How tensions between China and Taiwan give Delhi a chance to renew political ties with Taipei

As Taiwan’s Opposition begins to reinvent itself away from a policy of engagement with China, New Delhi must step in now to build the political relationships necessary for any alliance to have legs

Shashank Mattoo January 04, 2022 13:23:52 IST
How tensions between China and Taiwan give Delhi a chance to renew political ties with Taipei

For younger Taiwanese people, the growing antagonism has cemented a distinct identity rooted in democracy and not China's authoritarianism. AFP

In any other part of the world, the prospect of living with a superpower neighbour armed to the teeth would cause many to lose sleep. In Taiwan, perched just off the southeastern coast of the People’s Republic of China, living with the looming threat of invasion is just a fact of life. However, 2021 was different, even by the standards of the island’s 23 million unflappable denizens. From a vitriolic war of words to brazen military provocations, the Taiwan Straits is, once again, one of the most dangerous places in the world.

In October 2021, Chinese aircraft breached Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone approximately 150 times over the course of a few days. As the military provocations continued in the days after, Beijing and Taipei traded accusations and recriminations. While President Xi Jinping vowed that “the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled”, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen made a stirring speech rejecting the PRC’s aspirations for control over the island. As the year came to an end, Beijing kept up the pressure by continuing to harass Taiwan’s military, albeit on a lower level. Officials in the PRC poured oil over already troubled waters by stressing the need for “drastic measures” in the face of actions by “separatist forces” in Taiwan.

Peace in the Taiwan Straits looks an increasingly dim prospect as we head into 2021. As this author has argued before, tensions between Beijing and Taipei stem from a heady mix of history and nationalism. To reiterate briefly, China suffered a long and fractious civil war in the 20th century which ended with the Chinese Communist Party establishing a vice-like grip over the country. The vanquished Nationalists fled with their forces to Taiwan and set up shop as the Republic of China (RoC), Taiwan’s formal name.

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For the CCP, which has based its political legitimacy in China on restoring the nation’s territorial sovereignty and long lost pride, Taiwan is the last battle of the Chinese civil war. For several decades, Beijing was happy to assert its claims on Taiwan without necessarily taking any steps to change Taiwan’s de facto independence. In the years since the CCP’s establishment in 1949, it embarked on a diplomatic offensive globally to win recognition as the sole government of China: Only a handful of countries globally now recognise Taiwan’s government. With Taiwan’s reduced global stature and an informal consensus between Beijing and Taipei that both powers constituted “One China”, Beijing could reassure itself that Taiwan would not tempt fate by declaring its independence from the mainland.

That reality is shifting rapidly. Taiwan’s citizens have increasingly forged a unique political and cultural identity that is fuelling disquiet in Beijing. Under President Tsai Ing-Wen, the island nation has become increasingly clear that it no longer wishes to identify with the ‘One China’ principle. Pro-China parties in Taiwan have been handily defeated in national elections and have begun to publicly contemplate abandoning support for eventual reunification with China. This, in a nutshell, is why the Taiwan Straits is likely to remain a potential arena for conflict in 2022.

Beijing is caught between a rock and a hard place. While it is increasingly clear that President Tsai will not declare formal independence, she will also not commit to Beijing’s prized goal of eventual unification. Should it reach out to Taiwan to seek a compromise, the CCP’s legitimacy and track record on territorial sovereignty might be tarnished.

Further, China’s hypernationalistic citizens are not likely to respond well to any attempt to back down on what they see as a matter of national pride. Even if Beijing were to clear these hurdles, no Taiwanese politician worth their salt can afford to be seen giving way to Beijing’s policy positions. Thus, Beijing has every incentive to continue its policy of pressure on President Tsai and her citizens.

While the CCP is unlikely to risk a military operation given its preoccupation with an expansive domestic reform agenda initiated by President Xi Jinping, expect Beijing’s military provocations, cyberattacks and disinformation operations and diplomatic offensives against Taiwan to increase. The latter is a particularly effective strategy. In 2021, Beijing persuaded Nicaragua to end formal ties with Taiwan; this was simply the latest act in Beijing’s successful drive to diplomatically isolate Taiwan. This battle even escalated to Taiwan’s informal representative embassies globally when China dissuaded Guyana from establishing a Taiwan office.

For India, Taiwan’s predicament is a challenge and a catalyst for change in its policy. Should China succeed in its efforts to cow Taiwan into submission, it would send a politically damaging message about Beijing’s ability to secure its foreign goals in the region by coercion if necessary. Such an outcome would also undermine the credibility of the United States, which has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to Taiwan, and has been on a charm offensive on the region to woo back once jilted allies.

New Delhi may increasingly come to the conclusion that Taiwan’s position as a vibrant democracy, as a manufacturer of strategically vital semiconductors and as a guardian of vital sea lanes of trade and communication necessitates stepping up in bilateral ties. For its part, Taiwan’s ruling party has expressed a strong degree for its ties with India — this is made clear by Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, which has sought to strengthen outreach to partners like New Delhi.

So what is to be done? To begin with, calls to junk the One China principle and accord diplomatic recognition to Taiwan are a non-starter. Not only are diplomats in India’s foreign policy bureaucracy unwilling to fan the flames of an already bitter relationship with China but Taipei would also look to avoid Beijing’s ire. Both sides can build a low key and resilient partnership that achieves joint goals without making the partnership a one-dimensional anti-China strategy.

On the economic front, rumour has it that both powers have already begun discussions for a Free Trade Agreement and the establishment of a semiconductor fabrication factory in India. As the world scrambles to onshore manufacturing of this critical technological component, New Delhi has agreed to dole out eye-watering sums for the project through its production linked incentive scheme.

Taiwan’s TSMC, the world’s foremost manufacturer of semiconductors, is also looking to diversify its production lines given the political risks of staying in Taiwan and China alone. While questions remain about India’s suitability for semiconductor manufacturing, getting a conversation going on India’s place on this immensely lucrative value chain can only be to the good.

Both sides will have to tread carefully on expanding security. While direct military exercises might be a bridge too far, New Delhi and Taipei can lay the groundwork for increased defence cooperation with some immediate moves. First, MoUs can be concluded between Taiwan’s National Defence University and India’s National Defence Academy. Taiwan’s NDU represents a key centre for strategic thinking on mainland China’s strategic and military policy which would help the next generation of Indian military leaders better understand their Northern neighbour’s behaviour. Academic exchanges between Taiwan’s NDU and Indian think tanks can be made a more regular affair in place of the erratic engagement seen today.

Second, Indian and Taiwanese think tanks can hold yearly Track 1.5 Summits that see participation by retired senior military officials, former Ambassadors and academic experts from both nations. Beyond this, Taiwan has also pioneered a robust cyber defence and counter disinformation policy given its exposure to influence operations from China. Given India’s critical vulnerabilities, expanding unofficial exchanges between law enforcement bodies in Taiwan seems a smart way forward.

Ultimately, little is likely to change unless both sides can put together a domestic political coalition that supports closer ties. From exchanging regular parliamentary delegations to signing MoU’s, Indian and Taiwanese political parties have a key role to play. This is especially important given that Taiwan’s Opposition KMT remains hesitant about offending China through closer ties with India. As Taiwan’s Opposition begins to reinvent itself away from a policy of engagement with China, New Delhi must step in now to build the political relationships necessary for any alliance to have legs.

The author is a research associate, strategic studies programme, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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