China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia | South Asia

The Taiwan–India ‘Milk Tea Alliance’

The stage is set for the expansion of India-Taiwan relations, but how far can ties develop?

By Jassie Hsi Cheng for
The Taiwan–India ‘Milk Tea Alliance’
Credit: Twitter/Digital Diplomacy Lab

“TAIWAN Happy National Day October 10,” read the posters congratulating Taiwan on its 109th National Day. They were put up near the Chinese embassy in New Delhi on the 10th by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga. Even though they were soon taken down again, images of the signs had already gone viral on Twitter and in the press. They were joined by a meme tweeted by Indian netizens in support of Taiwan. Titled “Milk Tea Alliance,” a reference to an earlier solidarity movement uniting pro-democracy netizens in Taiwan, Thailand and Hong Kong, the meme showed Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi toasting each other with bubble tea and Indian spiced tea.

This represented a huge humiliation for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as the Chinese Embassy in Delhi had specifically issued a diktat to the Indian media a few days before Taiwan’s Double Tenth Day, instructing them how to report on Taiwan and, most importantly, asking them not to violate its “one China” policy. As expected, this diktat sparked a backlash on social media and had a so-called Streisand effect, elevating the very discourse China was trying to suppress. India’s celebratory posters attracted attention from several circles, including the Taiwanese government. Tsai thanked the Indian people for their blessings and support, and on the day the posters went up, Taiwan’s envoy to the U.S., Hsiao Bi-khim, tweeted, “Wow! What a #MilkTeaAlliance.”

Indeed, the growing number of articles on Taiwan written by Indian think tanks, scholars, politicians, and journalists this year as well as the shift in attitudes within the Modi government demonstrate the potential development of a Taiwan-India “Milk Tea Alliance.” On the one hand, the outside world has witnessed Taiwan’s excellent role in public diplomacy, including its early control of COVID-19 and success in stabilizing its economy against the negative impacts of the outbreak. This prompted Taiwan’s international friends to strongly support its participation in the World Health Assembly (WHA) as an observer. The island had been denied permission to attend the WHA’s annual meetings since 2016 at the behest of Beijing, highlighting how power politics can influence international organizations to exclude weaker actors. This has succeeded in shaping media opinion and raising the level of ethical and political support for Taiwan within India.

New Delhi, on the other hand, has its own conflict with China over border issues. This has led to many voices in India’s strategic circles calling for deeper ties with Taiwan. The July appointment by the Modi government of top career diplomat Joint Secretary Gourangalal Das, the former head of the U.S. division in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, as its new envoy to Taiwan is seen as further evidence of India’s emphasis on Taiwan’s role. The following analyses the factors and future trends of India’s friendship with Taiwan from strategic and economic perspectives.

Strategic Perspective

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India’s Act East Policy (AEP) and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP) have the potential for strategic docking. The AEP promises to strengthen strategic, economic and diplomatic interactions in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific, while the NSP aims to enhance cooperation and exchange between Taiwan and 18 countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Australasia. Both policies aim to increase regional influence and gain political and economic benefits from their partners in the region.

In addition, a liberal democratic alliance led by the U.S. to protect common values is forming. Groups like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) – a minilateral strategic forum between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India – are widely viewed as a response to China’s increasing economic and military power. In this atmosphere, Taiwan, which has a geographically strategic position and shares democratic values with those countries, is naturally seen as a potential ally.

The “Taiwan card” has long been in play in India’s political, diplomatic and strategic discussions regarding China. Especially at a time when Sino-Indian relations are precarious, words China considers sensitive, e.g. Taiwan or Tibet, naturally come to the fore. As the border issue resurfaces, India is seeking opportunities to balance and challenge China, and so the “Taiwan card” is once again emerging as a strategic bargaining chip.

Economic Perspective

Modi is currently placing increasing emphasis on attaining “self-reliance” as a crucial aim of Indian economic policy, and the country is struggling with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, the Modi government is urgently seeking economically attractive alternative partners in the region. Taiwan, as a leading power in the field of science and technology and semiconductor manufacturing, is considered a reliable substitute to China.

Moreover, India’s ban on Chinese apps and its exclusion of Huawei from its 5G network over security fears also open the door for Taiwan to further deepen its presence in the Indian telecoms industry. Conversely, India, with its dipping GDP, needs to project itself as a hassle-free manufacturing hub for such projects, which will allow New Delhi to support its economy and pursue self-reliance under its “Digital India” and “Make in India” campaigns. Taiwan is thus seen as an alternative reliable partner for India’s consumer and business needs.

The Future of Taiwan-India Relations

This year, there are various signs that Taiwan-India relations have taken a further step forward. In addition to the China factor, Taiwan’s economic, technological, and medical advantages serve as catalysts. However, China’s influence on India cannot be overlooked in the discussion on whether India will continue to build deeper diplomatic ties with Taiwan. At present, India may play the “Taiwan card” to balance and challenge China, yet once Sino-Indian relations stabilize, there is a chance that India will dilute the Taiwan issue.

There are also no signs in Taiwan that the Tsai government is seeking to build formal relations with India in the short term. As Tsai stated in her 2020 National Day address, “In addressing cross-strait relations, we will not act rashly… We are committed to upholding cross-strait stability.” This shows that the Tsai administration does not want to undermine stability across the Taiwan Strait by developing relations with other countries in the face of Chinese opposition. Currently, both countries can be seen to be very careful in their dealings with China. Therefore, a possible way forward for Taiwan and India would be to deepen ties without pinching China too much.

Nevertheless, since 2010 there has been no joint statement between Chinese and Indian leaders reaffirming a commitment to the “one China” principle. This is generally considered to be due to India’s dissatisfaction with China’s attitude toward Kashmir. Arvind Gupta, a former Indian deputy national security advisor, also argued that India should take a dynamic approach beyond the “one China” statement and that there should be reciprocity in all areas between the two countries. To some extent, this reflects India’s attitude toward the “one China” principle, giving Taiwan some flexibility in the future development of bilateral relations.

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It should also be noted that the regional context may also change as a result of the U.S. presidential election in November and the stances of Quad’s other members toward China. Japan and Australia are more circumspect toward Beijing. With regional stability in mind, India’s support for Taipei may not be strong enough to allow it to politically recognize Taiwan as a country. Nonetheless, India’s current big moves to publicly counter China demonstrate its long-standing dissatisfaction and frustration, highlighting that this is the best time for India and Taiwan to work together on shared economic and strategic interests. This will lay the foundation for the future development of both sides.

Jassie H. Cheng is a Research Associate at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation (CAG) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Previously, she was a press researcher responsible for public relations activities and communications at the Taipei Representative Office in the U.K.