India’s stakes in China-Taiwan tension

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By Shivansh Mishra

New Delhi, September 1: Governments around the world, including in South Asia, are anxious about rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait. While Taipei has sought to expand its commercial connections, Beijing has expanded its influence in the region in recent years.

In the wake of Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, Beijing asked India to reiterate its ‘One China Policy’. Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong expressed the hope that “India can honor the one-China principle, grasp the vicious political intention behind Pelosi’s visit and the serious harms of the Taiwan independence separatist force”. It is hoped that the Indian side can understand and support China’s efforts to defend its sovereignty, security, and development interests, and work together with the Chinese side to promote the healthy and steady development of China-India relations, he added.

Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi responded to that merely by saying “India’s relevant policies are well known and consistent. They do not require reiteration.”

Further, he also urged “the exercise of restraint, avoidance of unilateral actions to change the status quo, de-escalation of tensions and efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region”.

However, India has been ramping up its ties with Taiwan, both politically and economically. When Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen first won elections in 2016, India’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) sent an official to attend her inauguration. In the same year, New Delhi’s Raisina Dialogue, a forum co-organized by the Indian foreign ministry, invited a former Taiwanese foreign minister as one of its speakers.

This May 2022, after Tsai Ing-wen, the President, was re-elected, two parliamentarians from the BJP attended her swearing-in ceremony virtually. Taiwan with its New Southbound Policy, which gives 18 nations priority for increased commercial cooperation, has sought to deepen its engagement with South Asia.

South Asian states are likely more worried about conflict in the Taiwan Strait because it would disrupt trade with China. India, on the other hand, has increased commercial ties with Taiwan more than any of its neighbors, in large part as a result of its bitter competition with China.

In terms of Taiwan’s trade with South Asia, India makes up close to 80 per cent. In recent decades, New Delhi and Taipei have signed a bilateral investment pact and explored collaboration in research and technology.

Despite India’s cautious and noncommittal diplomacy, much of this economic collaboration is now in jeopardy as Taiwan continues to balance on the edge.

Following Pelosi’s visit, China carried out several military exercises that essentially surrounded Taiwan, impeded the passage of civilian ships, and put Taiwan’s position in trade and the global supply chain at risk. India already cautiously manages its diplomatic relations with a few nations, the United States and Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to name a couple, and escalating tensions between China and Taiwan present another case.

Also, China-Taiwan tensions are playing out in the Indo-Pacific region, where India strongly supports U.S. policy that revolves around countering China. China seeks to restrict and threaten Taiwan’s economic ties with the outside world, thereby progressively weakening the island’s position.

Such a strategy would also significantly threaten India’s long-term economic plans and partnership with Taiwan. Since India wants to engage more with the Indo-Pacific region, tensions between the US and China cannot help but have an impact on India.

The Taiwan Strait, which is between China and Taipei and is 130 km wide at its narrowest point, is crucial for trade flows from East Asian factories to the international market. This is the primary route for South Korea, Japan, and China.

According to Bloomberg, this Strait was traversed by 88 per cent of the largest ships in the world by tonnage and half of the world’s container fleet this year. It is a fact that one million barrels of oil and oil products every day traverse through this Strait.

All of this could be obstructed if China claims that these are not international waters and weaponizes access as it is already doing in the South China Sea by building islands and militarizing them.

However, India has consistently supported freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. In present scenarios, it should do the same for the Taiwan Strait as well, which threatens to become the flashpoint for colliding big power ambitions.

So far, India has been reluctant to engage with these dynamics officially, choosing instead to walk on eggshells around Beijing’s sentiments while focusing on their troublesome bilateral border in the Himalayas. But if the Taiwan crisis escalates in the upcoming months, New Delhi is not likely to be spared.

(Author is a researcher at PPRC, New Delhi)

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