Can India Use Taiwan As A Strategic Card Against China?

Posted by Alik Naha in GlobeScope
February 23, 2017

Taiwan is an island off the southern coast of China that has been governed independently by mainland China since 1949. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) views the island as a province, while in Taiwan — a territory with its democratically elected government — leading political voices have different views on its status and relations with the mainland. Some observe the “One China” policy which says that there is only one China, the island and the mainland. And that, it is the Republic of China (ROC) that is based in Taipei. Others advocate for a de jure independent Taiwan.

The bilateral relations between India and Taiwan have improved since the 1990’s despite both nations not maintaining official diplomatic relations. India recognizes only PRC as the mainland and the island of Republic of China as a part of the mainland. However, with recent developments, things appear to go the other way round.

Constrained by its commitment to Beijing’s “One China” policy, New Delhi finds it difficult to realize the potential of its bilateral relationship with Taiwan. However, the new Indian government has redefined its “Look East policy” to “Act East” policy. It has launched ambitious initiatives such as “Make in India” and it may be time to highlight the importance of Taiwan for an emerging India and bring the India-Taiwan relationship into focus. This, in a way, can be argued as a tit-for-tat to the Chinese plan of CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) covering a major area of the POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) which India claims to be a part of its mainland.

Skeptics may question the relevance of Indo-Taiwanese ties for both the countries today, but the answer to the question probably lies in the fact that India-Taiwan relations are significant not only to the India’s security interests but also to its economy. This becomes further relevant as the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing -wen announced plans to direct investment to Southeast Asia and India. This plan – known as the New Southbound Policy – if flies, could result in India replacing China as the world heavyweight that Taiwanese investors prefer as the go-to place to make money.

On the issue of strategic security, both India and Taiwan are seriously and deeply concerned about China’s growing assertiveness in the region, more-so in the South China Sea region. The Chinese assertiveness becomes a medium to bring the strategic communities in New Delhi and Taipei closer. These ties now, becomes more important due to some of the recent standoffs between the two Asian giants. In April 2013, there was a “tent confrontation” between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Indian troops near the Line of Actual Control (LAC), when India was ready to host the visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

SEPTEMBER 4: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) at the West Lake State Guest House on September 4, 2016 in Hangzhou, China. The 11th G20 Leaders Summit will be held from September 4-5.
Photo credits: Wang Zhou – Pool/Getty Images

Against this backdrop, a rising India, which has its own set of problems with China, is widely seen as a potential counterweight to China’s increasing assertiveness. Since India and Taiwan remain conscious and watchful of the implications of China’s increasing military profile in the neighborhood, there appears to be a common ground on how to deal with the shared concerns. Assuming that India and Taiwan will forge a military alliance against China is too proactive and unrealistic. Taiwan does not expect India to be a military ally but believes that India’s presence in the region will provide some sort of balance.

Dr. Fang Tien-sze, Visiting Fellow from the Observer Research Foundation argued in a seminar on the “Overview of India-Taiwan Relations” that India-Pakistan relationship is similar to that of Taiwan-China relationships, referring to Pakistan and China as threats and India and Taiwan being their respective targets. This proves that both countries have mutual concerns and that India and Taiwan can share their experiences and concerns to deal with security issues. He further says, “India and Taiwan share a certain ‘DNA’ factor, which makes Taiwan know China better than any other country in the world, as is the case with India and Pakistan. They share a past, a history that is very valuable for understanding each other better. Hence, Taiwan can cooperate with India and help it gain a better insight into Chinese strategies.”

caricature of jimmy carter
Photo credits: Flickr/DonkeyHotey

The United States being Taiwan’s most important and only ally plays a vital role. This relationship proved its loyalty when President Carter ended ties with Taiwan in order to improve relationships with China. How important a role USA really plays when it comes to Taiwan was evident in 1996 when China conducted missile tests to influence Taiwanese elections. In response, US President Bill Clinton ordered the biggest display of US military power in Asia since the Vietnam War, sending ships to the Taiwan Strait, and a clear message to Beijing. Even POTUS vows to continue strong relation with Taipei.

As reported by the BBC, Mr. Trump previously broke decades of diplomatic protocol by speaking directly with Taiwan’s president after winning the US presidential election in November. Despite Chinese objections, he allowed Taiwanese delegation to attend his inauguration. In his interview with the Wall Street Journal he said, “Everything is under negotiation, including ‘One China’ I have raised questions on the ‘One China’ principle that U.S.A follows till date.”

A more recent happening that further irked China was India allowing a three-member delegation of Taiwanese legislators as a part of stepped up engagement following the setup of parliamentary friendship forum in December 2016. As reported by India Today, “The Chinese State media reported that at a time when new US President Donald Trump has put the brakes on challenging China over the Taiwan question, agreeing to change course and respecting the One China policy, India stands out as a provocateur.” The Global Times added that, “India has long wanted to use the Taiwan question, the south China sea and Dalai Lama issues as a bargaining chips in dealing with China.”

The article in the Global Times also suggested, that given India’s misgivings with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, it has been advised that the Modi government “play the Taiwan card“, using the commitment of the ’One-China policy’ as leverage in exchange for China’s endorsement of ‘One India’. It, however, warned that “by challenging China over the Taiwan question, India is playing with fire.” Although the mainland is a major trading partner of India, political discord and historical feud make economic cooperation between the two Asian giants.

It also warned that India should “be wary of Tsai’s political intentions and avoid being used to confront the mainland”, adding, “the best way for India to develop is by participating in the Belt and Road Initiative and attract more investments from the mainland”.

Thus the questions that primarily arise are whether India is in any way attempting to use Taiwan in the way that China uses Pakistan to limit India? Is there a bigger game plan that Indian diplomats are currently viewing to mend China’s fall with regard to India’s concerns while the new US President is making some hard comments in the context of China?

Though these are mere assumptions that one can make while analyzing the recent developments in the Asia-Pacific region, but greater cooperation between India and Taiwan could prove critical in helping the countries achieve their economic goals and their strategic aims in the region. It is time to acknowledge the importance of India-Taiwan relations. Thus, I would like to end this discussion by quoting Fareed Zakaria who rightly stated that in the post-American world, “…foreign policy is a matter of costs and benefits, not theology.”

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