The brief visit by the United States House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan, against stern warnings issued by China, has the potential to increase the already deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China, with major implications for Taiwan. For China, its claims about a rising superpower might ring hollow if it is unable to unify its claimed territories, in particular Taiwan. For the U.S., it is about re-establishing steadily-diminishing American credibility in the eyes of its friends and foes. For Taiwan, it is about standing up to Chinese bullying and making its red lines clear to Beijing. The crisis that began with the visit of Ms. Pelosi to Taipei is still unfolding and there is little clarity today on how it will wind down even though it is unlikely to lead to a full-scale invasion of Taiwan or a war between China and the U.S.
For those of us in India watching the events as they unfold around Taiwan, there are valuable lessons to be learnt. To begin with, consider this. A small island of 23 million people has decided to stand up to one of the strongest military and economic powers on the planet, braving existential consequences. India is a far more powerful nation armed with nuclear weapons and with a 1.4 million standing military against whom China has only marginal territorial claims. And yet, India continues to be hesitant about calling China’s bluff.
To be fair, there is growing recognition in New Delhi that it is important to meet the challenge posed by a belligerent China, but there appears to be a lack of clarity on how to meet this challenge. To that extent, the Taiwan crisis offers New Delhi three lessons, at the very least.
The most important lesson from the Taiwan standoff for policymakers in New Delhi is the importance of articulating red lines and sovereign positions in an unambiguous manner. New Delhi needs to unambiguously highlight the threat from China and the sources of such a threat. Any absence of such clarity will be cleverly utilised by Beijing to push Indian limits, as we have already seen. More pertinently, Beijing, like everyone else analysing the Indian reactions to the standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 2020, realises that one of the major reasons behind New Delhi’s rather muddled articulation of the Chinese aggression two years ago is domestic political calculations.
Till date, India’s leadership has not clarified to the country what really went on at the border in 2020 and whether China continues to be in illegal occupation of Indian territory. When domestic political calculations prevent India’s leaders from acknowledging the China threat, it provides Beijing the cover of ambiguity to pursue its territorial claims vis-à-vis India.
Moreover, Chinese Psy-Ops will continue to exploit the absence of a national position or narrative in India about the threat that China poses. Even worse, ambiguous messaging by India also confuses its friends in the international community: If India does not clearly articulate that China is in illegal occupation of its territory, how can it expect its friends in the international community to support India diplomatically or otherwise? In other words, India’s current policy of ‘hide and seek’ vis-à-vis China amounts to poor messaging, and confusing to its own people as well as the larger international community, and is therefore counterproductive.
Appeasement is bad strategy
Taiwan could have avoided the ongoing confrontation and the economic blockade during Chinese retaliatory military exercises around its territory by avoiding Ms. Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, or perhaps even keeping it low key. Instead, it chose to go ahead with the visit, with high-profile meetings and statements in full public view, thereby making it clear to China that it is unwilling to back down from its declared aims, no matter what the consequences were. Appeasement of China, Taiwan knows, is not the answer to Beijing’s aggression.
China today is a revisionist power, challenging the regional order; is intent on using force to meet its strategic objectives, and is desirous of reshaping the regional balance of power to suit its interests. With such a power, appeasement might work in the short term, but will invariably backfire over the long term. If so, we in India may be guilty of playing into Chinese hands by committing four mistakes.
First, India’s policy of meeting/hosting Chinese leaders while the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continue(d) to violate established territorial norms on the LAC is a deeply flawed one. Recall the stand-off at Demchok and Chumar during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in 2014, and the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, earlier this year, to India again, even as Chinese troops continue to be in occupation of Indian territory. While one could argue that diplomacy must go on despite the problems on the border, there is indeed a danger of Beijing viewing such diplomacy as examples of India’s acquiescence despite provocations.
The second mistake is unilaterally catering to Chinese sensitivities even during the standoffs between the two militaries. For instance, the parliamentary delegation visits and legislature-level dialogues between India and Taiwan have not taken place since 2017, coinciding with the Doklam standoff which took place that year. Why bother respecting Chinese political sensitives around Taiwan or Tibet when it is in illegal occupation of Indian territory, and seeks more territory from India?
The third mistake was the soft-peddling of the Quad (Australia, Japan, India and the United States) when China objected to it. During the 2000s, India (as well as Australia) decided to soft-peddle the Quad in the face of strong Chinese objections. It is only in the last two years or so that we have witnessed renewed enthusiasm around the Quad. In retrospect, appeasing Beijing by almost abandoning the Quad was bad strategy.
Perhaps the gravest mistake India has made has been the non-acknowledgement of the PLA’s intrusion into Indian territory in 2020, and its capture and occupation of Indian territory along the LAC since. Let us be clear: unwilling to acknowledge China’s illegal occupation of Indian territory along the LAC, for whatever reason, amounts to an ill-advised appeasement strategy, which must end.
It is often argued that the growing economic and trading relationship between India and China is reason enough to ensure that tensions between the two sides do not escalate, and that the two sides must find ways of co-existing peacefully. While it appears to be a sound argument, let me pose that argument somewhat differently: is the economic relationship reason enough for India to continue to ignore recurring Chinese incursions on the LAC and keep making territorial compromises? Put differently, given that the economic relationship is a two-way process and that, as a matter of fact, the trade deficit is in China’s favour, China too has a lot to lose from a damaged trade relationship with India. More so, if the Taiwan example (as well as the India-China standoff in 2020) is anything to go by, trade can continue to take place despite tensions and without India making any compromises vis-à-vis its sovereign claims.
Consider this. Mainland China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, and China has an annual trade deficit of around $80 billion to $130 billion with Taiwan. More so, investments from Taiwan to China were to the tune of $198.3 billion by 2021, whereas investments from mainland China to Taiwan were only $2.5 billion from 2009 to 2021. In other words, Taiwan knows that despite the sabre-rattling by Beijing, given the economic interdependence between the two sides, China is unlikely to stop trading with Taiwan for, after all, China is dependent on the semiconductors produced in Taiwan in a big way.
In other words, the close economic relationship with China has not stopped Taiwan from asserting its rights, nor has it backed down under Chinese threats. So, should India, a far bigger economy and a military power, buckle under Chinese pressure worrying about the economic relationship with China? India for sure should do business with China, but not on China’s own terms.
Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor, Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi