Written by Wei Azim Hung.
The series of border skirmishes between India and China that began in early May this year have prompted a wave of anti-China sentiment across the subcontinent. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has struck a particularly aggressive tone by saying “the age of expansionism is over” and “peace is not won by weakness” , while being mindful of the need to save his Chinese counterpart face by not indulging in overly bellicose or provocative rhetoric. Interestingly, this is not the first time India and China have engaged in border hostilities, nor is it the most bloody conflict. Both nations entered into a bloody war in late 1962 when border clashes near the Himalayas broke out after failed attempts to settle the dispute through diplomacy.
So, in 2020, how is India responding to the very same border dispute that has plagued the two nations over the last six decades? The ongoing tensions have brought renewed attention to India’s age-old Look East Policy. But instead of just Looking East, India now wants to and needs to Act East. That is to say, it aims to enhance bilateral ties with other nations and become a more active player in East and Southeast Asia and Australasia.
That being the case, Taiwan is one of those ‘Eastern’ nations India would like to foster closer ties with for geopolitical reasons. Reflecting this, India recently appointed Gourangalal Das, a senior diplomatic officer responsible for Donald Trump’s state visit, to head the de-facto Indian embassy in Taipei. Nevertheless, in 2016, India failed to show solidarity with Taiwan when the former canceled its plan to send representatives to the inauguration of Taiwan’s first female head of state, Tsai Ing-wen. In a turn around, this year, India sent two ministers from the currently ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) to attend Tsai Ing-wen’s re-inauguration, showcasing warming bilateral ties, and India’s renewed willingness to defy China and engage in high-level diplomatic exchange with the island.
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On the other hand, the Republic of China (hereafter Taiwan) welcomes all forms of diplomatic exchanges – not because it has a radical hidden agenda to carry out, but because it desperately needs the recognition from the international community that has repeatedly been complicit in attempts to isolate her.
The crucial question would then be, knowing that Taiwan needs to improve ties with countries such as India to hedge against China; knowing that India is approaching Taiwan through the China lens and in the backdrop of Sino-Indian border disputes; knowing Taiwan is a that country prides itself for its democratic and humanitarian values, how should Taipei weigh the cost and benefits of seeking closer ties with New Delhi?
Political and economic exchanges between Taiwan and India have increased in breadth and depth in recent years. While this is a positive development, the challenge currently facing Taiwan is that it needs to pay more attention to soft power and people-to-people (P2P) interactions. This is in fact in line with a core tenet of Tsai’s flagship foreign policy, the New Southbound Policy (NSP), which advocates a ‘people centred approach’ and calls for increasing P2P exchanges with countries in South and Southeast Asia as well as Oceania.
The New Southbound Policy could be broadly divided into two categories, namely, cultural exchange on the one hand, and trade and political economy on the other. Unfortunately, the cultural aspect of the policy is often overlooked by politicians in Taiwan, some of whom measure the success of the NSP solely on the metric of economic measures, such as the rate of return on investments. In spite of this, success in the realm of cultural exchange is of pivotal importance to the long term viability and success of this policy.
With a growing number of Indian immigrants and students entering Taiwan under the umbrella of the NSP, the island is increasingly embracing multiculturalism. Taiwan is transitioning into a society where new immigrants are welcomed, regardless of whether they are Pakistani, Phillipino, Thai, Vietnamese, or Indonesian. Just as new immigrants need to integrate and adapt to Taiwanese culture, Taiwanese also need to understand them and their culture; investment in the relationship must be mutual if Taiwan is to succeed in building long-lasting connections. As part of a larger regional and global society, Taiwan must highlight hitherto neglected aspects of history – which in Taiwan’s case formerly focused on the achievements of its ethnic-Han majority – and close the gap between minorities and the majority. Ongoing issues with xenophobia make Taiwanese people susceptible to perpetuating prejudices and ignoring or devaluing the contributions of new migrants.
One positive is that policies under the NSP have been working towards reducing negative attitudes towards South and Southeast Asian (SSEA) students, migrants or immigrants by encouraging cross-cultural interactions, whether by sending Taiwanese students abroad, providing scholarships, and/or through receiving SSEA students. A wide range of governmental organs from the Ministry of Education, Tourism, Interior, Culture, and Foreign Affairs, and even some NGOs, have been working on cultivating both political-economic as well as grassroots ties, through funding fieldwork, performances, cultural exchange programs, and research projects within West and South Asia. These policies have been directed to helping Taiwan dismantle barriers and misconceptions about Southbound policy nations one step at a time. Taiwan’s efforts to be proactive and take the initiative may help its regional partners understand that they are being taken seriously, and this could prompt them to reciprocate in kind.
For example, in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak back in February, the Philippines enacted a travel ban for Taiwanese citizens, even though the virus was under control in Taiwan. Luckily, thanks to the efforts of various lobbying groups, from labor unions to industry groups, the Philippines government quickly lifted the travel ban. This demonstrated the willingness of Philippinos to respond positively to the attempts of Taiwanese to reach out to them.
The same principle of reciprocity apply to India. Taiwan needs more evidence that India will stand up for Taiwan on a consistent basis, and not just in the backdrop of rising Sino-India tensions; a critique that is being actively propagated by Indian scholars and mainstream Indian media. Until New Delhi can step up to reconstruct its alliance with Taiwan on the basis on common values and not just political interests, Taiwan should prioritize P2P and cultural exchanges. Such ties, in the long run, are likely to be much more deep rooted and dependable than political relationships, especially in times of crises – as has been illustrated by the example of the response of the Philippines during the COVID-19 crisis.
The second question is this: how should Taiwan deal with the contradiction between the democratic values it holds, and, relatively speaking, the more authoritarian tendencies of some of its allies? The implications are not exclusive to Taiwan and India per se, but are relevant to all nations that champions freedom, democracy, and human rights. This piece will not delve deep into the BJP’s problematic record on human rights, Kashmir, and ultranationalistic rhetoric. But in certain instances, the actions of the BJP exhibit some parallels with those of the CCP – practices which Taiwanese society reject vehemently. Yet this is certainly not to say improving relations with India is out of the equation. Taiwan must do so, but should also take an alternative approach and not necessarily solely establish its alliance through formal diplomacy. It should instead seek to broaden and strengthen relationships with the people of India through cultural and other forms of interaction.
Make no mistake, India is currently interested in strengthening ties with Taiwan to counter China; this is not to be viewed simply an act of solidarity. Joseph Wu, the Foreign Minister of Taiwan, has stated that “Taiwan is an outpost of democracy in the face of authoritarianism”. This is in itself a strong argument that Taiwan should explore new avenues through the New Southbound Policy to deepen connections with India beyond the purview of political or economic exchanges, such as by putting growing weight on more interpersonal forms of people-to-people interactions.
Wei (Azim) Hung is a Department of Research and Planning intern at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF). He is currently an undergraduate majoring in international studies at Leiden University, The Hague, specializing in East Asia, with a minor in Middle Eastern studies.