Friends in Need: Taiwan, India and the Encirclement of China

President Tsai Ing-wen
©️ Tsai Ing-wen / Twitter

When Chinese embassy officials in New Delhi sent guidelines to the Indian press on how to cover Taiwan’s October 10 National Day earlier last month, it is unlikely they could have predicted the chain of events they were setting in motion. In the backlash that followed, Indian and Taiwanese netizens reached out to one another and bonded over their shared experience of Chinese aggression and censorship, as social media and online news outlets in both countries buzzed with calls to rekindle bilateral ties.

This outpouring of Indian empathy for Taiwan may seem sudden, but in fact the two countries’ diplomatic moment has been a longtime coming. Events this year, in which both countries faced their most serious territorial incursions by China in decades, have only accelerated this alignment between the ‘natural partners’. While there is hype over economic collaboration, including talk of a trade deal, the real opportunity here for New Delhi lies in discovering Taiwan’s potential for countering China’s advances in the Himalayas.

Himalayan Hedging

One solution for New Delhi in facing the Chinese containment of India is to mirror Beijing’s strategy. The so-called ‘Indian encirclement of China’, outlined by a former Indian foreign policy advisor, suggests India “push back against Chinese behavior in East and Southeast Asia to shore up its position in the Himalayas” and has aroused considerable interest in policy circles.

While India currently lacks the military presence in East Asia to pursue this ambitious counter-move, finding an opening on China’s eastern flank by which to exert pressure on Beijing and place a check on its irredentism in the Himalayas is strategically sound. New Delhi may join with other Quad partners and further integrate itself within the US-lead FOIPS, which places great importance on the security of Taiwan. Tactful engagement with Taiwan is the very kind of “asymmetric diplomatic strategy” Indian policy elites have been calling for to check China and could take many forms, from building a permanent presence in the region to participating in naval exercises, or as one leading Indian think tank has suggested, reciprocal intelligence sharing partnerships and unofficial military training programs. Diplomatically, India could arrange high-profile visits to Taiwan by its ministers, as the US has recently done. India’s skillful play of the ‘Taiwan card’ when required may signal resolve and help correct the power imbalance in its relationship with Beijing.

Cross-Strait Backup

Closer strategic coordination with India is also desirable for Taiwan as it seeks to raise the costs of invasion (real and perceived) to deter Beijing from launching an assault on the island.

As Ian Easton points out, an invasion of Taiwan would be “a fantastically complex endeavor” involving all major Chinese military departments and the state-wide civil-military mobilization of millions, (Easton, 2019). Chinese war planners predict domestic opponents and neighboring states may seize on this unique opportunity to “undermine territorial integrity” with PLA writings focusing especially on the risk posed by India (Easton, 2019). This could range from reclaiming formerly-held Indian territory to fomenting unrest with separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang. By the PLA’s own admission, “should any setbacks occur, China’s ability to quickly conquer Taiwan could be sabotaged” (Easton, 2019).

The attention devoted by the PLA to the India factor reveals the potential influence New Delhi may wield in a cross-strait conflict. In such an event, India and Taiwan could share breaking intel updates, sync satellite imagery feeds and secure communication channels to optimize strategic coordination. To this end, New Delhi and Taipei can leverage their geographic positions on the eastern and western extremities of China to coordinate ‘diversion operations’ aimed at breaking Beijing’s tactical focus in either theater, which could decide the outcome of such a conflict.

Forward together

Writing for the Taipei Times in 2018, I reported that experts in both countries were mulling military attaché exchanges despite reservations regarding China’s reaction. Later that year Reuters confirmed unofficial visits by military advisors to Taiwan were increasing and that Taiwan had placed attaches within its de-facto embassy in New Delhi, showing willingness from both sides to break new ground in defense cooperation. The strategic situation has altered significantly since, leaving the Modi government with few good options in its current standoff with China in the Himalayas. Given the strategic leverage on offer here, the Indo-Taiwanese partnership looks likely to become a mainstay of Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

Liam Gavan Gibson is a Taipei-based analyst mainly covering Chinese foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific. He is also an editor of Policy People, a industry newsletter for think tank experts.The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.