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Time India stopped looking at Taiwan through Chinese prism

India and Taiwan do not share a very long historical relationship. Their ties go back to the colonial era when president Chiang Kai-shek visited India in 1942 and met Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru writes Namrata Hasija

Jul 11, 2014

By Namrata Hasija

India and Taiwan do not share a very long historical relationship. Their ties go back to the colonial era when president Chiang Kai-shek visited India in 1942 and met Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

With the establishment of Communist rule in mainland China, the relationship became complex. India recognised the People’s Republic of China, and thus had no diplomatic relations with Taiwan for a long time. Formal ‘unofficial’ relations were established between the two countries in 1995. India set up the India-Taipei Association (ITA) in Taipei in 1995, and a few months later Taiwan opened the Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre (TECC) in New Delhi. India took this initiative as part of its Look East Policy and Taiwan took the opportunity to strengthen its position and end its isolation through a pragmatic foreign policy.

Nearly two decades have passed since the establishment of India-Taiwan relations and it is imperative to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of this relationship as well as its dynamics, in the context of the change in the Indian government.

Relations between the two countries have progressed in the field of economic, industrial, trade and education cooperation. In 2001, the total trade volume was US$1.19 billion and it rose to $6 billion in 2013. Taiwan has established 90 companies in India and its FDI has accumulated $1.5 billion in India. The Ministry of Education (MOE) provides scholarship to Indian students to study Mandarin in Taiwan. China Steel Corporation’s factory in Gujarat and the India Synthetic Rubber Ltd – a joint venture between IndianOil Corporation Ltd, Taiwan Synthetic Rubber Corporation (Taiwan) and Marubeni (Japan) – are the latest trends in India’s business environment.

The two countries are also looking at signing a Free Trade Agreement. The Chung-Hua Institution of Economic Research (CIER) and the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) conducted a joint feasibility study on a FTA/ECA (economic cooperation agreement). China Airlines started a direct flight between New Delhi and Taipei in 2003. It has symbolic value as it established direct air contact between Taiwan and India.

However, despite this the relationship between the two countries has not progressed much due to the inherent problems in its foundation. China is the major hurdle --- neither India nor Taiwan wants to antagonize China. India in fact has been more cautious than Taiwan; In the words of former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, “Establishing a relationship with Taiwan should not spoil our relationship with PRC, which is far more important than the ROC (Republic of China) to the Indian establishment.”

Though the purpose of an Indian centre in Taiwan was purely for economic reasons, the fear of China was a shadow over India’s relationship with Taiwan. Though Taiwan offered to establish military and strategic cooperation to counter China in the region, especially during the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rule, India did not show much keenness.

Taiwan's vice president, Annette Lu, wanted to visit the earthquake-affected people of Gujarat in 2001 with relief material worth more than US$1 million. New Delhi did not permit her to do so fearing the People's Republic of China’s reaction.  This is contrary to the policies of China which is openly trying to make footprints in South Asia. India has called itself a South Asian power instead of an Asian power, and China has been challenging that also with its gestures towards Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan.

India could utilize its relations with Taiwan to formulate its policies towards the PRC. Our policy makers and strategic analysts could benefit out of their knowledge in making a sound China policy. Secondly, India has an expertise in software, and our companies are looking for markets abroad and if we can marry this with Taiwanese expertise in hardware this venture would be beneficial to both countries.

India could also promote and fund students undertaking Mandarin studies in Taiwan as reading Chinese language materials to understand China is important, especially to those undertaking serious research on China. The English and Chinese language media in China take different stands on the same issue. For example, the English language media expressed that the relations between the two countries would improve with Narendra Modi coming to power and praised Modi, comparing him to American president Richard Nixon. However, the Chinese language media pointed out a different stance - that Modi has no other option than implementing economic cooperation as India must recognise China’s superiority in Asia both economically and militarily. Thus, to understand Chinese thinking on issues one must be able to comprehend the Chinese language.

Both countries can also engage in information sharing and cooperation to resist China’s cyber attacks. India should also understand that stability of the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea is very important for its trade interests, and it should promote a peaceful solution to regional disputes and safeguard freedom of navigation.

India should stop looking at Taiwan through a Chinese prism and strengthen its relations with Taiwan. With the coming of a strong government in India and strong signals being sent to China by Prime Minister Modi, a new chapter could be forged in India’s relations with Taiwan.

(Namrata Hasija is Research Associate, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy. She can be contacted at southasiamonitor1@gmail.com)

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