Event ReportsPublished on Aug 10, 2020
The time is ripe for a deeper and more meaningful relationship with Taiwan

Like most states India does not formally recognise Taiwan and adheres to the ‘One China policy’ that has become a global norm - nevertheless New Delhi should be alert to the strategic importance of Taiwan and the benefits of more comprehensive bilateral ties.  This was the core idea that underpinned the virtual discussion on “Prospect for Post-Pandemic Bilateral Cooperation between India and Taiwan” co-organised by Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Prospect Foundation, Taipei on 23 July 2020.

Long ignored for fear of incurring the wrath of Beijing, the time is ripe for a recalibration of India’s relationship with Taiwan. India and Taiwan are natural allies in many respects: both share democratic values, uphold human rights and the rule of law, and recognise the benefits of a rules-based international order. But since the outbreak of Covid-19 in January, growing commonalities between the two states afford opportunities for India and Taiwan to forge closer ties to their mutual benefit. Whilst China has used the pandemic as cover to rachet up its adventurism in the region – attempting to bully both India and Taiwan-Taiwan burnished its credentials as a responsible, pragmatic and outward-looking state, handling the pandemic so successfully it was able to provide medical supplies to more than 80 countries, including India. Against this backdrop it makes sense to re-imagine Indo-Taiwanese relations and the ways in which they can be strengthened – both bilaterally and also in multilateral institutions.

The common threat of China produces antagonistic dynamics for security cooperation between India and Taiwan. Fear of provoking Beijing has historically worked to repel collaboration, but as the full extent of China’s threat becomes clear to New Delhi it should serve to attract the two nations in an alliance to constrain an expansionist China. The challenge is how to balance such a delicate matter. Official military-to-military ties between India and Taiwan risk inflaming an already volatile situation, but there are important ways in which India and Taiwan can cooperate to counterbalance against a hegemonic China without needlessly escalating tensions. To address the common security fears about China’s activity in the South and East China Sea a reciprocal intelligence sharing partnership that tracks the movement of the Chinese fleet could be established which would not only build military capability but also re-affirm both states’ commitment to freedom of navigation. In addition, India has the potential to provide unofficial military training to Taiwanese forces – as it does already with Indonesian and Vietnamese air forces – to help bolster the preparedness of the Taiwanese air force against the recent surge in Chinese bombing formations that have probed Taiwan’s defences.

In the context of a US-China trade war and aggressive Chinese behaviour within the Indo-Pacific region, now is an opportune moment for Taiwan and India to further their trading relationship. A sea change is already visible in the behaviour of Taiwanese investors who have begun to pivot away from China following its economic slowdown, and with a vibrant economy and a market of over 400 million middle class citizens India is an attractive business environment to re-direct investment. Although trade between the two countries has steadily risen over the last 3 years, it remains relatively low at $7bn a year: Taiwan is a largely untapped market for which there are bright prospects for boosting bilateral trade.

Perhaps the biggest sector in which bilateral trade can grow is the telecoms industry. As India shapes to follow in the footsteps of the US and UK and ban Huawei from its 5G network over much publicised security fears, India should seize the opportunity to partner with Taiwan who sits at the forefront of both the semi-conductor and 5G industry. Such a collaboration can provide the safe and secure network needed to guarantee India’s future economic growth.

By decoupling from China in areas of critical national infrastructure such as 5G, there is a potential for collaboration in research and development in a way that was not possible with a front company of the Chinese state. Such collaboration is vital if liberal democracies are to counter the growing influence of Huawei around the world with an economically attractive alternative. The UK has already begun lobbying D-10 states for greater cooperation around finding an alternative to Huawei in the global telecoms market, and an open and innovative relationship between India and Taiwan that is grounded in mutual trust has all the prerequisites to spearhead this. More broadly, there is an abundance of potential for Indian investment in Taiwan’s automobile, electronics, and its artificial intelligence research and development sector, which could help to claw back ground lost to China in the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Whilst the benefits of boosting bilateral trade are self-evident, the question that persists is how best to seize these significant trading opportunities. Instead of waiting for an overarching Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to be negotiated there is the potential to move fast to create tailor-made, sector-wide agreements that can act as a catalyst for trade in the immediate future. With 15 Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) already in place across different sectors of the economy there are solid foundations upon which further economic agreements can be formalised between the respective countries. In the longer-term, there is clearly the potential for a FTA to be negotiated – a 2012 feasibility confirmed so –but such agreements are resource-intensive, and with India officials holding reservations as to the benefits of FTAs more generally, perhaps an FTA will have to wait.

As the international community begins to evaluate the handling of the pandemic, one thing has become abundantly clear: China’s capture of multilateral bodies has been detrimental to the ability of global institutions to manage the pandemic. Whether the exclusion of Taiwan from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the suppression of critical information that could have prevented the outbreak spreading so quickly, or the current pressure from Beijing to whitewash the inquiry into the pandemic’s initial outbreak, the Chinese government has consistently abdicated its responsibility to the international community by prioritising the survival of the CCP over global health security.

As India begins its term as the chair of the WHO’s Executive Board in January 2021 it should use its position to rectify this by championing Taiwan’s inclusion in the World Health Assembly(WHA) and end its exile from the multilateral body. The case for granting Taiwan observer status is overwhelming. In the inter-connected world we inhabit today, excluding 23.6million people access to the WHO is tantamount to a chink in global health armour, a fact that, ironically, is not lost on the director of the WHO, who stated in February that Covid-19 ‘does not respect borders’<1>. For an organisation that has by most accounts bungled the global response to the pandemic, it can ill-afford to continue to ignore the abundance of knowledge and expertise that Taiwan’s scientists and medical experts can contribute to the dialogue surrounding global health. Indeed, having managed to contain the outbreak to just 467 cases and 7 deaths - all whilst avoiding the economically crippling and draconian lockdown measures - Taiwan’s world-leading digital health infrastructure provides a blueprint for how health monitoring can be made compatible with individuals’ civil rights. If the WHO is to rebuild any of its credibility it must, at the very least, permit a capable and responsible Taiwan observer status.

Similarly with the ICAO which currently classifies Taiwan as part of China, the refusal to even cooperate with Taiwan has hampered its ability to respond to the pandemic. By ignoring a busy regional airport hub, civil aviation authorities have been blindsided with detrimental impacts on health and human security. Ultimately global cooperation cannot be effective unless it is truly global, andthat means involving Taiwan – even if it is in a non-official capacity. This sensible, pragmatic reason alone should be sufficient to justify why India should advocate – as with the WHO - for Taiwan’s inclusion.

However integrating Taiwan into multilateral institutions will only be successful as part of a much broader concerted effort to wrestle back control of multilateral bodies from China, and in doing so re-establishing their neutrality, transparency and independence. To do so India will have to work extensively with its D-10 partners who share a common commitment to a rules-based international order, and who similarly recognise the important contributions that Taiwan can make to tackling global problems.


  • Jack Chih-Hao Chen, Acting Representative, Taipei Economic and Cultural Center in India
  • Sunjoy Joshi, Chairman, Observer Research Foundation
  • Lai I-Chung, President, the Prospect Foundation
  • Harsh V. Pant, Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
  • Premesha Saha, Associate Fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, ORF
  • Prashant Singh, Associate Fellow, Manohar Parikkar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
  • Mu-Min Chen, Vice President for International Affair, National Chung Hsing University
  • Abhijit Mukhopadhyay (Senior Fellow, Economy and Growth Programme, ORF)
  • Namrata Hasija (Research Associate, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy and President, Taiwan Alumni Association)
  • Rajeshwari Rajagopalan (Distinguished Fellow and Head of Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative, ORF)
  • M D Nalapat (Professor of Geopolitics and UNESCO Peace Chair, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University)

*The author is a Research Intern at ORF, New Delhi


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