This year marks the fifth anniversary of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP). Often lauded as the Tsai administration’s flagship foreign policy initiative, the NSP expands the scope of countries covered in the Go South Policy, which was in practice under former Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian. Through the policy, Taiwan has extended engagement with Australia, New Zealand, India, and its five South Asian neighbors. Adding India into Taiwan’s foreign policy agenda is big.
The NSP is not just an effort to reach out; it is also a response to the looming crisis of Taiwan’s shrinking diplomatic space. Of late, China has driven away several of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners, especially in the South Pacific. President Tsai Ing-wen’s government understands that if this Chinese attack is not deflected, it might turn into a diplomatic recognition crisis for Taiwan.
Compared to the previous government, the Tsai administration has put in more efforts to engage India. While outcomes still lag behind expectations, it cannot be denied that India-Taiwan relations have improved, particularly in the case of people-to-people connections. But beyond the hype, it is also clear that within Taiwan’s strategic discourse, India is yet to figure in the main list.
Part of the reason is that Taiwan’s strategic discourse is still heavily tilted in favor of the Western world, and countries such as India do not figure prominently. Taiwan’s funding for fostering Taiwan studies centers in top U.S. and U.K. universities is an example of Taiwan’s putting all its eggs in one basket. Understandably, the amount of support Taiwan garners from Western lawmakers is a motivating factor, but that is also a direct outcome of Taiwan’s sustained focus on liaising with politicians and policy makers across the Western world. The NSP should focus on this aspect, especially in engaging democracies like India.
As Taiwan is enjoying the fruits of the NSP’s initial success, it should do a five-year assessment of the policy and upgrade it for greater gains. While it serves Taiwan’s purpose to focus heavily on the West, further attention on the NSP countries will diversify its partnerships and make its external engagement multidimensional. The previous iterations of the NSP have been a success in Southeast Asia, but the road to the success of the NSP also goes through India.
New Delhi’s pivotal importance for the NSP lies in the fact that India is a key actor in the emerging Indo-Pacific order, and India’s support may strengthen Taiwan’s positioning in the region. To strengthen the NSP and relations with India, Taiwan must work toward formulating short- and medium-term goals in consultation with India and other regional partners in the Indo-Pacific. Such consultations need not necessarily start at the top level; dialogues between think tanks, academia, and policy circles could take the lead.
In the short term, the focus should be on reaching out to the Indian community in Taiwan. There are currently more than 4,500 Indians residing in Taiwan. In the absence of official diplomatic ties between India and Taiwan, the Indian community acts as a bridge between the two countries. Taiwan’s government has, in the past, organized events to reach out to the Indian community. Given that the NSP is people-centric, this should be made a permanent feature of the policy. Such outreach activities of a social nature should be accompanied by systematic efforts to generate awareness about the NSP and the role that Indian community could play in advancing bilateral ties.
Mid-term goals may include efforts to brighten prospects for the tourism and hospitality industry for inbound visitors from India. The number of Indian tourists visiting Taiwan remains at just about 40,000. More direct flights between India and Taiwan should be on the agenda in the post-COVID era. Direct air connectivity should be complemented by easy tourist visas and attempts to generate greater familiarity with Taiwan among Indians.
Youths between the age of 18-40 make up the largest chunk of Indian population. A vast majority of this group are students or professionals open to new opportunities. Taiwan should make concerted efforts to tap India’s vast higher education market and attract students to Taiwan. Clearly, educational cooperation has the potential to transform India-Taiwan relations. The number of language training, masters, and doctoral scholarships provided by Taiwan should be increased. As Taiwan is taking steps to engage India and promote people-to-people linkages, it should seriously consider opening India studies centers across Taiwan, especially in Taipei. There is a need for Taiwan to cultivate scholars and experts who truly understand India. Courses on Indian culture, history, politics, and foreign policy should be increased. The presence of more Indian academicians in Taiwan think tanks and universities will be a plus.
While Taiwan needs to continue to increase its engagement with the West, focusing on India under the NSP will only help Taiwan in diversifying and finding more like-minded friends and partners. As India is elevating ties with the United States, Japan, and Australia, it is logical for Taiwan to build on these Indo-Pacific commonalities and connections and engage India as robustly as it does with the U.S., Japan, and now increasingly Australia. This is more relevant as post-COVID, India’s role at both global and regional levels is likely to grow further. Greater collaboration between India and Taiwan under the NSP framework is mutually beneficial.