India quietly enhances ties with Taiwan

by Namrata Hasija

Taipei, Taiwan evening skyline
The relationship between India and Taiwan is seen by many as both new and emerging. However, the fact of the matter is that India and ROC (Republic of China) – the official name of Taiwan  –  share long-standing historical linkages. The relationship intensified when Jawaharlal Nehru visited China on the invitation of General Chiang Kai-shek and when India supported the ROC after the Japanese invasion. The comradeship was taken further with the visit of General and Madam Chiang Kai-Shek in 1942, though the ties nose-dived when India de-recognised the ROC, following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.
Thereafter, no diplomatic exchanges took place between India and the ROC for decades.
However, in the 1990s with the ‘Look East Policy’, the relationship was renewed albeit with the shadow of PRC looming large in India’s relations with Taiwan. Under India’s ‘One China Policy’, both countries decided to build relations unofficially. India set up the India-Taipei Association (ITA) in Taipei in 1995, and a few months later Taiwan opened the Taipei Economic and Cultural Center (TECC) in New Delhi. Indeed, nearly two decades have passed since the establishment of bilateral relations (but not diplomatic relations) between India and Taiwan.
The relationship between the two countries has progressed in the field of economics, industry, trade and education, though the full potential of the relationship has never yet been wholly realised. India has always been cautious of the PRC and has turned away many overtures by Taiwan.
With the change of political leadership in India in 2014 and in Taiwan in 2016, a new surge in the relationship can be seen. Under the respective new regimes, India’s ‘Act East Policy and Taiwan’s ‘New Southbound Policy’ present another chance to consolidate an already existing relationship. In fact, at the moment, India and Taiwan have been quietly rebuilding their relationship, without any need to grab headlines.
Taiwan’s former Foreign Minister Tien Hung-mao made a low-key visit to Delhi to take part in the Raisina Dialogue, focusing on Asian connectivity, organised by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation in March 2016. He was there despite the presence of Li Zhaoxing, former Foreign Minister from China and the situation was handled splendidly by the organisers. Further, in 2016, the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Republic of India signed an air services agreement, as well as an MOU on agricultural cooperation at the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taipei.
The two countries also signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) for Cooperation on Railway Heritage in Chiayi City on December 24, 2016. In September 2016, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Center, New Delhi, also inaugurated the Taiwan Alumni Association in India. This will help Taiwan build a platform in India for students and professionals who have studied or worked in Taiwan. This will also give Taipei a database of human resource in India which can help to employ people in Taiwanese firms in India or Taiwan.
All these agreements and initiatives were part of the New Southbound Policy’s goal of sharing resources and promoting cultural exchange and cooperation as well as part of India’s Act East Policy.
India’s trade deficit with China has swelled manifold and Taiwan is also overtly dependent on the Chinese economy for sustenance. Thus, both countries are working to build economic relations to reduce dependency on China. India was Taiwan’s 17th biggest trade partner in the first half of 2016 with $2.27 billion in total imports and exports. As of the end of 2015, around 90 Taiwanese companies have set up business operations in India, with a total investment of $311 million in the fields of information and communication technology, medical devices, automobile components, machinery, steel, electronics, construction, engineering, financial services etc. The Taiwan Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers’ Association has selected two sites in Bengaluru and Greater Noida to build electronics manufacturing clusters with a view to deepening the supply chain collaboration with its Indian partners.
In the field of education, Taiwan’s Ministry of Education grants multiple scholarships to Indian students. At present, 1,143 Indian students are pursuing study of Mandarin language or higher education in Taiwan. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Center (TECC), New Delhi, has also established Mandarin centres in various Indian universities. Currently, there are 11 teachers from Taiwan teaching Mandarin, and there are over 3,000 Indian students who have taken Chinese courses in India. Taiwan Education Centers (TEC) in Indian universities also provide Chinese courses for senior officials in the Indian Army, tourism promoters and Indian employees working in Taiwanese enterprises in India. This collaboration is especially important for India as Mandarin could be an important tool when it comes to understanding Mainland China.
Despite these developments, the shadow of PRC still looms over this dynamic relationship. Taiwan offered to establish military and strategic cooperation to counter China in the region, especially during the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rule when it first came to power in 2000. However, India did not show much keenness.
With the DPP again coming to power in 2016 and their plan to wean Taiwan away from closer ties with China, India should reconsider its proposal of not sending a military attaché to Taipei. Taiwan is one of the best China watchers in the world and India should tie up with it to gain a better insight into Chinese strategies. For this purpose, India should strengthen military and strategic ties with Taiwan.
It is high time India rethinks its foreign policy towards Taiwan and consolidates this relationship to crystallise its ‘Act East Policy’. While the Narendra Modi government has given special attention to developing triangular and quadrilateral coalitions with the US, Japan and Australia as a part of its regional security strategy, the inclusion of Taiwan could prove very significant in this endeavour.
(Namrata Hasija is a Research Associate, Society for Policy Studies (SPS) and President, Taiwan Alumni Association in India. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to editor@spsindia.in)
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