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India-Taiwan engagement should enhance regional balance

Dr Sana Hashmi

Dr Sana Hashmi

Taipei, Taiwan, March 6, 2023

India-Taiwan relations have witnessed transformative changes since 2020.

The emergence of the Indo-Pacific construct, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and China’s aggression were three major triggers for advancement in cooperation.

However, one of the less-appreciated developments is the proactive stance toward Taiwan of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration.

India’s Taiwan policy remains underappreciated primarily because, unlike other countries, it has steered clear of treating Taiwan as a pawn in a geopolitical game of major powers and has kept its relations with China separate from its equation with Taiwan.

From India’s perspective, Taiwan is a valuable economic partner. 

When Mr Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014, there were obvious expectations from his administration to further engagement with Taiwan.

His interactions with Taiwan and his image of being pro-business were major reasons for such an expectation. As General Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mr Modi visited Taiwan in 1999 and invited the largest-ever Taiwanese business delegation to Gujarat in 2011.

As the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he pursued closer economic engagement between his State and Taiwan, and even said that “Taiwan and Gujarat are made for each other.”

In 2012, Gujarat signed an agreement with Taiwan’s China Steel Corp (CSC) to set up an electrical steel plant in Dahej.

In 2020, two BJP Parliamentarians, Meenakshi Lekhi, now Federal Minister of State for External Affairs and Culture and Rahul Kaswan, joined President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) swearing-in ceremony via video link. Lekhi even took to social media and said she attended the ceremony on behalf of the Modi government.

India has attempted to strike a balance between managing tensions with China and advancing economic ties with Taiwan.

One of the key objectives of India’s China policy before the 2020 Galwan clashes — in which Indian and Chinese troops clashed along their border — was to find ways to achieve a breakthrough in the protracted boundary dispute while bolstering its balanced policy of engaging China by focusing on other aspects of the relationship.

The Galwan clashes altered how India views and approaches China. With this, the need to pay heed to China’s sensitivities has also subsided. One of the major changes in this regard has been to not sideline engagement with Taiwan.

Indian officials as well as minsters are more open to exchanges with their Taiwanese counterparts. Some examples include Lekhi’s reciprocal Diwali festival wishes to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Center in New Delhi, Taiwan’s de facto embassy, in November 2021 and India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson calling out of China for unilaterally changing the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait in the aftermath of a visit to Taipei in August last year by then-US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi.

India is not looking to hastily transform its Taiwan policy, as any change would be irreversible. There are subtle changes and India is opting to move forward slowly but steadily.

The altering of the Taiwan policy by Modi’s administration is matched with the Democratic Progressive Party’s placement of India as a key priority country within the New Southbound Policy framework.

The Modi administration’s policies — specifically the Act East Policy and initiatives such as a US$10 billion investment to build a semiconductor manufacturing ecosystem, Digital India, Self-Reliant India (or Atmanirbhar Bharat) and Make in India — align with the New Southbound Policy as well as its Indo-Pacific vision.

Taiwan could help with the Modi government’s push to transform India into a manufacturing hub. Both sides aim to reduce dependence on China. Deterioration in ties with China and Beijing’s hostile approach have caused serious disruptions to supply chains and led to a realization that doing business with China will become more difficult. There is a critical need to develop an alternative Asian supply chain.

For Modi’s administration, “India first” is the mantra. In this context, Taiwan seems to be a natural partner to advance some of India’s strategic and commercial interests.

Modi’s foreign policy has focused on building synergies and maximizing convergences. Advancing ties with Taiwan further aids India’s foreign policy objectives.

There is no doubt that Taiwan fits well within this context and complements this new Indian avatar. Taiwan is a fellow democracy, a like-minded partner and has a similar threat perception. Such commonalities should form the basis for cooperation.

As India is an ardent follower of strategic autonomy and favors issue-based coalitions, India-Taiwan relations should be shaped by convergences and mutual benefit.

More importantly, given that China continues to remain the biggest security threat for India and Taiwan, it is only beneficial for New Delhi to forge closer ties with Taipei.

Sana Hashmi is a post-doctoral fellow at the Taiwan Asia Exchange Foundation and fellow at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations.

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