Manipal, India — During the period when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition was in office, from 1998-2004, India launched several initiatives to enhance links with Taiwan. Air links were expanded and foundations laid for a flow of Indian brainpower to Taiwan and a ramping up of investment into India. Today trade between India and Taiwan is close to US$6 billion, heading for $10 billion within the next year.
However, mainly because of a lack of attention from the Sonia Gandhi-led United Progressive Alliance government, Taiwanese investment in India, at a little over US$1 billion, is just one-fifth of what it is in much smaller Cambodia and less than 5 percent of investment in Vietnam.
This official neglect of Taiwan is motivated by the hope that kowtowing to China will result in a more accommodating attitude from Beijing on issues such as the border dispute – a proposition that has so far proved false.
It would seem that with Taiwan under the leadership of the Kuomintang, China is unconcerned about links between New Delhi and Taipei, barring the ritual expressions of dismay at India’s rare recognition of Taiwan's potential as a major source of investment.
Taiwanese diplomats unfortunate enough to be posted to New Delhi are subject to restrictions that are absent in the United States, the European Union, and in most of Asia – excluding countries such as Syria, Iran or North Korea. For example, the military attaché at the Taiwan mission in India has been barred by the Sonia-led government from meeting any – repeat any – serving officer in the three armed forces. He can meet only retired personnel, the older the better.
Nor are members of the Taiwanese military welcome in India, even though they would be invaluable as a source of information about the People’s Liberation Army. Recently, a five-member military mission that was to fly to India from a stopover in Manila found that visas were denied to three of its members, thus preventing them from accomplishing their task of checking on the communications systems at the Taiwan mission. This despite the fact that such visits are routine in the United States, the European Union and key Asian countries such as Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia.
Indeed, Indian visas are denied to any except middle-level officials of the Taiwan foreign ministry or security services, while visits by Cabinet ministers are banned even for departments such as economics, education and agriculture. Those who are given permission to visit find the doors barred to contact with their Indian counterparts.
In January, a scheduled meeting with the Taiwan vice minister for agriculture was cancelled abruptly because of the sudden arrival in New Delhi of a vice minister from the People’s Republic of China. The Sonia-led government decided that such a meeting would annoy their PRC guests, even though Beijing gave no indication that it even noticed the kowtow.
That Sonia Gandhi has a soft spot for the PRC is no secret. Her contacts with Beijing have a history of three decades, which is why she was treated as a head of state while attending the 2008 Olympic Games, with President Hu Jintao hosting a banquet in her honor.
The Congress Party president has kept a tight leash on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, preventing him from following through on his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s opening to Taiwan. This is despite the fact that the KMT government under Ma Ying-jeou is friendly to India, even while it is cordial to Beijing.
Ma himself has visited India, as have several key KMT leaders, keeping alive contacts that began in the 1940s when India became a principal supply route for the battle against Japan. In 1942, then President of China Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Mei-ling visited India and openly backed independence from Britain, a stance that they maintained till freedom was finally secured in 1947.
However, coolness between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the West created a distance between Taipei and New Delhi after the 1949 establishment of the PRC and the departure of the KMT leadership to Taiwan. Only in 1994 was this bridged, when the Narasimha Rao government established formal links with Taiwan as part of its economic liberalization plans.
Ironically, one of the key architects of those reforms, Manmohan Singh, has been forced by his party leadership into adopting a dismissive attitude toward Taiwan since taking office in 2004.
So intrusive is the Indian effort to pacify Beijing by enforcing restrictions on the Taiwan mission that even its National Day celebrations are not permitted under that name. Sleuths of the External Affairs Ministry visit the venue of the annual get-together to ensure that the Republic of China flag is not hoisted. Only junior officials attend such events from the Indian side, in contrast to the treatment given to Taiwanese diplomats by countries such as Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand.
Efforts have been ongoing to get the Singh government to give the Taiwan mission the same rights and privileges it enjoys in the ASEAN countries – barring Myanmar – but these have been blocked by Sonia Gandhi's presumed PRC sensibilities. Contacts in Beijing say that such slights are not at China’s request, but "purely the policy of the government of India."
Certainly relations between both sides of the Taiwan Straits have improved substantially since Ma Ying-jeou assumed office last year. But this has not persuaded the establishment in New Delhi to take better advantage of the informational and economic potential of Taiwan.
Today, when the Middle East, Russia and East Asia are looking at alternative investment destinations, having been burned by the misdeeds of Western financial institutions, it seems that some within the Manmohan Singh government would like to ensure that India poses no challenge to the EU as an investment destination. This they seek to achieve by blacklisting companies from the Middle East, China and Taiwan on the grounds that they are "security hazards."
Indeed, several Taiwanese companies have had their proposals delayed for years on "security" grounds. These include the giant Delta Group’s power proposal and a harbor development plan by Eva Shipping. Another example is the estimated US$1.4 trillion in deposits held by Indians in banking havens. The Manmohan Singh government has rejected suggestions that an amnesty be declared so that at least some of these funds can return to India and rejuvenate an economy being made moribund by high interest rates and a savage direct-tax system.
When will Sonia Gandhi realize that Beijing will not stand in the way of robust engagement with Taiwan? When will the Congress president allow her prime minister to treat Taiwan the same way this major economic player is treated by neighbors such as Singapore, Thailand and even communist Vietnam? Despite the obvious advantages of opening to Taiwan, such a day seems nowhere on the horizon.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)