At the end of first restructured strategic dialogue this week between China and India, the irritants in this very important bilateral relationship show no sign of receding. The positions of the two nations remain exactly where they were before this round of talks. Just a few days back, China had once again vetoed a United States-sponsored resolution to designate Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the United Nations. This was the third time China was challenging India which has borne the brunt of attacks plotted and executed by Azhar’s group, based in Pakistan, including the attack on the Pathankot air force station in Punjab last year. China’s explanation for its action was that it needed “solid evidence” to back the UN’s move against Azhar and that the “conditions” have not yet been met for Beijing to back the move.
India’s response has been equally robust as it made it clear that “the extent of JeM chief Masood Azhar’s actions are ‘well documented’ and the ‘burden of proof’ is not on India”. New Delhi has also acknowledged that on India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Beijing still remains stuck to its “view of procedures and processes”, which is different from others in the grouping. That China and India failed in resolving their differences is not surprising. What is refreshing is the candour with which Indian diplomacy is taking on China.
As divergences grow between Asia’s two rising powers, the strategic dialogue is aimed at exchanging regional and global issues of mutual interest. But India’s attitude seems to be now undergoing a significant shift. And one of the more interesting developments on that front has been Indian attempts to bring Taiwan into the Sino-Indian equation.
A three-member women’s parliamentary delegation from Taiwan visited India last week amidst signals that the two sides might be getting serious about enhancing their bilateral engagement. The leader of the delegation, Kuan Bi-Ling, underscored that Taiwan is “totally independent”. The One-China policy, she said, “is a de facto reality...We suffered a lot because of the One-China policy. We have crafted a pragmatic approach in our diplomatic engagement with major countries, including India, despite these difficulties.” This visit was in contrast to last year when India had reportedly backtracked from sending representatives to the swearing-in ceremony of then Taiwanese president-elect Tsai Ing-wen.
China considers Taiwan as part of its mainland and opposes any diplomatic relations as well as political contacts with Taipei by countries which have diplomatic relations with it. India does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan and also adheres to the “One-China Policy”.
China lodged a diplomatic protest with New Delhi asking it to deal “prudently” with Taipei-related issues so as to maintain sound Sino-Indian ties. Chinese state-run media was its usual bombastic self. The Global Times thundered that “by challenging China over the Taiwan question, India is playing with fire,” and laid the blame on Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen for exploiting India’s “strategic suspicions against China”.
India brushed off these protests from China, saying the trip was not a formal one. According to Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “such informal groups have visited India in the past as well for business, religious and tourism purposes. I understand that they do so to China as well. There is nothing new or unusual about such visits and political meanings should not be read into them.” But there is no doubt that India and Taiwan are giving each other another look.
Push for unification
Beijing has toughened its attitude towards Taipei, underscoring its will to leverage economic ties to push for unification. Over the years, under Chinese pressure all but a handful of countries have cut formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Tsai, the first woman president who had won on a strong anti-China dominance sentiment in Taiwan last year, has been categorical in asking Beijing “to face up to the reality that the Republic of China exists, and that the people of Taiwan have an unshakable faith in the democratic system”. She has floated a South-bound policy whereby Taiwan is exploring and enhancing trade and investment possibilities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, South East and South Asian countries. India has emerged as a priority country for Taiwan. In September 2015, before she became Taiwan’s president, Tsai had spoken about the increasing importance of India in her country’s foreign policy. She had suggested that “ASEAN and India are poised to become two of the world’s largest economic bodies. Strengthening our overall relations is a natural choice for Taiwan as we diversify our economic and trade ties. In the future, we will form a new task force to actively pursue this policy objective.”
India and Taiwan share a range of mutual interests from managing the rise of the China factor to economic, and institutional collaboration. The Modi government which is reviewing its China policy may have found in Taiwan a partner as it enhances its profile in the Indo-Pacific. A robust engagement with Taipei might help India better understand Beijing’s strategic thinking. New Delhi is now seeking to conduct its China policy on strict reciprocity. It has been advising China that it ought to respect other countries’ sensitivity and sovereignty, if it wants the same for itself. Taiwan’s emergence from the backwaters of Indian foreign policy might be a sign that Indian policymakers are serious about their rhetoric.
Harsh V Pant is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King’s College London.