The transforming dynamics of the Indo-Pacific have brought to the fore new opportunities and challenges for maritime multilateralism and security cooperation in the region. As an emerging regional power and an active participant in the strategic processes of the Indo-Pacific, India’s role is viewed both as a harbinger of peace and a proponent for openness, inclusivity, and rule of law. In this regard, India shares its democratic outlook towards regional maritime geopolitics with the island of Taiwan. What India also shares with Taiwan is the increasing threat of the military and economic rise of China in the region, coupled with a history of its territories being claimed by China as its own. Hence, the India-Taiwan security cooperation in the maritime space carries great prospects in guaranteeing sustainable development, inclusive growth, and regional stability, as well as in countering Chinese aggression, especially in the South and East China seas.
So far, India-Taiwan relations have been prosperous and show great scope for expansion in the near future. Even though India continues to maintain diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (hereby referred to as ‘China’) over Taiwan, and walks the line cautiously, India’s Taiwan policy has seen a significant shift towards closeness and cooperation in recent years, which also has to do with India’s worsening ties with China over tensions along the Line of Actual Control. G-2-G and G-2-B interactions have been especially important for the relations – for example, the prospective US$ 7.5 billion deal recently announced between India and Taiwan to accelerate semiconductor manufacturing in the former is a promising opportunity for advancement of local Indian businesses with investments from the Taiwanese government. Other Taiwanese investments in India amount to about US$ 2 billion. On the political front, diplomatic visits and attendances have helped further relations. The most prominent example for this is that of Minister of State for External Affairs Meenakshi Lekhi attending virtually the swearing-in ceremony of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen in 2020. Foundations like Taipei Economic and Cultural Center (TECC), established in Chennai in 2012, as well as the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA), which has opened branch offices in Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, and Mumbai, have helped further India’s military, economic, cultural and diplomatic understanding of Taiwan. However, trade between the two has only risen by a meagre US$ 3 billion between 2006 and 2020, which explains the scope for continued cooperation, especially on the commerce front.
One of Taiwan’s most ambitious endeavours to regain the diplomatic prestige it lost to China in 1971 when it had to give up its United Nations seat in favour of the latter, is its New Southbound Policy (NSP). Announced in 2016 by President Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan, the NSP attempts to realise the massive potential of the economic and security collaborations the island could carry out with the ASEAN, South Pacific countries, and South Asian countries like India. Under the ambit of the Policy, Taiwan has signed various Free Trade and Bilateral investment agreements with NSP target countries like New Zealand, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines. In doing so, Taiwan has fostered Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), cultural exchanges, and trade and tourism with said countries, and has also supplemented NSP’s focus on regional integration in the Asia-Pacific with a Draft National Ocean Policy White Paper. Released in 2020, the White Paper attempts to refocus Taiwan’s commitments to the maritime space by allowing it to protect its territorial waters, and by extension, its “sovereignty”, to create a “Blue/ Ocean Economy” that works by utilising ocean resources judiciously and sustainability, and to reach out to maritime partners for the promotion of maritime law and regional stability. In this light, the India-Taiwan maritime partnership has the potential to focus on themes such as conflicts in the South and East China Seas, or maritime law and implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in the Indo-Pacific, sustainability, and critical cyber/ cyber-enabled technologies in the maritime domain, as well as naval defence strategies.
As highlighted by Prime Minister Modi at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific region is based on pillars like freedom of navigation, openness, inclusivity, the establishment of a rules-based order, and promotion of multilateralism. These ideals emanate from India’s democratic nature, just like Taiwan. Naturally, Taiwan’s maritime doctrine also focuses on said ideals. In this light, neither India nor Taiwan appreciates Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, and if not explicitly, find meaningful ways to collaborate with partners on the other end of the conflict with China to maintain stability in the SCS. India’s naval exercises with Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, and the Philippines, as well as its commitment to expanding military and economic ties with East Asian neighbours under its ‘Act East’ policy, affirm its emphasis on regional stability.
Especially in the context of the South China Sea (SCS), India has reformed its previously neutral stance by vocalizing upon the strategic significance of its waterways to Indian maritime interests, and by partnering with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines to uphold freedom of navigation and rule of law in the region. India’s stakes in the SCS include the security and stability of trade worth US$ 220 billion annually, and the successful fulfillment of its ‘Act East’ policy objectives and its larger Indo-Pacific vision that calls for freeness, openness, inclusivity, and freedom of navigation in its maritime neighborhood. Consequently, India has continued to deliberate with Vietnam on the prospects of a joint oil exploration project in the Spratly islands, which has been stalled since 2013 due to Chinese belligerence and disrespect for rule of law. India also conducted large-scale naval training exercises with Vietnam and Singapore in the SCS, in August and September of last year (respectively). To make its presence felt, a Task Force in the Indian Navy Eastern Fleet also deployed four Indian warships for a two-month period in the SCS and the Western Pacific in August 2021.
To outline India’s stance on the South China Sea, speaking at the November 2020 East Asia Summit, Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar stated that China’s actions in the Sea “corrode trust,” and that claimants of disputed waters and maritime territories should follow a “code of conduct” that does not hurt the legitimate interests of “third parties” (India being one of them). Similarly, on the issue of Itu Aba (Taiping Island), the largest naturally occurring island among the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, Taiwan has repeatedly condemned mainland China for making historical and geographical claims over the Island, even though it is understood to be part of Taiwanese territory. Naturally, it is in the mutual interest of both Taiwan and India to come together and ensure enforcement of justice in disputed waters.
The relevance of cyber and critical tech in the maritime space is immense – from enabling the use of unmanned systems in the carrying out of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), to the use of high-speed networks for efficient Command and Control (C2). Both India and Taiwan exhibit expertise in diverse critical and cyber/ cyber-enabled technologies, and have a lot to collaboratively bring to the table. The 2018 bilateral investment agreement signed between India and Taiwan has opened up significant prospects for technological cooperation between the two entities, especially in fields like microelectronics as well as 5G and labour upskilling. Indigenous Taiwanese corporations like Taiwan Mobile and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company are breaking grounds within and beyond its territory in providing 5G infrastructure to its citizens, and in carrying out sophisticated semiconductor fabrication for their use in various integrated circuits. Similarly, India’s Semiconductor Laboratory (SCL) has gained worldwide recognition in chip designing. In this regard, the recent announcement of a US$ 10 billion deal on establishing chip manufacturing in India, with prospects for collaboration between Taiwanese semiconductor giants and SCL, can lead to significant results vis-a-vis the use of indigenously fabricated nodes in infrared and other ISR technology. This, in turn, will help both Taiwan and India with modernisation of coastal security and naval defence.
Both India and Taiwan are formidable Blue Economies in the making. It indicates that not only do the two countries engage in the sustainable and judicious use of ocean resources, they also engage in coastal job creation and maritime conservation. India’s expertise in the aquaculture sector is well-known, given it is the third-largest producer of fish. At the same time, Taiwan possesses a diverse portfolio in fishery management in the East China Sea. For example, the Taiwan Fishermen’s Association is one out of only two fishermen’s associations in the world (the second being the Japanese one) with individual legal rights of fishing and fishery management. They act in collaboration with the government to conduct safe and legal fishing in the East China Sea and have successfully operationalised management systems for sharks, mahi-mahis, crabs, mackerel, and squids. Given their elaborate coastlines, both India and Taiwan also host a large number of cruise tourists and have scope to enhance partnership in the field, taking into account their well-established socio-cultural and diasporic ties. In a post-pandemic world, partnership over the Blue Economy agenda will do well to ensure economic security and fishing supply-chain management for both entities. Naturally, it shall also help the two expand on their respective climate action agendas, preparing them for investing in renewable sources of energy like hydropower, and for jointly delivering Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) to their Indo-Pacific partners.
On the diplomatic front, Taiwan faces significant challenges. Its systematic isolation by mainland China, which claims Taiwan to be a breakaway province belonging to its own territory, has led to the sidelining of Taiwanese economic, cultural, and military interests in the region and the world. From being recognised by 21 countries in 2017 to only 14 in 2021 (the most recent country to switch its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to PRC being Nicaragua), Taiwan has attempted to overcome its challenges in the multilateral fora through investment partnerships and the NSP. Its commendable performance in tackling the COVID-19 Pandemic earned it global applause and its bid to gain observer status in the World Health Assembly was vehemently backed by G7 countries for the May 2021 session. However, that also did not materialise due to opposition from China. In this regard, India has the opportunity to act as an ally for the island, especially by supporting its participation in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (as a Dialogue partner) and in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (as an observer similar to New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam in the Quad Plus). Especially, if the IORA can host China as a Dialogue partner, it can equally benefit from hosting Taiwan as one, given the latter’s capabilities in trade and investment, maritime security, fishery management and tourism, four of IORA’s priority areas of engagement. So far, at an institutional level, India has refrained from voicing its support for Taiwanese participation – may it be in the Quad or the IORA. Here, the consideration for Indian foreign policy must be to look at Taiwan from the lens of its contributions (existing and potential) to the Indo-Pacific architecture – and not from the lens of playing it as a card against or as a controversy that can anger China. As per the statement of the US Official Spokesperson, senior officials of the Quad countries also discussed the importance of maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait in their August 2021 meeting, which already signals the need for Taiwanese involvement in the maintenance of such security and stability as well. These discussions must not be conducted in a siloed and unilateral format.
As elaborated above, the ever-evolving maritime space is an open playground for India-Taiwan security partnership, wherein aspects of “security” are both traditional (countering Chinese belligerence and expanding naval capabilities) and non-traditional (ensuring climate change mitigation, as well as technological and economic securities). The China factor looms large over their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, given that disputes over the South China Sea have hindered Taiwan’s efforts towards ensuring stability in the region, while both their economic interdependencies with China have undermined their partnerships with other countries in the region, and with each other. If one compares trends of Taiwanese investments in NSP target countries against those in mainland China, one can conclude that the latter overwhelmingly supersedes the former across most years. Similarly, India’s ‘Act East Policy’ has yet not recalibrated well to serve its interests with Taiwan. However, recent developments like supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic, the India-China Galwan Valley clashes of May 2020, as well as the bright prospects for an India-Taiwan chip manufacturing partnership, have created room for evolutions in their bilateral relations. The most significant manifestation of these evolutions is bound to be reflected in the maritime space.
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 Erin Hale, “Taiwan holds out hope for seat at World Health Assembly meeting,” Al Jazeera, 22 May 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/22/taiwan-holds-out-hope-for-seat-at-world-health-assembly-meeting.