India recently took over as the Chairperson of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Executive Board earlier this month. India replaced Japan. India is taking leadership responsibility at the WHO at a very challenging time. While India is getting an opportunity to play a key role at the global level, India’s engagement with the WHO could also lead to greater engagement with Taiwan. It is important to consider how COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to forge close ties with Taiwan and why India’s relations with Taiwan matter.
India-Taiwan cooperation in COVID-19 crisis
Taiwan’s role in the COVID-19 crisis has been important because of its unique situation. Taiwan, despite located in close proximity to China, has been successful in containing the spread of the pandemic. Taiwan’s death toll from the coronavirus stands at less than 10. Taiwan is not a member of the WHO and thereby not entitled to cooperation and aid from the organization. Despite these constraints, Taiwan has stood out in its fight against the COVID-19.
Taiwan’s cooperation with India has also stood out in this crisis. Earlier this month Taiwan donated 1 million face masks to India’s medical professionals. Taiwan had also sought India’s support to be able to participate in WHO’s World Health Assembly which was held in Geneva on May 18. Taiwan has been kept out of the WHO because of China’s objections. For India, it would be an opportunity to support Taiwan’s request to be admitted as a member of the WHO. Further, India should also look forward to increase engagements with Taiwan outside the WHO and beyond the COVID-19 crisis.
The status of India-Taiwan relations
India and Taiwan do not have diplomatic relations. India recognizes China (People’s Republic of China) and not Taiwan (Republic of China). While Taiwan considers itself an independent country, China considers Taiwan as a part of China. Taiwan is also not a member of the United Nations (UN). Trade and commerce and culture have been the principal areas of engagement between India and Taiwan. Taiwan is represented in India through Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre in absence of a formal diplomatic setup.
Notwithstanding the limitations, Taiwan has been proactive in developing its economic ties with India. As of 2018, Taiwan’s investments in India stood at $7.5 billion and are expected to touch $10 billion this year. Taiwan is also looking to expand its New Southbound Policy (NSP) to India. This policy was launched by Taiwan in 2016 to increase its economic engagements with Southeast Asian countries. The NSP is important for Taiwan since it is meant to reduce dependence on China. Along with investing in India, Taiwan is also inviting Indians to invest in Taiwan. Trade and investment are areas with underutilized potential for both India and Taiwan. Both countries should use this to further develop their ties.
Why Taiwan matters for India?
There is a lot of potential for India and Taiwan relations to develop. Taiwan is a democratic country like India and unlike China. But Taiwan’s location makes it strategically important for India. India and China are strategic rivals at bilateral level as well as in the Indo-Pacific region. China poses a challenge to India not only at the territorial borders but also in the maritime domain in the Indo-Pacific.
Taiwan’s location in proximity to China and in the Indo-Pacific region is an important reason for India to develop close ties from the strategic point of view. While engaging with Southeast Asian and East Asian countries India must also engage with Taiwan on a broader spectrum.
While the China factor has been responsible for limited engagements between India and Taiwan, the same factor could also drive India-Taiwan relations. The strategic challenges that India and Taiwan face from China run parallel. China considers Taiwan as its part. With respect to India China lays claims on India’s territory. China has also been involved in strategic posturing against both as pressure tactics. Recently China had conducted anti-submarine drills in the South China Sea and China’s military transport aircraft had entered Taiwan’s airspace. Besides, China is planning to conduct a military exercise in August, which Taiwan considers will result in China taking over the Pratas Islands which are under Taiwan’s control. With respect to India, Indian and Chinese soldiers are involved in a face-off at the border of the Indian state of Sikkim.
Common challenges have the potential to make India and Taiwan strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific. Both must take steps towards diversification of their ties in order to realise full potential. India’s relations with China have developed despite irritants. Now India should look forward to develop relations with Taiwan independent of the former’s relations with China.
India-Taiwan relations have developed in a very limited context. The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for both to strengthen ties beyond trade and commerce. Both India and Taiwan should ensure that their current cooperation should not remain limited to tackling the COVID-19 crisis but should extend beyond that.
**The author is a Fellow at Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies**