Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
THE picturesque island of Taiwan, formerly Formosa, became the refuge of the KMT armies that were defeated by Mao Zedong in 1949. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek arrived with several hundred thousand soldiers, intending to use the territory as a base from which to win back the Chinese mainland from the Chinese Communist Party. The KMT leader hoped that the US would use its navy and air force to assist him in such an operation, but after the Korean war ended in stalemate in 1953, the US leadership had lost what little appetite it had for a war with China. At the same time, the Peoples Liberation Army lacked the airpower and sea crossing facilities needed to invade the well-defended island. Although a few exchanges of artillery took place, overall there was an uneasy peace between the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China, now comprising only of Taiwan and a few small islands in its possession.
The only way a serious attack could have been mounted on China would have been if the US and the USSR joined hands against the PRC. This was suggested by Moscow to Washington more than once during the period when Leonid Brezhnev was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but hatred for the USSR was far greater within the US establishment than dislike of China. Which is why it was not a surprise that by 1973, the US and China openly came together against the USSR. That partnership was consumnated under Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon, and from then onwards, the security of China was assured. The Chinese remember their friends in a way some other cultures do not, and after Nixon resigned in disgrace as US President, Mao sent an aircraft to Los Angeles in 1976 to bring the former President of the US to China, where he was given a welcome as elaborate as would have been the case had he still been Head of State of the world’s most powerful country. Mao wanted to make the point that he remembered his friends even when their luck had soured. Nixon wanted Henry Kissinger to accompany him, but the canny scholar declined, even though he had taken for himself the credit for the momentous US-China rapprochement that he had initially opposed when the idea was first suggested by Nixon.
In 2018, Taiwan is a fully functional democracy, with elections that are untainted by fraud, and which has twice witnessed changes in regime from the Chiang-era Kuomintang (KMT) to its rival,the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Two years ago, the Presidential election was won by Tsai Ing-wen, a steely DPP backer steeped in the western liberal tradition of society. Over the two years of her rule, Taiwan has moved much closer to the US than was the case during any period after the 1960s. Should Tsai win a second term and thereby get a further four years in office beyond the two more that she has in her current term, it is clear that the US and Taiwan will become as close security partners as was the case until the US-China rapprochement of the 1970s. Quietly and efficiently, Taiwan’s elected Head of State is ensuring a closer and closer fit with the democracies, including India. Over the past year alone, there has been a significant jump in Taiwanese investment in India.
Till recently, few companies in this First World economy wished to come to India, as they were happy in China, where there is over $ 400 billion of Taiwanese investment in terms of market value. The private companies headquartered in Taipei,Kaohsiung and other cities had the advantage of close commercial links between the US and China, despite the superficial differences. Bill Clinton as well as George W Bush and Barack Obama deepened US engagement with China, the last even talking of a G-2 ( the US and China) as the duo that would provide leadership to the globe. However, the closer China has come to the US in economic size, the less the appetite within Washington for a G-2. Instead, during the final couple of years of the Obama administration, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter began work on a series of alliances (mostly informal) that had China as the focus.
Military relations with India in particular grew substantially during this period, after Narendra Modi took over as PM in 2014. With Donald J Trump taking over as President in 2016, that alliance has become stronger at the same time as US-Taiwan and Taiwan-India ties have multiplied. However, for Taiwanese companies, it is becoming patent that it is no longer possible to run along with the US as well as with China, so far as commercial ties are concerned. Several Taiwanese companies have been adversey affected by the Trump administration because of their linkages with China. Unlike in the past, when it was possible to do robust business with both the US and China, the time is approaching when Taiwanese companies will need to choose between the US and China. Those predominantly operating in either country are rapidly losing their welcome in the other. A consequence is that some Taiwanese companies are shifting from China to countries such as Malaysia,Indonesia,Vietnam and India.
Unfortunately for Taiwan, the teaching of English was given a low priority by successive administrations, with the result that only a small percentage of the population speaks that language. However, in an effort to further distinguish Taiwan from the Chinese mainland, Prime Minister William Lai (who makes no secret of his view that Taiwan is a wholly independent country and not a province of China as Beijing regards it) has broad-based the teaching of English, so that within twenty years, three-fourths of the population will speak the international link language. The Blue (KMT) camp seeks closer ties with China while the Green (DPP) activists want to reduce the existing links with the world’s second-largest economy. The 2020 Presidential elections will be crucial for the future of the strategically important island.
A second term for the DPP would ensure that the process of synchronisation with the US as well as with the European Union and major Asian democracies such as Japan and India would reach a level that would make a reversal of the process difficult if not impossible. A KMT victory would give the Chinese another chance to deepen their ties with Taiwan such that in a few more years time, there would be what may be called a “de facto unification” of the PRC and the RoC (Taiwan). People to people as well as commercial links would grow to such an extent that it would be as easy to cross the Taiwan straits as it is to move from India to Nepal or vice versa. The US and China have massive stakes in the 2020 elections, of course on opposing sides.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.