An Indian Perspective on Taiwan’s Role in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

An Indian Perspective on Taiwan’s Role in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

An Indian Perspective on Taiwan’s Role in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

‘Indo-Pacific’ is a spatial formulation that combines the customary cartographic understanding of the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific region. This maritime space spans the western Pacific Ocean to the western Indian Ocean along the eastern coast of Africa and has attracted different representations such as Indo-Pacific (by Australia, India, and Japan), Indo-Asia Pacific (by the United States), and Pac-Indo (by Indonesia). The term has entered the official lexicon, and is frequently used in official speeches, comments, and interviews. It also appears in defense white papers and strategy, and doctrine documents of many of the militaries. The Indo-Pacific is now commonly used by the majority of countries in Asia and the Pacific, excluding China, which continues to retain the earlier understanding of Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean.

It is not surprising then that ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been the feature of the contemporary geopolitical, geostrategic, and geo-economic discourse. It is characterized by varying political priorities with competing ambitions; commonality of economic interests to harness the fruits of globalization and interdependence; and contending strategic perspectives of the regional and extra-regional stakeholders to dominate the affairs of the region. Although, Indo-Pacific is buzzing with a variety of cooperative multilateral structures, and bilateral and multilateral arrangements, yet a sense of insecurity prevails.

Amid these developments, new Asian powers such as China and India, backed by impressive economic growth and military capability, have arrived on the scene. Japan, a major economic power, is beginning to be more proactive in the security domain; and the United States, the dominant power in the region, is now openly competing with China for power dominance. As these major Asian powers jostle for relative ascendency in the Indo-Pacific, smaller Asian nations, including members of ASEAN, are presented with a variety of dilemmas of politico-diplomatic choices to accommodate their national interests in the evolving China-US rivalry. Likewise, choices with Taiwan are limited given that it faces a near continuous barrage of threats from across the Strait from China.

Since the last few months there have been pronouncements from Taipei about the Indo-Pacific. In December 2017, President Tsai Ing-wen noted that as a democratic nation, her country can contribute significantly to the US’ new strategy for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and work together “to defend the common goal of freedom and openness” and “protect the fundamental international order.”

In May 2018, the Taiwanese government announced the setting up of the Indo-Pacific Affairs Section to be overseen by the Department of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (DEAP) under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The section is mandated to formulate Indo-Pacific region strategies “in synch with those of like-minded nations like the US, as well as advancing the New Southbound Policy (NSP) and the staff is being expanded by 10 per cent in the near future.”

Many of the Taiwanese statements about the Indo-Pacific are quite related to the US’ National Security Strategy (NSS) and its agenda for the region. These draw liberally and dovetail into the US’ long-held policy towards Taiwan of maintaining its “One-China’ policy” and “strong ties with Taiwan” while honoring “commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.”

The US’ NSS released in December 2017 defines the geographic scope of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States. It also notes that “sustaining favorable balances of power will require a strong commitment and close cooperation with allies and partners because allies and partners magnify US power and extend US influence.” Furthermore, US Asia policy is represented by its new catchphrase “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” triggered by the militarization of the South China Sea features whose legality and ownership has been contested under international law.

The US’ posturing in the Indo-Pacific is backed by freedom-of-navigation operations, which is a message to China that US military forces will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits. The majority of the countries have endorsed and accepted the idea of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” but they may not support the strategic element embedded in the US strategy for the region of containing China. In essence, they have different understanding of the Indo-Pacific from its political, diplomatic, economic, and strategic dimensions.

As far as India is concerned, it has welcomed Indo-Pacific as a new representation of the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean (despite the fact it has surrendered the enormous symbolism of the Indian Ocean attached to its name). In this context, this article highlights three issues of convergence between India and Taiwan to engage and work for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.

First, at the heart of its understanding of Indo-Pacific, New Delhi is committed to upholding rule of law and international norms. The 2015 ‘India-US Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’ called on the contending parties to the South China Sea dispute to ensure ‘freedom of navigation’ and ‘over flight’ operations. Likewise, the June 2017 joint statement between India and the US states that both partners are “responsible stewards” and “central to peace and stability” in the Indo-Pacific region. They reiterated the importance of “international law, freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce throughout the region.” The joint statement called on “all nations to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully, strengthening regional economic connectivity through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment.”

These thoughts may resonate in Taipei and are a useful trigger for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which is a convergent maritime space for India and Taiwan. Both countries are important stakeholders to uphold maritime order, ensuring safe commerce and building good economic and cultural relations.

Second, there are convergences between India’s Act East Policy (AEP) and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP). In the 1990s, India announced the Look East Policy (LEP) pivoting on economic engagement initiatives, which has now gained political, strategic and cultural dimensions including establishment of institutional mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation. In its new avatar, the LEP has been rechristened as AEP and India has upgraded its relations to strategic partnership with the majority of the countries in the Indo-Pacific region. It is true that under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, there have been some very important developments at the political level and many top Taiwanese delegations have visited India and engaged in dialogue to explore common agendas for economic, social, and cultural cooperation.  

Third, is economic cooperation. The 2016 NSP is quite unequivocal of its economic agenda and among Taiwan’s top 15 trading partners, nearly 60 percent are in the Indo-Pacific region. India-Taiwan bilateral trade has grown five folds since 2001 and was estimated to be USD 5 billion in 2016. Besides, the NSP was a catalyst for nearly 90 Taiwanese companies that set up business operations in India with a total investment of USD 1.4 billion.

The aforementioned issues can potentially generate a robust India-Taiwan relationship; however, the strategic element in the Indo-Pacific strategy may not be in Taiwan’s favor. The ‘Quad’, represented by Australia, China, India, Japan, and the United States, is a collective approach to address a number of security threats and challenges in the Indo-Pacific. To be sure, the near continuous Chinese naval posturing in the South China Sea has attracted concern among a number of Indo-Pacific littorals including the members of the Quad. The leadership of the latter has chosen to refrain from labeling their coming-together as an alliance; instead have preferred to call it an ‘association of like-minded nations’ under the rubric of a ‘Quad.’ The growing Chinese aggressive naval posturing prompted then-Admiral Harry Harris, Commander in the US Pacific Command, to label China a “disruptive transitional force in the Indo-Pacific” and called on the members of the ‘Quad’ to take “courageous decisions” in 2018. It is useful to recall the 2007 Exercise Malabar, which included Australia, India, Japan, Singapore, and the US, and was perceived as a naval ‘concert of democracies’ targeting China, which invited sharp reactions from Beijing. After this episode similar exercises were no longer held. While Taiwan clearly faces military threats from China, it may not be a good political choice to encourage Taiwan to join the ‘Quad,’ and similar understandings may be expected from Taipei. At least one reason would be that the reaction from China about such a proposal would invariably result in a more aggressive posturing against Taiwan.

The foregoing discussions clearly illustrate that there are opportunities for Taiwan to support, participate, and partake in the evolving “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” individually and in partnership with other nations, such as the United States and India. Yet, before that, it is useful to explore convergences in India’s Act East Policy and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, which could involve development of transportation and economic infrastructure, technological cooperation, socio-cultural contacts, and people-to-people interactions. The strategic element may need to be given a passé, which would ensure that the relationship meets national objectives.

The main point: There are opportunities for Taiwan to support, participate, and partake in the evolving “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” individually and in partnership with other nations, such as the United States and India. However, the strategic component may need to be given a passé in order to ensure that the relationships meet national objectives.