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Taiwan-India: New Friends?

If reports appearing in Taiwan media and sections of Indian and world press are true, Taiwan’s Kuo Ming Tang (KMT) Presidential candidate, Ma Ying-Jeou is to pay a visit to India on Jun 12-13, 2007. Ma is basically a politician and had held the high posts of Minister for Justice, KMT Chairman and Taipei Mayor and is now being considered by many as a front-runner in the next year’s Presidential elections in Taiwan. It is not yet known who in India will be hosting the Taiwan leader and whether or not he will meet any Indian government or political personality. Under its ‘one-China’ policy, India has so far taken care to avoid any high level official contacts with Taiwan. It even did not permit the proposed visit of the then Taiwan Vice President Annette Lu to Gujarat in 2001 to distribute earthquake relief material. New Delhi is likely to persist with such policy while dealing with Ma’s visit, so as not to jeopardise its strategically important ties with Beijing. Expectations are that the KMT leader’s visit will be treated by New Delhi as purely ‘unofficial’ and that the hosts will be from non-governmental bodies in India. Can there be any hidden political meaning then behind the proposed visit? This question may look justified, as every one is aware that a leader of Ma Ying-Jeou’s standing cannot come to India without the tacit understanding of the government there.

The chances of the Taiwan leader’s contacts with some of India’s political figures, not holding official positions, cannot be ruled out under the circumstances. Events in the past, particularly since the establishment of respective non-official Trade Offices in 1995, confirm such pattern. Not long ago, the Indian politician George Fernandez visited Taiwan (2004) to attend a symposium organised by the authoritative ‘Taiwan Think tank’, an institution sponsored by all the political parties there. A Taiwan delegation led by Ms Maysing Yang came to India (October-November 2005), which met I.K.Gujral, L.K.Advani among others. The process providing for contacts between the parliamentarians of the two sides, which began in 2006, also merits viewing from a political angle. For the first time, a group of Taiwanese legislators led by Hou Shui-Sheng of the ruling, but independence leaning, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) paid a visit to India in February that year and met some politicians (e.g Dr Satyanarayan Jaitia, a member of Indian Parliament, former Central Minister and leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party). Hou later claimed that the visit could take place in spite of Chinese protests to India.

China’s attitude towards India-Taiwan contacts has so far been positive, based on its realisation that New Delhi adheres to ‘one-China’ policy. The PRC Ambassador in New Delhi has himself praised such policy. Also, China does not seem to make an issue out of India’s hesitation, unlike other nations like Pakistan and Bangladesh, to use the terminology of “inalienable part of China ” while describing Taiwan in its official documents. Coming to the proposed KMT leader’s visit to India, Beijing can be expected to be watchful, but it may not oppose the event as long as India keeps it ‘unofficial’. Setting China’s general policy in this regard, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson stated (April 26, 2006) , “China does not challenge Taiwan’s exchange with other parts of the world of non-official nature. China has taken many flexible measures on the basis of one-China principle to facilitate Taiwan’s overseas economic and cultural exchanges. But China is firmly opposed to secessionist activities of Taiwan authorities in various disguises”.

Beijing would have certainly come out with harsh criticism against New Delhi, if any high-ranking Taiwan representative from the ruling pro-independence DPP is to visit India. As Ma Ying-Jeou is from the opposition KMT for which Beijing seems to have a soft corner albeit by design, China may show tolerance to his visit. At the same time, it needs to be noted that there are convergences as well as divergences between the KMT and the Chinese communist Party (CCP). From the point of view of former, what strikes first is the common goal of the KMT and CCP to reunify the country. The two parties are firmly opposed to Taiwan’s independence, with KMT in particular rejecting the DPP’s latest “Second Republic Constitution” outright of late. Main divergences include the KMT’s criticism of China’s Anti-Secession Law and human rights violations. Also, on the issue of Tibet, the KMT appears to have shifted to a line favourable to the Dalai Lama’s demands. In addition, the KMT is not critical of the Taiwan Relations Act of the US, which binds Washington to defend to Taiwan in the event of a mainland attack.

China’s has at the moment chosen to downplay the divergences with KMT and instead optimise the advantages of convergences, in order to address the urgent need to isolate the DPP in Taiwan’s politics. China’s recent measures are a case in point. Beijing has hosted visits to the mainland by the KMT Honorary Chairman Lien Chan for three years in a row – 2005,2006 and 2007, with President Hu Jintao meeting the Taiwan leader every time.

The particular case of Ma Ying-Jeou’s visit to India (also to Singapore) needs to be examined in such a context. Beijing despite its opposition to Ma’s precondition that China should remove its missiles targeted at Taiwan before resumption of negotiations with the mainland, may feel pleased with the Taiwan leader’s policies of not accepting Taiwan independence as an option for the KMT (January 28,2007), reaching a consensus with China on the basis of ‘pragmatism and playing no zero sum game’, while working for ending Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation and entering international economic bodies like the World Bank and the IMF and preferring to sign a Peace Agreement with the mainland, if he wins the Presidential election in 2008. Against the background of Ma’s moderate position on the reunification question and the perceived need to counter any push abroad by the DPP for Taiwan’s independence, China may positively regard the KMT leader’s visits abroad in general, and to India and Singapore in particular.

Going beyond the specifics involving Ma Ying-Jeou’s visit to India, what is being witnessed at present relate to the rapidly changing regional strategic perceptions of both Taipei and New Delhi; these perceptions stem from reasons different for each side, but in the end provide a common ground to both for getting closer. In early 90s, Taiwan and India initiated their respective “ Go South” and “Look East” policies, aimed at achieving integration of their economies with that of ASEAN growth. The rapid rise of China in the later years broadened their outlook; Taiwan became apprehensive of the high risks involved in becoming more and more dependent on the overheated Chinese economy. Its cross- strait investment reached the level of US$ 100 billion. China turned into the biggest market for Taiwan. Strategically, Taipei is becoming more and more unsure of Beijing’s intentions on reunification, not ruling out the use of force. Also, some in Taiwan may fear that the US is allowing China to play a bigger role on regional affairs, thus creating regional imbalance. Politically, Taipei is becoming increasingly aware of the rising geo-political importance of India and the latter’s potential in countering China’s growing clout in the region. It has come to view Indian democracy as a source of strength. Also, the changing views of the West, particularly the US, on India’s future role in the region, especially attract Taipei.

On the part of India, its desire to play an expanded role in East Asia, through forging strong ties with ASEAN nations, establishing a relation of strategic partnership with China and Japan as well as improving ties with Taiwan, without factoring Taipei-Beijing relations, has come to dominate policy directions. New Delhi also eyes on benefits from economic cooperation with Taiwan. On a number of fields like counter-terrorism, WMDs, environment etc, India might consider teaming up with Taiwan, useful. In a nutshell, while for Taiwan, the China factor and compulsions to end diplomatic isolation, appear to be the main motivating factors in promoting India ties, India while engaging China, sees in its connectivity to Taiwan, an East Asian entity, a helpful factor not tapped earlier, for its efforts to integrate with the whole of East Asia; The fact that India is already participating in the East Asian summits could be relevant in this regard.

In a background of their rather overlapping motivating factors as given above, Taiwan and India are searching for new ways to get closer to each other. Former Taiwan Premier Yu Shih-kun launched the second wave of the Government’s “Go South policy” to include India in 2005. Since then, Taiwan has been expressing its keenness to sign a FTA with India. The Taiwan-India Cooperation Council (TICC), a brainchild of National Security Council of Taiwan, with Yu Shih-kun as its first Director, started functioning in Taipei in 2006, with the aim of promoting governmental level contacts between the two sides. A representative of President Chen Shui-bian was present at the time of TICC’s inauguration. Information Technology and Infrastructure have been identified as two key areas for Cooperation.

Both Taiwan and India have become keen to promote bilateral trade, which was around US$ 2.27 billion in the first eleven months of 2005, with projections for 2007 being US$ 7 billion. Taiwan’s direct investment in India was US$ 116 million by end 2004. The figures are no doubt below the potential, as trade with India forms only 0.67% of Taiwan’s total trade and in comparison, Taiwan’s investment in China was as high as US$ 41.7 billion in 2004. Exchange of business delegations between Taiwan and India has become regular. Notable has been the visit of a 130-member business-government delegation headed by Taiwan’s Economic Affairs Minister Shi An-Xiang, in May 2006 at the invitation of India’s prominent commercial chambers, to discuss bilateral matters relating to economy, trade and investment. From India, the visit of a NASSCOM delegation to Taiwan recently has been illustrative of Taiwan’s growing interest in India’s software industry. Taiwan also seems to aim at entering the other South Asian markets through India.

A word of caution to politicians in India, who may be meeting the visiting KMT leader, may be appropriate. The KMT’s position on the Sino-Indian boundary does not differ from that of the PRC. In the past, the KMT had criticised the PRC for discussing with India matters relating to China’s possible concessions to India on the Sino-Indian boundary question. Also, the KMT considers the whole of Tibet and Mongolia as part of China as per Articles 119 and 120 of the “Republic of China” Constitution, though there has been a nuanced change in recent years in the position concerning Tibet, with the formation in 2003 of a new Taiwan-Tibet Cultural Exchange Foundation, to replace the existing Tibetan-Mongolian Commission. Though the visit of Ma to India is expected to be basically economic in nature, it would be advisable for the Indian interlocutors to bear in mind the KMT’s positions on India-China border and Tibet during talks.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is former Director in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He is presently Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email: dsrajan@c3sindia.org, dsrajan@gmail.com )

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