A Taiwanese delegation which included three parliamentarians among others visited India in February 2017. The visit elicited a sharp reaction from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) foreign ministry. Its spokesperson Geng Shuang commented, ‘We hope that India would understand and respect China’s core concerns and stick to the “One-China” principle and prudently deal with Taiwan-related issues and maintain sound and steady development of India-China relations’. A Global Times commentary warned that ‘By challenging China over the Taiwan question, India is playing with fire’. It is hard to recall a previous occasion when the PRC reacted to an event related to India-Taiwan relations with reference to its One China policy. The visit was not in variation with the long-standing normal pattern of India-Taiwan relations. Moreover, Taiwanese legislative delegations visited the US and Malaysia around the same time. As the leader of the delegation Legislator Kuan Biling suggested, Beijing’s criticism was directed only at the delegation which was visiting India. The strong Chinese reactions though can be attributed to the growing strategic uncertainty in Sino-US, Cross-Strait as well as the India-China relations.
Chinese exhortation or ‘warnings’ to India so far with respect to the One-China policy has been in the context of Tibet — latest examples being US Ambassador Richard Verma’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in October 2016, the Indian government’s approval in October 2016 for the Dalai Lama’s forthcoming visit to Arunachal Pradesh in March 2017 or his meeting with President Pranab Mukherjee in December 2016. In comparison, China has shown a relaxed attitude towards India-Taiwan ties since they established unofficial relations in 1995. The difference in response can be attributed to history and the manner in which China implements its One China policy.
It is worth recalling that between 1949 and 1995 when the so-called unofficial ties were established, India and Taiwan did not have any institutional contacts. After 1995, India has conducted its relations with Taiwan with utmost caution and within the domain of the people-to-people relations, without ceding any signs of sovereignty or diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. India did not indulge in any maneuvers in the troubled waters of the Taiwan Strait for instance, a flashpoint between the US and China.
President Donald Trump reiterated the US support for the One-China policy in his telephonic conversation with President Xi Jinping on February 8, 2017. This put to rest concerns that arose in the aftermath of Trump accepting greetings from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ingwen over telephone and his questioning of the One China policy in an interview to Fox News in December 2016. While a clear picture of Sino-US relations under Trump will take some time to emerge, the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — which was a critical pillar of US rebalancing strategy, has caused uncertainty about the US commitment for Asia-Pacific security.
India-China relations have also been witnessing similar strategic uncertainty in the recent past. Events which have fed this uncertainty include two military standoffs in India’s Ladakh region in April 2013 and then in September 2014; Chinese vetoes blocking India’s resolutions in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to get Pakistan-based terrorists Masood Azhar, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and Syed Salahuddin sanctioned; the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir valley disregarding Indian sentiments and the Chinese objection to India’s entry into the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG).
India is also becoming expressive in raising its concerns with China. India identified China by name as a roadblock to its entry to the NSG, has pushed China on the issue of Chinese support for Pakistan on terrorism and the CPEC. It has further allowed the Dalai Lama to meet with President Mukherjee at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Although the Modi government’s ‘One-India’is not yet a fully developed and actionable policy, it can be gauged that the government is not inclined to go soft and turn a blind eye to Chinese actions which can potentially impinge upon India’s sovereignty. New Delhi appears to be sending a message to Beijing that its support for the One-China policy might no longer be unconditional.
Except for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s and a few political leaders’ public airing of views on the Formosa problem in the 1950s and 60s, India has been self-censored on Taiwan. This is in line with the international community, which has similarly become progressively self-censored on the Cross-Strait issue in deference to PRC’s One-China policy. It seems that the US and its Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), 1979 has relieved the international community from any obligation towards the Cross-Strait issue. However, in a hypothetical scenario of the US withdrawal from the region, there may be stakeholder countries which might not like to over-look the existence of Taiwan and reinvent it as a rallying point to assert their positions in regional politics vis-à-vis China.
One major country that can play an important role in this context is Japan, which has got its share of serious political and security problems with China. These have aggravated since September 2012 when Japan nationalized the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. In the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Co-operation (1997), the phrase ‘in situations in areas surrounding Japan’ was considered as a reference to Taiwan. Although the latest 2015 guidelines do not contain this phrase, Japan has subtly upgraded its representative office in Taiwan from January 2017 with a change in nomenclature — from the Interchange Association, Japan to the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association.
It is against this backdrop that India’s ‘Act East’ policy may have to confront the reality of the Taiwan-related developments. It would be relevant to recall that the DPP’s first government (2000-08) coincided with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government (1998-2004). During that period, many strategic overtures from Taiwan to India were noticed. The idea of India-Taiwan-Japan strategic triangle, premised on shared security concerns vis-à-vis China, was floated by the DPP affiliated scholars and activists.
George Fernandes, Defence Minister in the NDA government who became famous for his ‘China is India’s Enemy No. 1’ statement after India’s nuclear tests in 1998 — visited Taipei in 2004 and 2006. He did not hold a ministerial portfolio then. However, that was also the time of rising hope in India-China relations, particularly after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003. These hopes clashed with tensions and the dangerous dip in Cross-Strait normalcy when the Chen Shuibian led DPP government (2000-08) was in power. The BJP, which is a trenchant critique of Nehruvian legacy including his China policy, and the DPP are again in power almost simultaneously. The hope and enthusiasm of the 2000s in India-China relations has currently given way to uncertainties, unintentionally placing India and Taiwan on the same page vis-à-vis China. The aforementioned fluid strategic situation and its potential implications for India-Taiwan ties therefore cannot go unnoticed in Beijing.
It would be premature to argue with certainty whether the visit was planned to convey any larger message. Earlier too, the relations have seen some major events, which were speculated as some shift or a departure but eventually were proved as isolated events. India sending serving Indian Foreign Service officials as Director-General to its de facto embassy, the India-Taipei Association (ITA), beginning from 2003, the announcement of a joint study on India-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement (FTA) by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao in 2011, President Ma Ying-jeou’s stopover in Mumbai in 2012 and Vice President Denyih’s layover in New Delhi in 2014 are pertinent examples. These events however had no strategic impact on ties.
However, at the same time, Indian parliamentarians have reportedly been stopped from going to attend Tsai Ing-wen’s swearing-in ceremony. In another instance, Taiwanese interlocutors maintain that India gave a green signal to Vice President Chen Chien-jen’s stopover in New Delhi on route to the Holy See quite late in time due to which the Taiwan government had to change his route. Incidentally, New Delhi is a natural stopover for China Airlines flight from Taipei to Rome via New Delhi and there is a past precedent of Vice-President Den-yih’s layover in New Delhi in 2014.
Indian approach towards Taiwan has always been shaped by the China factor; and India-Taiwan ties have all along sailed through under Chinese shadow. If Taiwan is a reality that India’s Act East policy might have to confront, China is a bigger reality that India has been facing for decades. India-China relations operate on a much larger strategic canvas which would be difficult to match for any shared strategic canvass that can be visualized for India-Taiwan relations.
Finally, the best course for India-Taiwan relations is the course independent of China. In the short-and the medium-term, injecting a dose of greater confidence in the bilateral relations should be India’s strategic objective towards Taiwan. India should not succumb to any undue Chinese pressure and must allow the high-level contacts to grow and develop further, which is logical between two trading partners whose annual trade is around $5 billion, with a potential for further growth. Clarity, firmness and sticking to the positive territory of the relations are what are required in India’s approach towards Taiwan.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India. This article first appeared in the Comment section of the website of Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in/idsacomments) on March 7, 2017