Geopolitical notes from India

M D Nalapat

Friday, July 23, 2010 – During World War II, at a time when Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the UK was completely opposed to giving freedom to the “beastly Indians”, the only world leader who insisted that India ought to be independent was Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek of China. Both he as well as his charming wife Mei-ling Soong repeatedly asked US President F D Roosevelt to persuade Churchill of the hypocrisy in fighting a “war for democracy” while simultaneously denying democratic freedoms to the 350 million people in the Indian subcontinent. While Roosevelt was sympathetic to such a view, he was reluctant to annoy Churchill, and hence was not as insistent on securing independence for India as the KMT leader Chiang was One of the first acts of the new Indian government under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was to send an ambassador to (KMT-ruled) China.

Interestingly, the envoy was none other than the grandfather of the present National Security Advisor of the Governmnent of India, Shivshankar Menon, who was himself Ambassador of India to China a few years ago. Relations between India and KMT China were excellent, but in 1949 the Chinese Communist Party took over power in Beijing, and Nehru decided that Delhi had rto recognize the new regime. India became one of the first countries to recognize the PRC and demand that it be given the UN Securuty Council seat that was being occupied by the KMT regime that had fled to Taiwan, and which was headed by India’s old friend, Chiang Kai-Shek. This “betrayal” by India hurt Chiang very much, and relations between the “Republic of China” (Taiwan) and India remained cool for decades. It was only in 1995 that Representative Offices were set up in Delhi and Taipei by the Narasimha Rao government in India, which saw Taiwan as an important future economic partner, and which had adopted a “Look East” policy in foreign affairs.

However, the Clinton administration in the US was negative to India ( for example, by putting a lot of pressure on Delhi to make concessions to Pakistan on Kashmir, the same policy that Hillary Clinton has adopted now). So, because Taiwan was a US ally, the development of relations was very slow during the Clinton years.It was only after George W Bush came to power in 2001 that ties between Taiwan and India expanded, with direct flights between Taipei and Delhi getting launched in 2002. Since then, several MoUs have been signed, especially in the field of scientific cooperation and investment promotion. In a few months time – and after nearly six years of negotiations – a Double Taxation Agreement is expected to get signed. Last month,

Indian and Taiwanese universities signed an MoU that provides fort mutual recognition of each other’s degrees, thereby opening the way for thousands of Indian students to study in Taiwan, where university education is much cheaper than in the US or even Australia. Alrthough Taiwan is much smaller than India,yet its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is one-third the size of India’s,while its foreign trade and foreign exchange reserves are much bigger than India’s. Taiwan has an advanced economy, with per capita income reaching European standards,and with Services providing nearly 75% of the GDP. Although trade with India is around $8 billion, this is less than 2% of the total trade of the island. As for investment,while Taiwan has invested $300 billion in China,the share of India is only $1 billion so far.Hence there is a long way to go before the full potential of India-Taiwan relations can get actualized.

Taiwanese politics is polarized on the issue of relations with China, which sees the island as a breakaway province that needs to be re-integrated into the PRC. The ruling KMT (Kuomintang) supports a policy of engagement with China, while the opposition DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) is allergic to China and would like Taiwan to declare its independence, a step that could lead to war with China. In 2000, the DPP won the Presidential elections as a result of a split in the KMT. The new President, Chen Shui-bian, began a policy of pushing for the declaration of formal independence, in the process creating tensions with Beijing that even led to the firing of missiles by the PLA on some occasions. People in Taiwan became nervouis of the possibility of a conflict, one reason why the DPP lost the 2008 Presidential elections to KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou, who immediately reversed the DPP policy of confrontation with China and began a policy of conciliation. In the past, travellers between China and Taiwan had to transit via Hong Kong, but President Ma introduced direct flights to China, to the benefit of the hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese working there.

More importantly, this year Taiwan and China signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), that gives duty-free access to several of the products of both sides, and can be exopected to increase economic cooperation significantly. Although the DPP is against ECFa, because it does not want to see abny strengthening of the ties between Beijing and Taipei, yet more than 60% of the Taiwanese population support the move, because they know how important China is to Taiwan. In contrast, the DPP would like to roll back or re-negotiate ECFA, a move that would be unwelcome both to the Chinese as well as to Taiwanese businesspersons, most of whom prefer the KMT to the DPP. The Ma Ying-jeou administration follows the “Three No” policy, which is: No unification, no declaration of independence and no resort to force, a very sensible formulation that if followed can preserve peace across the Taiwan straits.

The closer relations and warming atmosphere between Taiwan and China have made it easier for South Block to consider an enhancement of its ties with Taipei.At present, unlike countries such as Singapore and Indonesia, where Taiwanese Cabinet Ministers are welcome, only those of Vice-Minister rank can come to Delhi. No Cabinet minister or even state chief minister is permitted to visit Taipei, even though the island can easily support $10 billion of investment in India. The Taiwanese Representative in Delhi does not have access to several senior officials, and has to content himself with meeting retired officials, many of whom regularly visit Taiwan. The much colder atmosphere in Delhi to the Taiwanese is in contrast to the ASEAN countries, who are much less fearful of a negative reaction from Beijing than Delhi is. Of course, India’s relations with Taiwan are far better than that of any other South Asian neighbour, all of whom are wary of Beijing’s reaction to increased official interaction with Taiwan.

Despite long periods of mutual hostility, Taiwan and China have for many decades being developing mutually-beneficial linkages. Even during the eight years of the DPP government (that was anti-China) ,trade and investment across the Taiwan Straits was not affected. Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese visited or worked in China, despite the absence of direct cross-strait links. And at all times, the effort was to avoid creating a situation that would provoke a war. Both Taipei and Beijing realised that a conflict between them would draw in the US and possibly Japan, and would be a disaster not only for each other, but for Asia as a whole. Thus, even though Chen Shui-bian frequently threatened to hold a referundum to see whether the Taiwanese people supported de jure independence, he never actually did so, because he knew that such a step would lead to a military response from China, something no country wants, including the US. Indeed, many times the Bush administration publicly indicated its displeasure with the DPP government over its China policy, a factor that helped lead the party to defeat in 1998.

This year, despite global economic woes, Taiwan is on course to have an impressive 6% rate of growth, something commendable for an economy with a per capita income of European standards. Ever pragmatic, the Ma Ying-jeou administration has announced that India and Indonesia will be its focus countries in Asia, now that relations with China have been placed on a healthy foundation. The years ahead should therefore see an improvement in Taiwan-India relations, with trade crossing $20 billion and investment $10 billion.

The trajectory of Taiwan-China relations shows the value of cooperation ands the benefits of peace. It is a model that others in Asia need to follow, so that policies get framed that promote economic progress and social stability, rather than conflict and chaos.

—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.

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