[Editorial] Taiwan Standoff and Lessons for India

What happened in Taiwan?

  • On August 3rd, the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. This trip is the highest-level visit from the USA to the country in 25 years.
  • In response, China warned USA against the visit, saying it would violate the ‘One China Policy’ commitments. It has since made use of diplomatic, economic and military measures.

Reasons for the Visit:

  • The high level visit was for 3 main issues:
    • Human rights
    • Trade
    • Security
  • The US Speaker wanted to send a message of solidarity with the small island nation and signal its ‘determination to preserve democracy in Taiwan and in the world’.
  • Notably, this visit is largely by Ms. Pelosi’s initiative, rather than by the US administration. Expecting repercussions from China, the White House and the US military hadn’t shown enthusiasm for this visit.
  • During the visit, the US Speaker had talks with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, addressed the Taiwan legislature and even received a civilian honour.

Chinese Response:

  • One of the most significant of the Chinese responses is the 4 day live-firing military drills in 6 regions around Taiwan.
  • This exercise began on the day after the visit and created a blockade on Taiwanese airspace and waters.
  • This unprecedented exercise marks several firsts- crossing of the Taiwan Strait’s median line by such large number of aircrafts and warships and the firing of conventional missiles over Taiwan into the eastern waters.
  • Analysts say that the drills signal a new normal in Chinese military activities in Taiwanese waters. They are meant to send a message to Taiwan and the USA.
  • However, the broader message is aimed at the Chinese public who have been questioning the government on its failure to deter the US visit.
  • In addition to these military measures, China has also brought in economic blockades such as curbing over 100 Taiwanese exporters and import of fruits, fish and sand. Notably, the measures don’t cover the main drivers of bilateral trade, such as semiconductors (Chinese companies are dependent on Taiwanese semiconductors and China is Taiwan’s largest export market accounting for 42% of total exports in 2021).

Reasons for Chinese Opposition:

  • Though Taiwan welcomed this visit as a boost to its international standing, China is perceiving this as an attempt by USA to alter the status quo on the ‘One China Policy’.
  • While the US administration is arguing that there were precedents for such visits to the island nation, China sees it as only the latest in a series of moves to ‘hollow out’ and redefine ‘One China Policy’.
  • As China sees the visit as a political one, it argues that it is in violation of the 1979 communique which forms the foundation of Sino-US ties. It highlighted the fact that Ms. Pelosi is only 2nd in line to presidency after the US Vice President.

One China Policy:

  • The US government doesn’t have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, in accordance with the One China Policy.
  • The joint communique that established the US-China diplomatic ties in 1979 holds that the USA recognizes the “Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China”.
  • However, the communique provides that the USA would “maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.

How does India compare with Taiwan?

  • Taiwan is a small island nation with a population of 23 million people, whereas India is a more powerful country with a 1.4 million strong standing army and armed with nuclear weapons.
  • Compared to Taiwan’s situation, India-China territorial dispute is only marginal.
  • Yet, India remains hesitant in calling China’s bluff.
  • Even though there is a growing recognition of the need to meet the challenge of a belligerent China, New Delhi appears unclear about how this challenge could be met.
  • In this aspect, the Taiwan crisis offers lessons to New Delhi.

What can India learn from Taiwan?

Clear Messaging:

  • The key learning from the current crisis is the importance of articulating sovereign positions and red lines in a clear manner.
  • The Indian leadership is yet to clarify what really happened at the borders in 2020 and whether our northern neighbour continues to illegally occupy Indian territory.
  • Beijing and others analysing India’s reaction to the 2020 LAC standoff realize that a major reason behind the muddled articulation is domestic political calculation.
  • When such calculations prevent the leadership from acknowledging the Chinese threat, it gives Beijing the necessary cover of ambiguity to easily pursue its territorial claims.
  • China continues to exploit the absence of a national narrative or position in India and use psychological operations further aid its cause.
  • India’s ambiguous messaging confuses even the friendly countries of the international community. This impedes such countries from supporting India diplomatically or otherwise.
  • New Delhi would do well to clearly highlight the threats from China and these threat’s sources.

Avoiding Appeasement Strategy:

  • Taiwan could have avoided the current crisis by avoiding the US Speaker’s visit or at least by keeping it low-key. Instead, it proceeded with the high-level visit and gave statements in full public view.
  • This demonstrates its unwillingness to back down from its stated aims, irrespective of the consequences. Taiwan knows that appeasement isn’t the answer to Chinese aggression.
  • In this aspect, India may be playing into Chinese hands by making 4 mistakes:
    • Hosting/ meeting Chinese leaders even while the PLA continued to violate India’s territorial norms.
      • Eg: Demchok and Chumar standoff during Xi Jinping’s visit in 2014, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit even as Chinese troops continued to occupy India territory earlier this year, etc.
      • While it could be argued that diplomacy must continue despite such border problems, there is a danger of Beijing perceiving such diplomacy as acquiescence despite provocation.
    • Catering to Chinese sensitivities unilaterally, even during military standoffs
      • To illustrate this point, consider that India hasn’t undertaken legislature level dialogues and parliamentary delegation visits to Taiwan since 2017– coinciding with the Doklam standoff
      • There is a question over why India must respect Chinese political sensitivities about Tibet and Taiwan when it is illegally occupying Indian lands and claiming even more territory.
    • Soft-peddling QUAD
      • This was done by India and Australia in 2000s in the face of strong objections from China. In retrospect, almost abandoning QUAD to appease China is a bad strategy.
      • Only in the past 2 years have there been renewed enthusiasm around the grouping.
    • Non-acknowledgment of PLA’s 2020 intrusion
      • This is another example of ill-advised appeasement strategy that needs to end.

Flawed Argument about Economic Ties:

  • It is argued that the increasing economic ties between India and China is sufficient reason to ensure that bilateral tensions don’t escalate and that the neighbours must find ways to peacefully co-exist.
  • However, economic relationship is a 2-way process and the trade deficit is in China’s favour- which means that China also has a lot to lose by damaging trade ties with India.
  • If Taiwan’s example and 2020 standoff are anything to go by, trade continues despite bilateral tensions and doesn’t require compromising sovereign claims.
  • In Taiwan’s case:
    • China is its largest trading partner and China has a trade deficit of $80 billion to $130 billion/ year with Taiwan.
    • By 2021, Taiwanese investments in China touched $198.3 billion while Chinese investments in Taiwan were only $2.5 billion.
    • In short, Taiwan understands that given the economic interdependence of the 2 sides, China is unlikely to suspend trade with Taiwan.
  • When close economic ties with China hasn’t stopped the small island nation from asserting its rights, India- a far bigger military power with a much larger economy- need to reconsider its worry over economic ties with China.
  • For sure, India should trade with China, but not on Chinese terms.

What is the way ahead?

  • The brief visit by the US Speaker to Taiwan has potential to strain an already deteriorating tie between USA and China. It also has major implications for Taiwan.
    • For China, the visit and the inability to unify its claimed territories makes the claims of being a rising superpower ring hollow.
    • For the US, the visit is about re-establishing its steadily diminishing credibility in the international community’s eyes.
    • For Taiwan, the crisis is about standing up against Chinese bullying and asserting its red lines to Beijing.
  • While the crisis is still unfolding and proceeding with little clarity on how it will wind down, it offers valuable lessons to India in dealing with China.
    • The current Indian ‘hide and seek’ policy is leading to poor messaging that is confusing its own citizens and the larger international community. This ambiguity is counter-productive and must be done away with.
    • Today, China is a revisionist power i.e. it is seeking to change the current system to suit its interests. It is challenging the regional order and is set on using force to meet strategic goals.
    • When dealing with such a power, appeasement would work only in the short term. It is bound to backfire in the long run.
    • India needs to consider whether economic ties with China is reason enough to ignore recurring Chinese intrusions across the LAC and allow for territorial compromises.

Conclusion:

Though there is little clarity on how the Taiwan crisis would pan out, there is low probability of an out-right invasion or a war. The crisis holds significance, not only for the 3 countries involved in it, but also for India, with respect to how a belligerent China could be handled.

Practice Question for Mains:

Examine Taiwan’s handling of Chinese threats in the aftermath of the US Speaker’s visit to the island nation. What can India learn from this incident? (250 words)

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