Why Taiwan is China’s soft underbelly — and that’s good news for India
China regards itself as heir to the United States’ status as the world’s leading superpower. Last week it flexed its maritime muscles, capturing an American sea drone in international waters of the South China Sea.
Washington, busy with the Obama-Trump transition, has taken its eye off the ball. President Barack Obama, who hands over office to president-elect Donald Trump on January 20, 2017, is busy accusing Russia of “interfering” with last month’s US presidential election.
With a mildly anti-China government now, Taiwan presents India an interesting opportunity. Credit: AP
The White House issued a brief statement on the underwater drone, saying Beijing had agreed to return it. China said it would do so after deleting the intelligence the drone’s software had collected.
Obama has weightier concerns. His own eight-year legacy is under serious threat. Obamacare, which has given 20 million uninsured poor (mainly black and Hispanic) Americans access to medical insurance, is likely to be repealed or at least drastically modified under a Trump administration.
Obama’s Middle East policy, meanwhile, lies in tatters. The Syrian government has recaptured most of Aleppo which was under the control of US-supported rebels opposed to president Bashar al-Assad since 2012. The siege of Mosul in Iraq and the retaking of the Islamic State’s de facto capital Raqqa are progressing more slowly than anticipated despite US air power.
But Obama’s biggest failure is not fixing America’s complex geopolitical relationship with China. Beijing has snubbed Washington across a range of issues. It has imposed its sovereignty in the South China Sea and challenged US sea power in an arc from the Indian Ocean to the East China Sea near Japan.
It is Taiwan, however, which could be the litmus test in 2017 of the edgy Washington-Beijing relationship. Trump’s controversial 10-minute conversation with Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen was part of a choreographed strategy. Trump knows that the two issues China is most sensitive to are Tibet and Taiwan, the breakaway island-nation Beijing regards as sovereign Chinese territory.
The US embraced the “one-China” policy in 1979. Since then the Taiwan issue has lain dormant. Taiwanese leaders over the past 37 years tactically accepted the one-China policy. Since 1979 no US president or president-elect has spoken to a Taiwanese president — until Trump this month.
Tsai Ing-wen won the 2016 presidential election to become Taiwan’s first woman president. She has since diluted Taiwan’s commitment to a one-China policy, refusing to accept it on principle after she formally took office on 20 May 2016.
Trump has long indentified China’s hegemonistic ambitions as a threat to world peace. He recognises that military or economic confrontation with China is impractical. Hence, the Taiwan card.
After winning the US presidential election, among the world leaders Trump spoke to was Tsai. The conversation had been carefully planned. The Trump campaign team asked the Taiwanese leader to make the call. The message was directed at China: Taiwan was no longer taboo for the US.
This reverses decades of US foreign policy which recognises the one-China framework. Washington broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan under president Jimmy Carter in 1979. Tsai, however, has been careful not to antagonise Beijing beyond a point. After her call to Trump, Tsai has maintained a diplomatic silence.
Not Trump though. “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a one-China policy,” he grumbled, “unless we make a deal with China over other things like trade.” It was typical “transactional” Trumpspeak.
Trump’s hardball tactics with China are of course neither new nor unexpected. He has called Beijing a currency manipulator and threatened to impose penal duties on Chinese imports unless Beijing gives equal tariff treatment to US exports to China.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely watching the Taiwan issue closely. With a mildly anti-China government now in power after decades of pro-Beijing Taiwanese governments, Taiwan presents India an interesting opportunity.
Since India and the US have established a close strategic partnership, there are several options India can now pursue on Taiwan. Establishing closer economic and trade ties is one. Remember: Taiwan makes 80 per cent of the world’s computer networks. It is an emerging technology powerhouse.
While diplomatic relations may not be feasible, Taiwan is also emerging as an attractive destination for tourists. A recent advertisement for Taiwan’s increasingly active tourism bureau in New Delhi targeting Indians said breathlessly: “No trip to Taiwan is complete without its hot springs experience. Ranked among the world’s top 15 hot spring destinations, Taiwan has a great variety of natural springs, including hot springs, cold springs, mud springs and seabed hot springs. Interestingly, a number of resorts offer you the experience in your room itself with hot spring water flowing straight into your bathtub!”
All of this irritates Beijing which barely tolerates the international attention Taiwan has been receiving since the feisty Tsai, a former university professor, took office seven months ago.
The Modi government has very few sharp weapons to combat China’s aggressive position on Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar, India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and illegal Chinese-built infrastructure on Indian territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Taiwan is China’s soft underbelly. With Trump likely to ratchet up economic and diplomatic pressure on Beijing, this is the right time for Modi too to play the Taiwan card.
China has shown no remorse in abetting Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. By blocking the United Nations’ declaration of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, Beijing has displayed mala fide intent.
China has consistently ignored New Delhi’s warnings on violating Indian sovereignty in PoK. There is no reason India should hesitate to build closer economic and cultural ties with Taiwan.
Meanwhile, those who believe Russia’s recent closeness to Pakistan, including its interest in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), presages an inimical Russia-China-Pakistan axis are mistaken. Given Western sanctions following its annexation of Crimea, Russia may be dependent on China buying its oil and gas. However, a Putin-friendly Trump presidency will repair US ties with the Kremlin to keep it out of China’s bear hug.
If Modi recalibrates his China diplomacy, using Taiwan judiciously, Beijing will be forced to rethink its cavalier disregard for India’s national interests in PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan.
China is a geopolitical bully. Like all bullies, it will back down only when you stand up to it.