the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement and the Customs Cooperation Agreement in 2011. These initiatives have increased trade between the two countries to $5.9 billion in 2014, with nearly 70 Taiwanese working in difference sectors of the Indian economy. In August 2015, the Taiwan based Foxconn, one of the largest hardware manufacturers in the world, announced an investment of $5 billion in India. Taiwan is providing teachers for Chinese courses in India. The two countries are also cooperating in the field of culture and science and technology. However, the size of the relationship is still small, despite the fact that India and Taiwan have common reasons to accelerate their bilateral ties.
Strategically, both countries have security threats from China. India has a long-standing dispute with China and in fact, in recent times Beijing has increased its assertive posturing on Indian territories. On the other hand, Beijing has expressed its aim of annexing Taiwan militarily, considering it as a breakaway of mainland China. At the same time, New Delhi and Taipei share the common interest of preventing China from making South China Sea its exclusive zone. By doing so, while Taiwan can further consolidate its identity of an independent state, India will strengthen its position in the region. Taiwan has better understanding of People’s Republic of China and it is also ready to host Indian military students at its National Defence University (NDU). Thus developing strategic ties with Taiwan can greatly help India in understanding China’s strategic thinking, thereby building its own military prowess.
New Delhi and Taipei share the common interest of preventing China from making South China Sea its exclusive zone. By doing so, while Taiwan can further consolidate its identity of an independent state, India will strengthen its position in the region. Taiwan has better understanding of People’s Republic of China and it is also ready to host Indian military students at its National Defence University (NDU).
The Modi government can advance its economic interests by working with Taipei. Taiwan possesses huge foreign reserves and is known for its expertise in the field of hardware manufacturing, construction, infrastructure, mines exploration, electronic manufacturing, logistics, automobiles, food processing and others. Thus, it undoubtedly can play a vital role in the success of PM Modi’s “Make in India,” “Digital India,” “Skill India” initiatives. For instance, if India’s expertise in software and Taiwanese expertise in hardware come together, it would be beneficial to both sides. At the same time, by providing a big market, India would be able to reduce the deepening economic ties between China and Taiwan. With the use of Taiwan’s agro-technology, India can transform its agriculture sector as well.
Since the Modi government has attached huge importance to soft diplomacy as a part of India’s foreign policy to achieve national interests, promoting tourism with Taiwan can be an attractive way of cementing ties between the two countries, given the fact that Buddhism is the religion of the majority of Taiwanese people and India is the homeland of this religion.
While it is true that one major obstacle that hampers close ties between India and Taiwan is India’s acceptance of “one China policy,” this however does not deter New Delhi from seeking close security and economic ties with Taiwan in the same way Beijing is expanding its involvement with Islamabad in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Thus, India should take bold initiatives to reach out to Taiwan. At the same time, India should also assert its right to decide the kind of relations it wishes to have with Taiwan, if China dictates India not to deal with Taiwan directly. At the same time, as Tasai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been elected as President of Taiwan and has already announced to prioritise relations with India, it is hoped that India and Taiwan will be able to strength their bilateral ties in future.
Sumit Kumar is an ICSSR Doctoral Fellow at the UGC Centre for Southern Asia Studies of the Pondicherry University.