Air India succumbs to China's strong-arm tactics on Taiwan: 'Quad member' India has weakened own position

Air India has given in to China's strong-arm tactics and has started referring to Taiwan as 'Chinese Taipei' on its official website. India's national carrier has joined a bunch of other airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines, Air Canada, Qantas in referring to the island nation of 23 million people as a part of China, ostensibly to avoid its business interests getting hurt.

Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) had issued a notification on 25 April, just ahead of Narendra Modi's Wuhan summit, and gave Air India two months to comply, failing which the airline risked facing penal action, including possible blocking of its website. This threat, of course, wasn't exclusive to Air India.

According to Reuters, 36 foreign air carriers were served a notice to immediately stop referring to Taiwan as an independent nation on their "websites or in other material" and in deference to the one-China policy, rename it as 'Taiwan, China' or 'Chinese Taipei.'

An outraged Donald Trump administration slammed China's move to impose 'Chinese political correctness on American companies and citizens' as 'Orwellian nonsense' and asked China to 'stop threatening and coercing American carriers and citizens.'

In Australia, where private airline Qantas fell in line and agreed to refer to Taiwan as a province of China, there was similar outrage. Julie Bishop, the Australian foreign minister, released a statement saying "private companies should be free to conduct their usual business operations free from political pressure of governments." A spokesperson from the country's department of foreign affairs and trade told the newspaper Business Insider that the matter has been raised at diplomatic levels.

 Air India succumbs to Chinas strong-arm tactics on Taiwan: Quad member India has weakened own position

Representational image. Reuters

In contrast, Indian capitulation has been swift and noiseless. The national carrier succumbed to Chinese pressure by effecting the change well within the stipulated period. The move may seem a minor modification aimed at protecting business interests. After all, Air India only needed to make a "small semantic adjustment". Why create a fuss over it, when others have already done so?

A few points need to be clarified. Air India, being a national carrier, had greater leverage vis-à-vis private carriers if it wanted to defy the diktat and put up a fight. On the contrary, we are told that it is the external affairs ministry that reportedly directed Air India to make the adjustment.

Hindustan Times has quoted a spokesperson from the airline, as saying: "There was a mail to the regional manager in Hong Kong from China Registry, MEA, Government of India, wherein they have approved the nomenclatures to be used by Air India on its website in respect of Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) of China, Macau SAR of China and Chinese Taipei."

In effect, while two Quad members have pushed back against Chinese pressure tactics and political interference in business operations, India has not only failed to put up a fight, it has given in with a depressing readiness. The capitulation is even more damaging because the move is non-reciprocal. China has no respect for India's territorial claims or One India Policy and may merrily go along building roads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, but our national carrier must show deference to the One China Policy and tiptoe around Chinese sensitivity and territorial concerns.

The move should be seen in conjunction with other, recent developments that indicate India is adopting what JNU professor Rajesh Rajagopalan calls a "hedging strategy" when it comes to China. The strategy seeks to find a middle path between deference towards and containment of China, "attempting to find a modus vivendi with Beijing while also moving slowly to build security and political links with a number of other powers in the region and outside as an insurance against China."

In line with this strategy, Narendra Modi went to Wuhan to meet Xi Jinping in an informal setting, visited Qingdao for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting, delivered a non-committal address at the Shangri La security dialogue in Singapore where he stressed that India "does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members" and the grouping is not "directed against any country". He was careful to avoid any mention of Quad.

We are now told that India will brief China and Russia on its position regarding Indo-Pacific Policy and the matter will come up during India's second maritime dialogue with China and the first such mechanism with Russia..

Simultaneously, reports have emerged that the Reserve Bank of India has issued a license to Bank of China that allows China's largest bank to begin its operations in India, fulfilling a commitment that Modi had made to Xi during the Wuhan Summit.

India insists that these are "confidence-building measures" and are aimed at building "mutual trust" and "confidence" post Doka La. The hedging strategy might even have a political logic. The Modi government wants to smoothen all edges, iron out all wrinkles, cross the 't's and dot the 'i's so that China is left with no excuse to spring another Doka La in an election year.

And herein lies the greatest danger. 'Pacifying' China and showing deference to its demands is a bad strategy. It reflects a misreading of the Chinese threat and ignorance of the strategies that China employs to expand its hegemony. Among other tools, China frequently creates imagined and perceived sleights to develop a narrative of victimhood where it is the aggrieved party and other nations must address its grievances.

For instance, in the case of Taiwan, hidden behind Chinese "sensitivity" over Taiwan is its ploy to weaponise market access. It uses the power and potential of its market to achieve political goals. Acceding to one request to remedy one sleight opens the door for another. As soon as Air India starts referring to Taiwan as Chinese Taipei, China may demand that the airline should refer to Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet if it wants to operate within its borders. This is a bottomless abyss.

China uses a collective sense of national victimhood and resentment as effective tools to expand its territorial claims in maritime domain and project power deep into the Indo-Pacific. To cater to Chinese demands, therefore, is a futile strategy. It feeds Chinese assertiveness and makes compliance with its demands the 'new normal'. Instead of acceding to its demands, India should try to impose costs on Chinese neo-imperialism (resisting the renaming of Taiwan, for instance) and push China towards a reciprocal framework where it is forced to respect India's concerns.
India's Taiwan capitulation (in reversal of its policy) provides China with an easy conquest. This may have consequences.

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Updated Date: Jul 05, 2018 19:38:56 IST