India-Taiwan Relations: A Comprehensive Security Perspective
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Issue Vol. 30.4 Oct-Dec 2015 | Date : 19 Feb , 2016

Greater cooperation between India and Taiwan could prove critical in helping New Delhi and Taipei achieve their economic goals at home and their strategic aims in the region. It is time to acknowledge the importance of India – Taiwan relations. India should consider its own interests not the third party’s ones, when it thinks of developing relations with Taiwan or other countries. The areas of cooperation between India and Taiwan are bound to be limited so long as their political relations remain negligible.

With the two sides having established representative offices in 1995 in New Delhi and Taipei respectively, India-Taiwan relations have been improving gradually. Between 1995 and 2014, the bilateral trade turnover has grown manifold from just $934 million to $5.91 billion. Both sides have also expanded educational exchanges after a mutual degree recognition agreement in higher education was signed in 2010. In the field of science and technology, there are more than thirty ongoing government-funded joint research projects. However, the India-Taiwan relationship is still small scale when compared to the potentials. Constrained by its commitment to Beijing’s “One China” policy, New Delhi finds it difficult to realise the potential of its bilateral relationship with Taiwan. Even as India launches its “Act East” policy and ambitious initiatives such as “Make in India”, it is time to highlight the importance of Taiwan for an emerging India and bring the India-Taiwan relationship into focus.

Taiwan welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in the general election as an opportunity to upgrade the relationship between the two countries. During Narendra Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Taiwan had been expanding its presence in Gujarat and shared a good rapport with the CM. In fact, as the BJP General Secretary, Mr Modi had even visited Taiwan in 1999 and had, in fact, hosted the biggest-ever business delegation from Taiwan in 2011. Despite Taiwan’s high expectations from the BJP government, it seems that the Modi magic has not yet worked for the India – Taiwan relationship.

The China factor can become a medium to bring the strategic communities in New Delhi and Taipei closer…

Sceptics may question the relevance of Indo-Taiwanese ties for either country today. The population of Taiwan is only 23 million similar to the one of Haryana or Australia. In terms of population, India is 52 times larger than Taiwan. The territory of Taiwan is about 35,980 square kilometres, a size similar to India’s Kerala. In terms of geographical size, India is 90 times larger than Taiwan. The basic question is why India’s relations with the island country deserve more attention today. The answer to the question probably lies in the fact that India-Taiwan relations are significant to India’s security interests.

Traditional Security Cooperation

First of all, India and Taiwan share similar values and there are no serious disputes between the two countries. On the strategic security front, both India and Taiwan have serious and deep concerns about China’s growing assertiveness in the region. The China factor can become a medium to bring the strategic communities in New Delhi and Taipei closer.

Despite the improving relations between China and Taiwan, the former has increased the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan to more than 1,500, according to a report on China’s military strength by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence. Beijing still sees Taiwan as its breakaway province and has vowed to take over Taiwan by military force if necessary. China has also attempted to squeeze Taiwan’s international space and blocked Taiwan’s participation in international organisations.

For its part, India has unresolved territorial problems with China. Even in a time of intense political polarisation, there is broad cross-partisan consensus on the issue of China’s growing power. Former Defence Minister George Fernandez straightforwardly pointed out that China was, “the potential threat number one” to India. Former Defence Minister A.K Antony admitted that there has been an increasing assertiveness on the part of China and considered it as a challenge to India. In 2014, when Prime Minister Modi visited Arunachal Pradesh for the general election campaign as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, he asked China to shed its expansionist policy.

India and Taiwan have complementary economic structures…

Even as leaders of China and India hold summit meetings year after year, the distrust between the two nations is actually growing. In April 2013, when India was ready to host the visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, there was “tent confrontation” between the PLA and Indian troops near the Line of Actual Control (LAC). A similar border stand-off took place at Chumar in Ladakh during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in 2014.

Against this background, a rising India, which has its own set of problems with China, is widely seen as a potential counterweight to China’s increasing assertiveness. Since India and Taiwan remain conscious and watchful of the implications of China’s increasing military profile in the neighbourhood, there is much common ground on how to deal with the shared concerns. The China factor can become a critical driver of closer defence and strategic cooperation. While the reasons for that are well known, action is lacking.

It is not to say that India and Taiwan should forge a military alliance against China, which is too proactive and unrealistic. Taiwan does not expect India to be some kind of a military ally but believes that India’s presence in the region will provide some sort of balance. As a result, regular information exchange between the militaries and the intelligence agencies of Taiwan and India would benefit both.

Taiwan has considerable experience in dealing with China and knows China better than any country in the world due to the historical, ethnical, cultural, and linguistic ties. Not surprisingly, owing to the needs of national security, Taiwan has invested heavily on China studies. India should take advantage of this fact. Therefore, Taiwan is able to help more Indians understand what the Chinese are saying and thinking by providing Chinese language training. Taiwan’s National Tsing University, along with the support of Taiwan’s Education Ministry, has set up five Taiwan Education Centres across various universities in India.

…It is time for Indian policy makers to review India’s Taiwan policy and fashion a new approach…

In 2013, the Centre in the OP Jindal Global University even provided a four-week training programme in Mandarin language for Indian Army officers. The language course has helped the officers acquire proficiency in Chinese and enhanced communication with their Chinese counterparts. Not surprisingly, some officers who had attended the course were sent to China’s Sichuan for the third joint military exercise between China and India later. With the specific function, the Taiwan Education Centres should be encouraged to develop more educational links with the military.

In order to realise the potential for defence cooperation between the two countries in a broader and effective manner, New Delhi should deploy its military attaché to its office in Taipei as part of plans to strengthen defence cooperation. In fact, countries such as the US and Japan have already dispatched military attaches to their missions in Taipei. Therefore, the move will not really hurt China-India relations.

Lastly, more interactions and collaboration between strategic studies communities are needed. So far, only very limited Indian and Taiwanese strategic researchers have set foot on each other’s domain. Taiwan’s National Defense University (NDU) has offered regular courses on PLA Studies to foreign military officers and is keen to host Indian military officers. The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the Institute of International Relations (IIR), National Chengchi University in Taiwan initiated a bilateral roundtable conference as a track II mechanism in 2003 but was later terminated. Since the track II diplomacy takes on increasing relevance to both governments, the annual gathering on security issues should be restored for policy experts from both sides to exchange viewpoints.

Economic Security

India and Taiwan have complementary economic structures. Taiwan is known for hardware manufacturing while India has an established software industry; some even refer ‘India and Taiwan’ as IT to indicate the fact that both countries complement each other. According to a joint report by the Chung Hua Institution for Economic Research (CIER) in Taiwan and the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), there are tremendous opportunities in the sectors of logistics, automobiles and auto components, information and communication technology, food processing, distribution and retail, and human resource development. Construction, infrastructure development and automobile sectors, textiles and shipbuilding have also been identified as areas for cooperation. How India and Taiwan develop their economic relationship will be determined by how they enhance their economic security i.e. the ability to protect and to advance each other’s national economic interests.

Despite the fact that the economic interests of the two nations dovetail well, the economic exchange is still relatively insignificant. Trade between the two countries reached $5.91 billion in 2014. But Taiwan’s share of trade with India is around one per cent of its global trade. Taiwanese direct investment into India totalled $66.46 million between 2004 and 2014, far less than its investment in most of the Southeast countries. Over the past decade, Taiwanese firms have invested more in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Cambodia than India. For example, Taiwan has invested $23 billion in Vietnam alone during the same period.

…Taiwan is not the priority of India’s foreign policy as the present government is interested in big power diplomacy…

The situation may be about to change. Since assuming office, Prime Minister Modi has travelled to a number of countries to boost business and attracted foreign investments to India. After a year of efforts, interestingly, the first sizeable FDI deal came from Taiwan. In August 2015, the Taiwan-based Foxconn, one of the largest hardware manufacturers in the world, announced an investment of $5 billion in India. For many years Taiwan has been focusing on China’s market and has now attempted to diversify its investments away from China.

Taiwan has for long been a world leader in high-tech hardware manufacturing, and is able to contribute much to the “Make in India”, “Digital India” and “Smart Cities” campaigns. Apparently, India is yet to explore Taiwan’s vast technological potential.

In addition to the much-talked-about IT, Taiwan’s agro-technology and food processing technology will also be very beneficial for India’s agriculture sector. Equipped with Taiwan’s technology and experiences, India can modernise its capacity as nearly 40 per cent of its fruits and vegetables go waste after harvesting. Such collaboration could seriously change the landscape of India’s rural areas and agriculture and bring “Achche Din” for Indian farmers who constitute half of India’s population. For example, India has abundant natural bamboo resources while Taiwan owns the world-class bamboo charcoal technology. With this sort of technology, India can make use of its bamboo resources to produce high value-added goods.

India is very concerned about the trade imbalance with China as its fast-widening trade deficit with China reached a record $37.85 billion in 2014. In this regard, India may learn from Taiwan on how to do business with China. Taiwan enjoyed a favourable trade balance of $34.1 billion with China in the same year.

In fact, Taiwan is looking for building an institutionalised partnership with India but so far the latter’s response has been lukewarm. As early as in 2013, the ICRIER and the CIER completed a joint feasibility study which suggested that India and Taiwan should sign the Economic Cooperation Agreement (ECA) to promote economic relations. Taiwan hoped that the bilateral relationship could be deepened by the early signing of an ECA and proposed to establish a joint working group on the issue as the first step towards signing the agreement. However, to Taiwan’s disappointment, Amitabh Kant, Secretary of Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) bluntly indicated that the India – Taiwan ECA was not on the government’s list of priorities.

The prospects for cooperation between India and Taiwan in the field of economic security remain very positive. The synergy and complementarity of both countries can help the two sides create mutual benefit. But the two sides need to work out plans to pep up trade volume and increase economic cooperation between the two nations so as to take advantage of the joint strength.

Cultural and Education Security

Cultural security refers to soft power, namely, the ability of a country to attract others because of its culture, its values, its beliefs and its ideology. The Modi government has injected cultural diplomacy into India’s international engagement, using soft power as a foreign policy tool to improve its global image and expand the influence. In his maiden speech at the United Nations General Assembly in 2014, Prime Minister Modi requested the UN to adopt the International Yoga Day. The appeal led to a formal UNGA resolution passed in December 2014, which declared June 21 as International Yoga Day.

Yoga is not the only focus of the Modi government’s cultural strategy. India’s Ministry of Culture has launched the Mausam project to provide a platform to strengthen cultural ties between India and the Indian Ocean “world”. India has also consistently emphasized the value of democracy and plans to use Buddhism as a cultural diplomacy tool. The Indian government is working with the World Bank to develop a Buddhist tourist circuit in India.

In this respect, cultural diplomacy can bring rationality to India-Taiwan relations. There is religious intimacy between the two societies as most Taiwanese are Buddhists. Both countries are free democracies with a strong civil society. Though few Taiwanese know India very well, there are an increasing number of India-related elements in Taiwan, ranging from Tagore’s poetry and Darjeeling tea to herbal soaps. The Bollywood movie “3 Idiots” became the third longest running foreign language film in Taiwan.

Very few are aware of that the Fo Guang Shan, a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, has trained a number of resident novice monks (Sramaneras) in its New Delhi branch, aiming to help promote Buddhism in India through its own people.

In order to further promote people-to-people exchanges between the two countries, in February 2010, Taiwan decided to grant visa-free entry to the Indians who hold valid visas or permanent residences for US, UK, Canada, Japan, Schengen Convention countries, Australia or New Zealand. On the other hand, India has recently added Taiwan to its e-tourist visa programme to simplify the visa application for Taiwanese visitors. In the absence of formal diplomatic relations, there is also a need to conduct friendly sister-city activities to promote engagement and mutual understanding.

While India is determined to implement the “Act East Policy” to bolster its ties with the countries in the region, cultural exchanges can be an important part of its strategy. Importantly, the friendly and comfort factor in the India – Taiwan relationship exist. New Delhi could use Taiwan as a springboard into the Asia-Pacific.

Another obvious area of cooperation with Taiwan is educational exchange. On the education front, the main challenge for Indian education today is how to cash in on its demographic dividend. Although India has abundance of human resources, official figure showed that only 12.4 per cent of the students eligible are pursuing higher education because the Indian universities are not able to meet the demand.

Meanwhile, Taiwan is host to 160 accredited universities that accept hundreds of thousands of international students every year. Degrees earned in Taiwan are recognised worldwide, but the cost of study in Taiwan is only 10 to 15 per cent of fees of universities in the West. Taiwan’s government and universities have also provided various scholarship schemes to talented Indian students.

The Challenges

An India-Taiwan partnership is highly possible as both nations share similar values, security interests and concerns. But joint efforts are required. The driving forces from the two societies to promote bilateral relations are still very limited. Therefore, the political will and guidance, along with the government investments, are very crucial at this stage.

As India becomes more and more important in Taiwan’s policy, it is time for Indian policy makers to review India’s Taiwan policy and fashion a new approach. For example, India has followed the “One China Policy” for decades, and places restrictions on the official-level exchanges with Taipei. It has not allowed its Union Ministers to visit Taiwan because it is worried about provoking China. Ironically, China’s ministerial-level officials have visited Taiwan in public.

It is understandable that Taiwan is not the priority of India’s foreign policy as the present government is interested in big power diplomacy. But India should not neglect Taiwan at the cost of its national interests. As discussed previously, there is a huge potential between India and Taiwan in many sectors. Taiwan has been open to some sort of defence cooperation with India.

Greater cooperation between India and Taiwan could prove critical in helping New Delhi and Taipei achieve their economic goals at home and their strategic aims in the region. It is time to acknowledge the importance of India-Taiwan relations. India should consider its own interests not the third party’s ones, when it thinks of developing relations with Taiwan or other countries. The areas of cooperation between India and Taiwan are bound to be limited so long as their political relations remain negligible.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Tien-Sze Fang

is a former Taiwanese Diplomat to India and presently, an Assistant Professor, National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.  

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