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Can India Leverage Taiwan’s Lai Moment?

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Can India Leverage Taiwan’s Lai Moment?

Political continuity should encourage New Delhi to continue its gradual movement toward embracing Taiwan as a separate democratic entity, even without formal relations.

Can India Leverage Taiwan’s Lai Moment?
Credit: Depositphotos

In late January, at a reception commemorating India’s Republic Day anniversary – marking the day India officially adopted its constitution 75 years ago and became a sovereign republic – India’s representative to Taiwan, Manharsinh Laxmanbhai Yadav, congratulated Taiwan’s president-elect, Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In praising Taiwan’s successful “democracy in action” at a significant official event, India has also laid bare its intent: the gradual movement toward embracing Taiwan as a separate democratic entity, without necessarily developing official diplomatic relations. 

Between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sending representatives to virtually attend President Tsai Ing-wen’s oath-taking ceremony in 2020 to the Indian envoy’s clear acknowledgment of the “smooth and peaceful transfer of power” in 2024, we can see the significant change in India’s recent approach to Taiwan.

Obviously, Lai’s victory implies a continuity in Taiwan’s foreign policy objectives pursued under the Tsai administration. Despite Lai being seen as an advocate for Taiwan’s sovereignty, and called by China a “secessionist” and “trouble maker,” it is unlikely that Lai, who is currently Tsai’s vice president, will pursue an overtly antagonistic path vis-à-vis China. Although he has reiterated that Taiwan’s independence does not need to be declared as it is already a reality, Lai has also been pragmatic by staying away from war-making rhetoric and emphasizing the need to maintain the cross-strait status quo.

Nonetheless, China will hardly be appeased or change its aggressive course on Taiwan owing to such nuances in speech. In particular, Taiwan’s ties with democratic Indo-Pacific states like India will continue to be on Beijing’s radar, with implications for both Taiwan domestically and cross-strait politics. 

Any such developments are bound to affect India’s foreign policy trajectory in times to come. So, what does the DPP victory result mean for India going forward, given that India envisions itself as an Indo-Pacific power in the reckoning? Can India afford to be lackadaisical about its strategic engagement with Taiwan especially in the emerging Indo-Pacific construct?

Imperative of Cross-Strait Politics

India’s maritime security and geopolitical situation could be greatly affected by a Taiwan emergency, which would disrupt the balance of power and trade routes in the region. India’s Act East Policy (AEP) and its aspirations for a free and open Indo-Pacific align with the importance of maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait. Furthermore, the crisis would raise concerns about territorial integrity and sovereignty, issues that resonate with India’s history and ongoing border disputes with China.

So far, China’s response to Lai’s victory has been par for the course, but not particularly hostile as yet, given China’s extensive intimidation tactics before the vote. But there is no guarantee China will not intensify economic and military pressure on Taiwan in the days to come, especially once Lai is inaugurated in May. 

The Taiwan Strait is one of the busiest global shipping routes, with about 88 percent of the world’s largest ships passing through these waters. Any flare-up in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea is a problem that concerns the entire region and would have grave repercussions for the regional and global economy. Reportedly, a blockade of the Taiwan Strait is expected to disrupt the global economy to the tune of $2 trillion.

For such reasons, India needs to build strategic foresight on how to accord centrality to Taiwan in Indian foreign policy. Even though New Delhi does not diplomatically recognize the government in Taipei, like many other countries, India pursues a “pragmatic engagement” with Taiwan that encompasses economic, cultural, and technological cooperation. For over a decade now, India has not reiterated the “One China” policy, not even in joint statements with China. Given India’s current hardening against Beijing, there is potential for a comprehensive review of ties with Taiwan. 

It is important for India to figure out prudent ways of supporting Taiwan’s identity as a separate and exclusive geographic domain in the Indo-Pacific. India must keep in mind that Taiwan’s inclusion is critical to the security of the Indo-Pacific. However, even if there is no formal advancement, informal avenues abound and must be taken advantage of.

Many Avenues of Cooperation

Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP), launched by Tsai, has shown promising signs of convergence with India’s AEP. This is seen through unparalleled levels of trade and investment, increased high-level interactions, and sharing of talent and resources. These positive trends are further confirmed by the opening of Taiwan’s third representative office in India in July 2023.

Given Lai’s statements regarding outreach with “like-minded” democracies, it is likely that he will extend the same priority to India (or even more) that his predecessor did. The DPP’s continuity in Taiwan holds out the opportunity to encourage negotiations on a free trade agreement between India and Taiwan, thereby increasing commitment to factor each other in their long-term strategic economic outlooks. 

India and Taiwan can also effectively collaborate in areas such as secure, reliable digital infrastructure building and cybersecurity. For example, in 2022, they signed a memorandum of understanding on cybersecurity cooperation, underscoring the commitment to strengthening bilateral exchange in critical areas. Ongoing efforts to explore cooperation on AI, where Taiwan has made great strides, is a step in the right direction. 

There is also scope for maritime cooperation, especially with regard to the security of the undersea cable network. India is expanding its digital economy by prioritizing on cable connectivity. And Taiwan, too, is planning to boost telecom resilience, particularly after two subsea internet cables linking Taiwan’s main island with the Matsu islands were severed (allegedly by a Chinese trawler and a cargo ship) in February 2023. Notably, India should also explore Taiwan’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) initiatives like the “Partnership for Cable Connectivity and Resilience.” 

Dual Political Continuity Will Reap Long-Term Dividends

If the ruling regime in India led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes back to power – as the recent state election victories strongly suggest – after elections in April-May this year, India will continue to be assertive in its ties with China, centered around the border hostilities. What this means for Taiwan is that its core importance for Indian foreign policy would only increase with a pro-independence but pragmatic Taiwanese president. 

At the same time, despite the DPP’s win, New Delhi should maintain a connection with all political parties in Taiwan. This is required not only to build political confidence but also to consolidate India’s influence in Taiwanese political circles. Moreover, party-level engagement in Taiwan would always remain a big advantage if India’s Taiwan policy is to be developed as a leverage against China.

Forming a cooperative mechanism with Japan-Taiwan-India official dialogue, or Taiwan-Australia-India, or U..S-India-Taiwan should be explored. Including Taiwan as part of a regional and global supply chain network under the Quad framework, particularly in emerging technologies and climate action, would be a step in the right direction. Besides, supporting Taiwan’s inclusion in intergovernmental organizations and minilaterals would go a long way in strengthening multilateralism and the rebuilding of the regional economic security architecture.