India’s approach to relations between Taiwan and China in the past was driven by political correctness and economic pragmatism. New Delhi consistently adhered to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s interpretation of the “One China” policy, which recognizes Tibet and Taiwan as integral parts of the PRC, and did not establish diplomatic ties with Taiwan (ROC). However, the moratorium on political interactions did not preclude India and Taiwan from pursuing economic engagements through trade, while people-to people contacts have facilitated social interactions, and Buddhism has been a driver for cultural exchanges.
Over the years, India’s economic and socio-cultural contacts with Taiwan expanded, leading to the establishment of the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Center (TECC) in 1995 at New Delhi and the India Taipei Association (ITA) in Taiwan in the same year. Due to their unofficial function, the PRC was quite amenable to this arrangement and there were no major issues over Taiwan between India and the PRC that disturbed the status quo.
However, in 2010, the Congress-led Indian government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh adopted a tough stance against the PRC and did a volte-face on its earlier “One-China” policy; a reference to “One-China” was removed from the joint statement issued during the visit of former premier Wen Jiabao to New Delhi. This was partly due to a number of contentious bilateral issues, such as issuing stapled visas to Indians from Arunachal Pradesh, infrastructure projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the slow pace of settlement of the boundary dispute by the Chinese, a growing China-Pakistan political and strategic nexus, including nuclear cooperation, and non-recognition of Arunachala Pradesh by China as an integral part of India.
The current government in New Delhi led by Mr. Narendra Modi has also taken a tough stand. Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj observed that if China expects India to agree to a “One-China” policy, then Beijing should reaffirm “One-India” keeping in mind India’s “sensitivities regarding Arunachal Pradesh.”
India’s diplomatic activism towards Taiwan is a major shift and a congratulatory tweet to President Tsai Ing-wen from Baratiya Janata Party (BJP) General Secretary Ram Madhav on social media stating “First woman President elected. DPP is anti-merger Party” was indeed the first sign of the ruling party’s overt expression of India-Taiwan friendship. Taiwan’s Representative in India, Tien Chung-Kwang (田中光), was quick to capitalize on the tweet and encouraged India to send a minister-level delegation to Taipei for President Tsai’s swearing-in ceremony, which, he believed, would be in “keeping with India’s Act East Policy” and would also “send [the] right signal in the region.”
Previously, India seized the opportunity to invite Taiwan’s former Foreign Minister and current Chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation, Tien Hung-mao (田弘茂), to New Delhi to participate in the Raisina Dialogue organized by the Indian government. This caused enormous discomfort among the PRC Embassy officials who protested Tien’s presence at the event where the PRC was represented by former Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. In 2006, PRC Ambassador to New Delhi, Sun Yuxi, had warned that, “We believe that India would honour its commitments on the Taiwan question and refrain from sending any wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces.”
Soon after taking office, President Tsai Ing-wen announced her government’s “new Southbound Policy,” which aims to deepen relations with ASEAN countries and India to move away from overreliance on the PRC, which absorbs nearly 40 percent of the country’s exports. The ROC is conscious that some of the ASEAN countries may be constrained in their engagement due to pressures from the PRC, whereas India would be a reliable trading partner, besides being an attractive market. Bilateral trade between India and Taiwan has grown nearly five-fold from US $1.19 billion in 2001 to US $5 billion in 2015. Both countries also hold annual bilateral economic consultations and Taiwan is keen to support several Indian initiatives announced by Prime Minister Modi such as the Make in India, Digital India, Skill India, and Startup India initiatives.
The above narrative clearly showcases New Delhi’s approach towards cross-Strait political dynamics and it would be very keen to capitalize on the new political dispensation in Taipei. There are at least five important reasons that encourage India to engage Taiwan at the strategic and political levels.
First, India wants the PRC to understand its sensitivities with regard to making reference to Arunachal Pradesh as a disputed area, which is currently under India’s control and designated as a state by the Indian Parliament. Its engagement with Taiwan is a useful diplomatic initiative to counter the PRC and it may also invoke the Tibet issue at an opportune moment.
Second, India sees an opportunity in engaging Taiwan to help it counter the China-Pakistan nexus, including both China’s overt support to Pakistan’s nuclear program and tacit support to Islamabad, which ferments trouble in the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir. India feels justified in beginning to engage Taiwan at the political levels as a pressure point for PRC.
Third, Indian concerns over Chinese naval developments, particularly the presence of submarines in the Indian Ocean, merit a dialogue between the Indian and ROC navies to share strategic information about PLA Navy deployments.
Fourth, at the geopolitical level, the ROC is a close partner of the United States and its ability to defend itself against aggressors is protected by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. The PRC is wary of the growing ties between India and the United States, and any U.S.-India-Taiwan relationship would not be in the interest of the PRC because it would effectively be contained by the Indian Pacific.
Fifth, it is useful to mention that India, Taiwan, and the United States are more natural partners due to their shared values and practice of democracy.
India’s Taiwan policy is undergoing a change and the political elite in New Delhi increasingly see the island as an important economic and political partner. The PRC has to understand that a rising India is exploring newer partners and could readily switch its interpretation of the “One-China” policy to reflect a new India-Taiwan partnership.
The main point: India’s Taiwan policy is undergoing a change and the political elite in New Delhi increasingly see the island as an important economic and political partner.