Tension Across the Taiwan Strait: Perspectives, Concerns & Dynamics from South Asia

Written by Raian Hossain.

Image credit: DSC02838 by HJ Shen/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip to the Republic of China (ROC), often known as Taiwan, gave rise to different debates among strategic thinkers and political analysts, which has even been characterised as reckless. Warning from Beijing and not receiving a green light from the US military, the short trip led the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to conduct live-fire military drills and test missiles. As the United States (US) officially follows a ‘One China’ policy, it only recognises Beijing as the sole government of all entire China. Still, it maintains a cordial relationship with Taipei, which irritates PRC. US justifies its relationship based on Taiwan Relations Act passed by the US Congress in 1979 to safeguard Taiwan from any military aggression, just after it switched its diplomatic recognition toward PRC from ROC for its strategic benefit in the cold war era. However, with the rise of China in regional and international politics and based on Taiwan’s domestic political landscape, the question of Taiwan has turned out to be a tug-of-war game between US & China, which has a far-reaching impact beyond the region.

This article looks into the reactions and concerns from Asian countries due to the complex triangular relationship of the US-China-Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait. While analysing the dynamics, it also unpacks whether this ongoing crisis would further shrink Taiwan’s space for engagements in the international space like trade, commerce, and people-to-people connectivity (not focused on diplomatic recognition). Therefore, this article takes the South Asian region as a case study to answer these two queries.

Tension over the Taiwan crisis does not directly affect or impact South Asian Countries due to their geographical locations. Still, deep concerns have been about the ripple effect of Sino-American rivalry or any conflict escalations. Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have reaffirmed their commitment to PRC’s ‘One China’ policy and preached for solutions based on United Nations Charter over the tension. Looking into the lenses of South Asian countries, it becomes easily justified based on the rational calculation of its foreign policy, heavy bilateral trade and development partnership linked with Beijing for so long. Only India (a regional powerhouse) has maintained a strategic silence so far during the ongoing tension across the Taiwan Strait crisis, managing a balance with an aim to neither further increase the tension on the India-China border nor frustrate its strategic ally US. India, the only South Asian country that hosts Taipei Economic and Cultural offices, has also restrained from officially mentioning or referring to the ‘One China’ policy since 2010.

Speaking of the concerns, even though it is unlikely that any military confrontation will arise from the ongoing tension, South Asian countries would indeed not desire that there is any change in the level of commitment from Beijing to the development partnership of its flagship initiative, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Hence, despite South Asian countries upholding the ‘One China’ policy, they would not desire to see any military confrontations or tension in Taiwan Strait. To avoid such confusion and reaffirm Beijing’s rock-solid commitment toward the region, PRC’s foreign minister immediately paid a 2-day visit to Dhaka during the ongoing tension realising the strategic importance. Also, what worries some South Asian countries is that there might be a shrink of its neutral space in diplomacy, reducing the scope of balancing or hedging between US-China due to tensions arising from the Taiwan Strait.

Despite maintaining a diplomatic relationship with PRC, it has not entirely restricted countries in South Asia, such as Bangladesh, from continuing trade and investment unofficially with Taiwan. New Delhi and Taipei are even currently in talks for a Free Trade Agreement. Recently, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also met Taiwan-based manufacturing giant Foxconn’s Chairman to expand its manufacturing industry in India. Hence, so far PRC has only objected if there have been any official or government-to-government initiatives but mostly does not limit the space for Taiwan’s unofficial trade and commerce with South Asian countries. If geopolitics and geostrategic landscape further drift among the triangular relationship between China-USA-Taiwan, Beijing might sharpen its tools to restrict its diplomatic allies to have unofficial trade and commerce to exert more pressure on Taiwan. In the South Asian context, only India can deploy agency against such force. Although the trade volume between Taiwan and South Asian countries is not very significant, restrictions would ultimately greatly hinder Taiwan’s desire to diversify its current trading pattern toward South and Southeast Asia under its flagship New Southbound Policy (NSP). Since the development of tension, PRC has started to apply some import regulations, where Taiwan needs to be labelled as per the customs rule of the PRC, leaving international brands such as Apple without any choice. On the other hand, China only produces 9 per cent of the global demand for Semiconductors meaning Beijing has a dependency on Taiwan’s semiconductor industry; hence it has limitations for trade restrictions to place and asks others to do so.

As Taiwan’s flagship initiative under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), NSP is primarily focused on building people-to-people connectivity (educational exchange, human resource development exchange, cultural exchange, tourism) across South and South-East Asia, it would likely face a further challenge if there is a continuous PLA presence affecting freedom of navigation and airspace across the strait. After the eruption of the triangular tension, the Taipei policy will concentrate on its self-defence rather than trade and people-to-people connectivity. Taiwan’s policymaking will mainly focus on its further military reformation, modernisation and look toward defence cooperation with the US and its strategic allies rather than concentrating on its outreach toward South or Southeast Asia at such hours. As people-to-people connectivity is among the few areas for Taiwan to engage in South Asia, its outreach might be affected by the ongoing tension. Even before Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip, there was an issue of PRC’s fighter warplanes frequently entering Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, but it did not restrict the movement of any commercial activity or civilian movement across the strait. However, it remains unknown what the future holds. 

The South Asian case example reflects far-reaching impacts related to trade, commerce, and people-to-people connectivity for Taiwan, apart from the military dynamics arising from the ongoing tension across the Taiwan Strait. Also, it can be understood that Taiwan might face further challenges in its effort to diversify its trading pattern and increase people-to-people connectivity across Asia, particularly in South Asia. Taiwan needs to understand the limited capacity of South Asian countries to interact with the island but also realise that not providing enough emphasis on the region might further hinder its unofficial trading and people-to-people connectivity opportunities. Hence, a multitasking strategy might be ideal for Taiwan.

Raian Hossain is a Doctoral Researcher at the School of Politics and International Relations of the University of Nottingham (UK). Mr Hossain is also a lecturer (on study leave) at the Department of Global Studies and Governance, Independent University, Bangladesh. His research interests include China & South Asia, Cross-Strait Relations, Indo-Pacific Affairs, South Asian Politics, Politics and Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “US-Taiwan-China: What’s next?”.

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