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How to ‘de-hyphenate’ Taiwan-India-China relations

Bollywood movies, media portals, education exchanges part of think tanker’s proposed roadmap

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Indian and Taiwan flags (Facebook, Indians in Taiwan image)

Indian and Taiwan flags (Facebook, Indians in Taiwan image)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Recent years have seen steps taken to give a fillip to India-Taiwan cooperation across economic and strategic spheres.

While some analysts frame this as simply a result of deteriorating Sino-Indian ties in the aftermath of last year’s Galwan Valley standoff, some see a deeper trend playing out — a growing discourse in Delhi in favor of de-hyphenating the India-Taiwan-China relationship by going beyond Sinocentric considerations.

In a recent interview on the Policy People Podcast, Namrata Hasija, Research Associate at the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, lifted the lid on the backstory behind this three-part diplomatic prism and laid out a roadmap for how to go beyond it so India-Taiwan bilateral ties may flourish.

This is easier said than done, and according to Hasija, it can only be done in an incremental fashion. However, this process is essential for India and Taiwan to reach their bilateral potential.

Historic mistakes

India has viewed relations with Taiwan through the China paradigm for decades. This has its roots in New Delhi’s adherence to the “one China policy” and the historic miscalculations India made in giving diplomatic recognition to communist China instead of Taiwan long before other countries.

Hasija said newly independent India, still reeling from the pains of partition and more concerned about Pakistan, desperately wanted to make a friend out of China. India was naive for taking Beijing at its word when it promised to revise claims over Indian territory at a later stage, which never happened, she added.

Hasija said the writing was on the wall back in 1951 when Chinese officials snubbed an invitation to visit Kashmir while in India: "Even back then, they were thinking about Ladakh [a part of Indian Kashmir], which they saw as their own.”

She described India’s acceptance of China’s claims to Tibet as one of its “biggest blunders.”

“We never stopped to analyze it at the time [that] if Tibet was not annexed by China, we’d never have a border with China,” she said, adding that Delhi did not foresee how China could gain access to its northern frontier, which it continues to threaten to this day.

“After China annexed Tibet, [in] hindsight we’ve always talked about Tibet,” Hasija said, “but we never talked about Taiwan in the same way.” Instead, she continued, India looks at Taiwan through the frame of the Chinese Civil War.

“Everyone expected India to support the ROC government over the PRC after it withdrew to Taiwan as Nehru and Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) shared a deep friendship,” said the scholar, who has studied diplomatic letters between the two.

However, an Indian diplomat visited China and Taiwan at the time and came back feeling certain the Kuomintang would never manage to reclaim China. This diplomat then managed to convince Nehru to overlook his personal relationship with Chiang and switch allegiance in 1950, years before other countries.

The early withdrawal of Indian support from the ROC created a deep gulf in relations at the time.

From that time onward, Taiwan was always referred to as “Formosa” and the Indian government said anything happening was an extension of the Chinese Civil War and that “we should not get involved.”

“So we’ve never looked at Taiwan as a different entity,” she said, and this has handicapped New Delhi’s engagement with Taipei to this day.

When asked if New Delhi is ready to ditch the “one China policy,” Hasija said the devil is in the details.

“How you define the ‘one China' policy is very different [between countries],” she explained.

“We can always say that we follow the ‘one China' policy but Taiwan is not part of China,” she went on, mentioning how the U.S. has its own way of maneuvering through this. Whatever India does, its government has to consider things carefully, as unlike with the U.S., China is India's neighbor.

“Due to our proximity, India’s ‘one China policy’ has to be very nuanced and consider a lot of factors,” she said.

Changes to official policy will not happen overnight, but in the meantime, Taiwanese and Indian people need to develop more linkages across various sectors.

Media buzz

Hasija said Taiwanese and Indians are still very unfamiliar with one another’s countries, though things have been improving in recent years.

“There are now discussions about Taiwan in our think tanks, TV programs, and online forums, which is very promising,“ Hasija said.

"I’ve been working on India-Taiwan for over ten years, and now I see people who’ve never paid any attention to this space are now writing articles about Taiwan,” she said.

She emphasized that this trend should be seized upon and recommended establishing online portals for journalists in Taiwan and India to connect with one another and lift the quality of reporting about each other’s countries. She added that the media rely on third-party sources in their reporting, which leads to distortions and does not foster the authentic understanding that comes through original reporting.

Pandemic partners

The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought India and Taiwan closer together. During the first wave of the virus in 2020, Taiwan provided India with facemasks, part of the 1 million it provided New Southbound Policy countries that year.

In May this year as India battled its second wave, Taiwan sent 150 oxygen concentrators. India also helped Taiwan’s ally Paraguay get 100,000 vaccines in April as the country dealt with diplomatic pressure from Beijing.

There is hope for deepening this cooperation as the pandemic continues. For example, another charity organized by Indians living in Taiwan donated 180,000 masks, among other medical supplies, just last month.

Trade and FDI

Bilateral trade between Taiwan and India reached NT$155.61 billion (US$5.7 billion) in 2020, which is well below its potential, but there is a strong yearning for bolstering economic linkages.

Taiwan has pushed for greater investment as part of its New Southbound Policy, but there needs to be greater interaction between more Indian state governments and Taiwan’s private sector, which has until now been weak.

Taiwan’s Foxconn has set up plants in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, while Winstron, a chipmaker, has a plant in Karnataka. More FDI projects could be realized by creating more robust channels of communication for India’s state governments to plan investments with firms.

Tourism and education

Hasija also believes tourism is an industry with clear untapped potential. She said Taiwan’s scenic sites, such as the mountain tops of Nantou or the beaches of Taitung, are perfect for filming romantic scenes for Bollywood movies. This would help bring a boost from “Bollywood tourism," a phenomenon where Indian travelers flock to overseas filming locations from various movies.

The greatest recipient of this has been Switzerland, a country that has enjoyed a sustained boon to its tourism industry for decades after it provided the backdrops for timeless Bollywood classics like Dilwale Dulhania Me Jayenge.

“If we can have an Indian movie shot in Taiwan… trust me, [Indian] people will come,” she said.

“Indians are among the highest spenders when it comes to tourism,” she added, explaining that if only a fraction of these ‘Bollywood tourists’ come to Taiwan, it will boost revenue for businesses and create much deeper people-to-people ties between the countries.

There is nothing quite like tourism for elevating understanding between countries, she said.

Education has an important role to play too. In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of Indian students pursuing higher education in Taiwan. Taiwan has also increased scholarship opportunities for students, and there have been moves to ease work visa requirements for professionals, which will in turn attract more students.

There remains much work to be done across other areas, Hasija said, hinting that military collaboration could be furthered down the line. De-hyphenation is a long-term goal and to get there Taiwan and India have to make use of Joseph Nye’s famed concept of “Smart Power” — the clever mix of hard and soft power resources — to strengthen their ties into the future.