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Taiwan’s Southbound Policy: Relations with India during COVID-19 pandemic

Author: Manoj Kumar Panigrahi

Much has been spoken about Taiwan’s success in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. The island nation is flourishing with no lockdowns. Armed with thermal temperature checks, hand sanitizers, masks, and, most notably, well informed and law-abiding Taiwanese citizens, it has been a successful model in beating the COVID-19 pandemic. As of this writing, Taiwan has registered 567 confirmed cases, out of which 475 were imported, 55 indigenous, and seven deaths (Control, 2020). Knowing to have more than a million of its citizens across China, Taiwan was well aware of screening them at the airport upon their arrival to prevent further disease transmission. This was later expanded to all nationals arriving in Taiwan. However, as every success has its struggles to it, the same goes for Taiwan. In 2003, during the SARS outbreak, Taiwan had one of the world’s highest mortality rates (Khaliq, 2020). But time has now changed. Leaving past ghosts behind, Taiwan now has one of the most dedicated and well-organized health systems which is considered best globally (CNA, 2020). Taiwan has been a role model for many in controlling this pandemic.

Taiwan has successfully projected itself as the key leader of Global Health by showing its prowess. However, such achievements were overshadowed by geopolitical reasons and other events. On April 8, 2020, one such occasion was when the World Health Organization (WHO) Chairman, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, slammed and accused Taiwan of aiming racial slurs against him. Dr. Tedros claimed that ‘three months ago, this attack came from Taiwan…And Taiwan, the foreign ministry, they also know the complaint. They did not dissociate themselves. They even started criticizing me in the middle of all that insult and slur. But I didn’t care- three months.’ Such acquisitions saw a strong rejection from Taiwan (Shih, 2020). Such allegations were termed baseless by the Foreign Ministry of Taiwan.

Besides its success, Taiwan has been unable to join the World Health Assembly (WHA), which shows the complex geopolitics that hinders greater and transparent cooperation between the countries regarding health. With the WHA and other international platforms out of reach, Taiwan and its policymakers have resorted to bilateral engagements with individual countries. The phrase “Taiwan is Helping” has significantly increased Taiwan’s visibility in the international arena. The internationalization of Taiwan’s model is not limited to its citizens and all the foreigners who have been living or have lived here, social media platforms have been buzzing with praises of Taiwan’s handling of the pandemic.

Taiwan’s ‘Mask Diplomacy

Using masks has proved to be one of the most effective precautions in stopping the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It is not only cost-effective but also easy to produce and distribute. However, easier said than done. On January 22, 2020, Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs mentioned that the Taiwanese mask manufacturers can produce a daily maximum of 2.44 million units, which surpasses the local demand of 1.3 million per day (黃佩君, 2020). Taiwan’s mask production before the pandemic was 10 percent of the requirement. On January 24, 2020, Taiwan banned the export of face masks (Yang, 2020). The export ban was followed by a constructive and well-planned increase of manufacturing units for masks. By June 1, 2020, Taiwan produced around 20 million masks per day (Chiu, 2020). The mask production was done at a war footing and its circulation among public was ensured through efficient distribution system that led to the lift of the export ban.

Such a gradual increase in Taiwan’s mask production led Taiwan to donate masks to like-minded nations and its New South Policy focused countries, including India. In 2016, President Tsai Ing-Wen launched New Southbound Policy (NSP), focusing on increasing ties with South East and South Asian countries. One of the most significant countries which NSP aims is India. With its large number of languages, diverse cultures, and traditions, India is also known as a “subcontinent” by itself. As of August 11, 2020, Taiwan has donated over 51 million masks, including 10 million masks and equipment to the U.S (Teng, 2020) . With markings of “Made in Taiwan” on the masks, Taiwan has reached the people despite its international challenges. Such donations of masks have helped Taiwan further demonstrate its commitment to the world community. Its voice cannot be ignored and it is an equal, responsible and a reliable partner in global health. It can be indeed said that Taiwan is Helping.

India-Taiwan relations during COVID-19

Under its “Mask Diplomacy,” Former Taiwanese representative to India and current Deputy Foreign Minister of Taiwan, Mr. Tien Chung-kwang, handed over almost a million masks to the Indian Red Cross Society. Mr. Tien said India is an “important and valued partner of Taiwan” (HT, 2020). Such donation of masks was welcomed by the Indian Red Cross. Taiwan-India relations are not limited to the donation of masks, Indian media has been quite active in hosting talks with Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu. During his discussions, Mr. Wu mentioned the increasing trade relations between both sides. Speaking of economic partnership with India, Mr. Wu emphasized that Taiwanese investment stands at around USD 2.3 billion, which has employed roughly 65,000 Indians. He added, “these are good quality jobs, and we will continue to do that (DNA, 2020)”.

Such investments and jobs come when Indian leadership has been vocal about the “Make in India” initiative. With the rising costs of labor and other geopolitical factors in China, Taiwanese companies are looking towards India and other south-east Asian countries, which are also partners in the NSP framework. By increasing their investment in India, Taiwanese companies are also assured of greater awareness of Taiwan among the Indians.

The “China Factor” has been one of the critical factors which cannot be ignored while discussing India-Taiwan ties. The invitation and airing of Mr. Wu’s interview received a strong protest from Chinese Embassy in India. The Chinese Embassy came out with a list of “dos and don’ts” for Indian media. Such warnings and instructions were ignored (WION, 2020). With the Indian media rejection of such notices, it is expected that other global media houses will follow the same and give more space to Taiwan’s voice (Mehta, 2020).

With Taiwan having its own problems with China, India also has its own share of China issues. India and China are two giant neighbors. Having more than 3000km of land boundary and had fought with each other in 1962, both India and China have their own perceptions of land borders. In May 2020, soldiers from both sides suffered casualties in recent clashes along Ladakh area that has raised the stake of the conflict. Coupled with the recent skirmishes and COVID-19 pandemic, India’s response to China also received more comprehensive support among Taiwanese (Hashmi, 2020).

Another factor that has been responsible for the growing India-Taiwan ties is the “Indian diaspora” in Taiwan. The Indian diaspora in Taiwan mainly consists of students and the business community, numbering around 4,500 (NIA, 2020). For, decades they have been the bridge between the two countries. Given the high-ranking Taiwanese universities and Taiwanese government’s scholarships, Taiwan has attracted many students from India. Indian cuisines have seen a wide acceptance among Taiwanese, including President Tsai Ing-Wen. At present, there are more than 100 Indian eateries in Taiwan. Indian diaspora organized several events to thank Taiwan for its donation of masks and its handling of the pandemic (Yen, 2020). They also regularly conduct different cultural events such as Diwali and Holi festivals, which bring Indian community and Taiwanese closer.

Future Prospects in India-Taiwan Relations

The future prospects of India-Taiwan relations can be seen through several lenses. First, India needs to come out of China’s shadow regarding its ties with Taiwan. With China’s growing assertiveness in its relation vis-à-vis India and Taiwan, the time is ripe to take the connections forward. India is a vast market for Taiwanese companies who want to invest or have other commercial interests between the two nations. Second, both sides can mutually benefit from each other’s talent pool in the high-tech industry. India can be an ideal destination for Taiwan’s space research and as well its space launches.

Third, Indian policymakers look for Taiwan’s example in developing its smart city projects and flood planning system . Fourth is the language. Given that there is a significant gap in demand and supply of Mandarin language instructors in India, Taiwan can be approached to open more language training institutes, which will be critical pillars in understanding both sides. Vice-versa, the widely spoken language in India, and given Hindi movies’ fascination in Taiwan, India should open a language training center in Taiwan. Such interactions at people to people level will only make the sky as the limit between them.

Manoj Kumar Panigrahi is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in the Asia-Pacific Studies program at National Chengchi University, Taiwan.


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This article first appeared at Centre for Studies on South Asia and the Middle East, National Chung Hsin University on November 22, 2020 under the title "Taiwan’s Southbound Policy: Relations with India during COVID-19 pandemic"


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