Ahead of Taiwan’s National Day on October 10, the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi sent a letter to Indian media outlets with directives on how to report on Taiwan. The embassy stressed that Indian media should not refer to Taiwan as a “country” or the “Republic of China” and that the island’s top leader should not be called “President” when reporting on Taiwan’s National Day celebrations. In response, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) stated, “The Indian media is free to report on any issue it deems fit.” Indian netizens also took to social media to commemorate Taiwan’s Double Ten National Day, while a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) put up posters in New Delhi wishing Taiwan a “Happy National Day,” including outside the Chinese Embassy. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Vice President William Lai (賴清德) both conveyed their gratitude to Indians who expressed congratulations and support for Taiwan’s National Day. The outpouring of Indian support for Taiwan against unrelenting Chinese pressure has led some netizens to raise the possibility of India joining the civil society-initiated “Milk Tea Alliance” (奶茶聯盟) of Asian democracies banding together against China.
Pro-Democracy Milk Tea Alliance
The informal Milk Tea Alliance, which includes netizens from Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, began in April. At the time, Chinese netizens launched attacks against Thai actor Vachirawit Chivaaree for sharing a Twitter post that questioned whether the coronavirus came from a Wuhan laboratory. They also accused the Thai actor of expressing support for Hong Kong and Taiwanese independence. Taiwan and Hong Kong netizens subsequently offered support for Thais in their Twitter war against Chinese netizens, and #MilkTeaAlliance began trending on Twitter. Additionally, as pro-democracy and anti-government protests in Thailand emerged earlier this year in response to the Thai military’s dominant role in domestic politics, Taiwanese and Hong Kong netizens evoked the solidarity for the Milk Tea Alliance, frequently using the hashtag #StandWithThailand. Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong also lent moral support for the pro-democracy movement in Thailand, protesting outside the Thai consulate in Hong Kong.
The Milk Tea Alliance is nominally comprised of countries that drink sweetened milk tea that are also in opposition to China. Sweetened versions—often the historical legacy of European sugar trade and colonialism—are found in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Indian subcontinent, in contrast to the saltier versions consumed in China’s Tibetan and Mongolian regions. More importantly, the Milk Tea Alliance has emerged as a rallying point for pro-democracy movements, anti-military and anti-authoritarian protests, and anti-Chinese sentiment in the Indo-Pacific region.
Indian Support for Taiwan
Online calls for India to join the Milk Tea Alliance surfaced after a flurry of Indian support for Taiwan on social media. India has also had to push back against Chinese interference in Indian media regarding Taiwan. The Chinese Embassy in India objected to an Indian newspaper interview with Taiwan’s then-Representative to India Tien Chung-kwang (田中光) in February. When the United States State Department launched #TweetForTaiwan on Twitter on May 1 to help Taiwan attend the annual World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting, Indians constituted 49 percent of a sample size of 449 tweets in favor of Taiwan’s participation. The Chinese Embassy also lambasted Indian media reports on Taiwan’s successful handling of the coronavirus as well as Indian support for Taiwan’s inclusion into the World Health Organization (WHO). Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong (孫衛東) expressed concern about Indian media reports calling for a revision of India’s “One-China Policy” and stronger relations with Taipei.
The deterioration of Sino-Indian relations following deadly border clashes earlier this year has renewed Indian debates about its policy towards China. An Indian media article argued that the country’s policy of appeasing China has emboldened the Chinese to interfere with press freedom in India. The article also challenged the “One-China Policy,” claiming that there are “two Chinas” in existence today. Other articles have called for closer ties with Taiwan, especially boosting economic and trade cooperation. In 2018, India and Taiwan signed a bilateral investment treaty, and bilateral trade between the two economies reached USD $5.79 billion in 2019. Both sides have common interests in decoupling economically from China and could potentially work together to create alternate and secure supply chains. Indeed, a recent Bloomberg article said that support is growing within the Indian government to start long-awaited talks on a trade deal with Taiwan as Sino-Indian relations hit a new low.
China-India Border Clashes
China-India relations have been dealt a serious blow following a series of clashes in the undemarcated, remote areas of the Himalayas along their disputed, 2,167-mile border. In May, confrontations between Indian and Chinese soldiers resulted in brawls and fistfights at Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh and later at Nathu La Pass in the Indian state of Sikkim, near Tibet. A deadly clash in the Galwan Valley on June 15 resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops. This marked the deadliest confrontation along the Sino-Indian border in decades and generated a fresh wave of anti-Chinese sentiment among Indian elites and the public. Both sides have contributed to rising tensions in the border areas by building infrastructure and amassing thousands of troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a notional boundary separating Chinese and Indian territory established by the truce ending the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Several rounds of talks and negotiations have failed to yield progress in resolving competing border claims.
During these clashes along the Sino-Indian border, Taiwan’s government and citizens deemed China the aggressor and offered support for India. President Tsai, in her National Day address, stated that the China-India border conflict, along with sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Sea, poses a challenge to democracy, peace, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. Taiwanese netizens also expressed support for India in its border clashes with Chinese troops, using the hashtag #TaiwanStandsWithIndia and sharing anti-China memes on social media. A Taipei Times editorial linked the Sino-Indian border clashes to “Beijing’s increasingly aggressive expansionism in the region,” and said that Taipei should strengthen ties with India “to contain Chinese expansionism.” However, such portrayals tend to conflate the Chinese government’s actions and motivations, which are perceived to all fall under a broader expansionist agenda, while ignoring the underlying dynamics of the Sino-Indian border tensions and the individualized and spontaneous nature of physical altercations that have developed at the frontier.
Prospects for Taiwan-India Cooperation
Taipei appears eager to capitalize on Indian social media support for Taiwan and boost comprehensive ties. “We have to think about the way for democracies, for like-minded countries, to work further together,” Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) said in an interview earlier this month with India Today TV. Expanding on this, the foreign minister stated, “We have traditional good relations with the United States, with Japan, and we want to develop closer ties with India as well.” Wu also raised the idea of intelligence-sharing with India. This notion has recently gained increased salience, as New Delhi and Washington signed a landmark defense agreement, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) on October 27, granting New Delhi access to US geospatial intelligence to help improve the accuracy of missiles and drones amid concerns about China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean region. As India continues to deepen economic and military ties with like-minded partners, including the United States, Japan, and Australia, there are also opportunities to expand its unofficial relations with Taiwan. There are at least three steps that the two sides would need to take to improve comprehensive relations.
First, the Taiwanese government needs to gain clarity on whether Indian actions towards Taiwan are motivated more by a straightforward appreciation of Taiwan’s democratic values and economic system than by an overwhelming desire on the part of Indians to spite China. After all, China and India are adversaries, and Beijing’s continued economic and military assistance to India’s archrival Pakistan is not lost among Indian policymakers who want to use the Taiwan issue to hit back at China over the deaths of Indian soldiers at the border. Taipei therefore should be careful to avoid being used as a “card,” or bargaining chip, in the Sino-Indian rivalry while maintaining some level of flexibility in dealing with the two rising powers.
Second, the Indian and Taiwanese governments need to expand their economic focal points to include one another. New Delhi’s “Act East” policy (formerly the “Look East” policy) and Taipei’s “New Southbound Policy” (新南向政策) tend to look past each other. For instance, India’s “Act East” policy has primarily focused on developing ties with ASEAN countries and obtaining advanced technologies from Japan and South Korea. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has praised Japan for doing more for India’s modernization than any other country. Indeed, Tokyo has also played a key role in developing India’s northeastern region through various infrastructure projects. Similarly, although India is listed as one of 18 countries targeted by Taipei’s “New Southbound Policy,” Taiwanese businesses tend to focus their investments in Southeast Asian countries, whereas India is hardly seen as an attractive alternative to the Chinese market. Furthermore, Taiwanese investment in India remains limited, often as a result of India’s foreign investment restrictions and inadequate infrastructure. Taiwanese businesses are also hampered by their lack of knowledge of Indian culture, economic conditions, and political institutions.
For Taiwan and India to develop strong comprehensive relations, both governments need to translate the #HindiTaiwaniBhaiBhai (“India Taiwan brother brother”) bonhomie on social media into a substantive working relationship. Their shared antipathy towards China provides an imperative for both sides to work together, such as on trade talks, but it can also be a momentary political diversion until Sino-Indian relations improve. In addition, Taipei should be careful not to oversell the democratic values and freedoms it shares with the world’s largest democracy, particularly as the populist Modi government has instituted a brutal and systematic suppression of the rights and freedoms of residents in Indian-administered Kashmir. Modi’s virulent Hindu nationalism has also led to widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities in the country—practices that Taipei certainly does not espouse but is nonetheless reluctant to criticize. A prospective Taiwan-India “Milk Tea Alliance” should work towards improving each side’s understanding of the other’s security concerns vis-à-vis China, fostering mutual trust and awareness of each other’s intentions, and building a solid economic and trade foundation that can withstand any future geopolitical changes in South Asia.
The main point: Taiwan has sought to capitalize on newfound Indian support on social media arising from Chinese interference in Indian media and deadly clashes at the Sino-Indian border. Taipei should carefully assess Indian intentions and objectives and avoid becoming a card in the Sino-Indian rivalry.