India’s Conundrum in the Next Taiwan Strait Crisis

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India’s Conundrum in the Next Taiwan Strait Crisis

Given the stakes involved, India needs to prepare for a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait. But how?

India’s Conundrum in the Next Taiwan Strait Crisis
Credit: Depositphotos

Great power war, which seemed a distant reality at one point, may come to fruition given the geopolitical flux and the assertiveness of China over the issue of unifying Taiwan with the mainland. A recent study by the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) wargaming a conflict in the Taiwan Strait has posited the actuality of China’s military action and a subsequent embroilment of the United States in the war. The use of military force by China has been a hotly debated topic in the security community and its recent posturing has raised valid concerns for the region at large. 

In that context, major regional actors like India, who have traditionally adhered to the One China principle and been sensitive to China’s red lines over the issue, have signaled a tweak in their policy. India has not directly confronted China and transgressed the redline by openly batting for Taiwan, but has dropped feelers to make its stance known to Beijing. Most recently, in an eye-catching development, three former Indian service chiefs – Admiral Karambir Singh of the Indian Navy, General M.M. Naravane of the Indian Army, and Chief of Air Staff R.K.S. Bhadauria of the Indian Air Forceattended a security dialogue in Taipei, hosted by Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry.

India is a direct stakeholder in a scenario of war across the Taiwan Strait. That’s not only because of the recent turmoil in China-India bilateral ties owing to the ongoing tension along their disputed border, but also due to the role India seeks for itself, regionally and globally. When contemplating the nightmare scenario of war over the issue of cross-strait unification, India as a regional balancer must weigh its options considering all the geoeconomic and geopolitical tools at its disposal.

A Lesson From History

India transferred diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the newly founded People’s Republic of China in late 1949. It was among the first nations to do so. As a matter of fact, the policy decision to transfer diplomatic recognition had been under discussion in Indian decision-making corridors long before the proclamation of October 1, 1949. 

This decision bore a distinct mark of Delhi’s understanding of and expectation for the region and the world that a newly independent India sought to establish. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was critical of an Asian order divided on ideological lines between the two blocs. The role of the Taiwan question as a possible flashpoint for a clash of superpowers was well known among the Indian political elites. 

Yet contrary to popular opinions that India left Taiwan to its fate after recognizing the PRC, India put in concerted efforts to diffuse the tension across the strait. Even after breaking ties with the ROC and taking serious steps to solidify relations with the communist regime, India remained proactive in resolving the two Taiwan Strait crises of 1954 and 1958. The Indian government threw its diplomatic weight behind bringing an end to the crisis. Its assessment was based on the larger geopolitical scenario in Asia after World War II; maintaining peace was the utmost priority. 

The first crisis saw India trying to actively bridge the communication gap between the United States and PRC through its good offices, yet New Delhi ended up on the sidelines with a ruptured relationship with Washington. The second crisis of 1958 also took the same turn. Despite India making its best efforts to negotiate a peace process or mediate between the conflicting parties, it ended up souring its neutral credentials. 

The Order for the Future

The political landscape of the region has drastically metamorphosed since the 1950s. So have India’s priorities and engagements with the region. Geoeconomics has come to the forefront of India’s assessment of a possible crisis in the Taiwan Strait. 

Over 55 percent of India’s trade by volume passes through the South China Sea and blockage of the choke points to the north due to a conflict would severely impede this trade flow. More directly, India-Taiwan trade crossed the $10 billion mark for the first time in 2022-23. Taiwan’s structural expertise in ICT based technology and semiconductor manufacturing has a direct bearing on various domains of the Indian economy. Any blockade of Taiwan by China in the event of a war would severely hamper India’s semiconductor imports and will have a detrimental effect on key economic sectors. Economic activities with Japan and South Korea would also be left in peril owing to the impassable Taiwan Strait. 

Given that continuing to grow trade is a major outgrowth of its rising ambitions, India’s stake in the regional peace has become a lot more significant than before. On the geopolitical front, however, its options would be stymied by various factors.

First, India’s synergy with the United States, which has an institutional connotation in the form of foundational agreements like LEMOA, will be put to test. The United States might seek logistical support from India for its war efforts in the Taiwan Strait. Although India is not a U.S. ally, Washington and its allies might pressure New Delhi to take a proactive stance, given its status as a strategic partner and mutual goals set out via the mechanics of the Quad grouping. 

Second, given the recent downturn in bilateral ties with China and the general perception in Beijing of India’s tilt toward the West, China could open a second front on the Himalayan border. This is a serious concern for national security and would render New Delhi a party in the conflict. Even a humanitarian response from India could be judged by Beijing as intervention and provide casus belli for escalation to a full blown war across the China-India border. 

Possible Responses

A third possible factor in India’s response to a Taiwan Strait conflict – one that is relatively less discussed in the security community – is India’s stature and vision of order in the region or the world it seeks to establish. This is probably the greatest dilemma New Delhi would face in the advent of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. 

If India seeks to be the third pole in the world, which is a policy it has traditionally advocated in various forms and stuck by, the nuances of that path would be drastically changed in the event of a cross-strait war. In no way would New Delhi be able to follow the precedent of its response to the Ukraine crisis as its dimensions and policy implications would be starkly different in the Chinese context. India would be expected to do the “right thing” and such a war would be a moment of reckoning if New Delhi is to make its mark as a rule- and norm-shaper on the global stage. 

The best bet for India would be avoidance of such a tricky scenario that solicits a military response. Instead, India seeks to perpetuate an external order conducive to economic growth and mutual respect – which requires forestalling any Taiwan Strait conflict before it happens. This would entail rigorous diplomatic churning where like-minded partners like the EU, ASEAN, United States, Australia, South Korea, and Japan discuss their individual preparations for such a perilous scenario, so that a concerted plan could be worked out even in peacetime. India must take the lead in this aspect. 

International relations never unfold according to objective logic, and the apparition of war is ever present. India must be aware of patterns where flares can climb up the escalatory ladder and result in the extreme plausibility of war. The structural reforms and modernization underway in the Indian military should go in sync with the expectations of a major military power capable of tackling adversaries in a multi-front war. India should lucidly convey its policy stance to Beijing and also signal resolve to maintain the status quo over the borders in South and East Asia. India’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean and the role of “net security provider” must be leveraged owing to the naval prowess it possesses. 

In sum, even when the war clouds remain distant, it is of strategic exigency for India to take a whole of government approach and prepare for any untoward scenario. The worst-case scenario would be for India to be caught off guard when a belligerent China pushes militarily to realize its long-fostered dream of absorbing Taiwan.