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Will India Reaffirm Support for One-China?

29 Jul 2018
By Prashant Kumar Singh

In early July, the Indian flag carrier airline Air India changed Taiwan’s designation from “Taiwan” to “Chinese Taipei” on its website. Has India shifted its silent stance towards Taiwan and the One-China Policy?

 In early July, the Indian national flag carrier airline Air India changed Taiwan’s designation from “Taiwan” to “Chinese Taipei” on its website. India’s Ministry of External Affairs described this as the airline’s own decision, calling it “entirely consistent with the international norms and our own position on Taiwan since 1949.” However, Air India stated that it “followed the procedure as advised by the [Ministry of External Affairs] in updating its website with respect to changing the name of Taiwan.” Thus, it is not mistaken to infer that the government made this change to satisfy the recent demand of the Civil Aviation Authority of China that “Taiwan not be listed as a country” on airlines’ websites operating in or from China.

This demand intensifies China’s bids to suppress Taiwan’s international personality. China resumed these efforts in 2016 after the supposedly pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party came to power in Taiwan. However, terming the name change as a shift in India’s approach towards Taiwan would be inaccurate, calling it an attempt to “propitiate” China is too hasty. Deeming it as yet more evidence of India’s coming around to China’s terms as the result of the “informal” Wuhan Summit in April would be wrong.

It might not indicate any shift

India has been consistent in not recognising Taiwan as an independent sovereign country ever since it switched recognition from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In 1995, it established relations with Taiwan under an understanding that the ties were not established at the government-level, at least in theory, but were unofficial people-to-people relations. This remains unchanged, even though over time India has become more relaxed.

The use of “Chinese Taipei” is an internationally observed practice to accommodate Taiwan in the international arena, even though Taiwan agrees to this arrangement reluctantly. Creativity in naming Taiwan’s representative offices abroad and other countries’ offices in Taiwan is common to avoid both “ROC” and “Taiwan”. Both the India-Taipei Association and Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre in India are examples which reveal India’s preference for “Taipei”. Since Taiwan has not been a factor in India-China relations, insistence on terminological appropriateness in addressing it has not been an issue in India.

Moreover, the so-called unofficial relations are strictly bilateral. Although India has stopped endorsing the One-China Policy in bilateral joint communiqués with China, this does not automatically amount to rescinding support. Air India has to observe Chinese law (in particular the One-China Policy, which India does not oppose) to do business in China. In the absence of a website in Chinese, it cannot apply methods like those used by Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways like showing “Chinese Taipei” in Chinese and  “Taiwan” in English.

Furthermore, the Civil Aviation Authority’s demand imposes China’s political views on foreign private parties (companies, business and individuals) and drags them into the quagmire of Cross-Strait relations against their wishes, hurting the sentiments of citizens harbouring democratic consciousness. Despite this, the issue is unlikely to resonate with Indian authorities as India remains far away from the Cross-Strait context.  Expecting India to go for a showdown with China for Taiwan would be a bit much. India-China relations have just begun to recuperate following the Wuhan summit, after a series of face-offs, particularly the 73-day long massive Doklam military standoff in 2017.

Hence, the name change alone does not indicate any shift in India’s position on Taiwan, nor does it tell us anything about emerging nature of India-China relations.

Will India reaffirm support for the One-China Policy?

Whether India is complying with China’s efforts for strangulating Taiwan diplomatically and any inference can be drawn for emerging nature of India-China relations referencing Taiwan depends on a number of questions. Is India undertaking a wholesale name-change exercise? Will its collaboration with Taiwan be impaired and will new initiatives be held up? If so, the  question remains under what conditions would India agree to reinstate its support for the One-China Policy in India-China joint declarations, last reaffirmed in 2008.

India developed confidence towards relations with Taiwan after 2008. The set-up of a trade facilitatory framework, the announcement of a joint India-Taiwan free trade agreement feasibility study by India’s Foreign Secretary and layovers granted to the Taiwanese president in 2012 and vice-president in 2014 all pointed to this. The number of bilateral memorandums of understanding have gone up. Some signalling, either to convey desire to dignify relations or perhaps India’s recognition of Taiwan as a possible lever, has also been perceived. For example, Taiwan’s representative was invited to Modi’s oath ceremony in May 2014, coinciding with India going silent on the One-China policy.

The aim of holding back the reaffirmation is basically to convey India’s anguish that its support for the One-China policy has gone unreciprocated. But, the decade-old silence has now created a scope for interpretative creativity and hypothetical possibilities, making India the only country after the US with different attitude towards the policy. This silence carries a referential value, if nothing more.

Possibly realising this, China has finally urged India that “a reiteration of One-China policy by India would significantly help enhance the mutual trust.” Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi reportedly raised this issue with his counterpart Sushma Swaraj at a BRICS meeting in Pretoria, ahead of the Modi-Xi meeting at the Qingdao Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in June.

A suggestion

India’s silence on the One-China policy means that India now looks at the policy in transactional terms. Therefore, if China expressly affirms its respect for India’s sentiments in its territorial disputes with any third country and agrees not to obstruct India’s fight against terrorism that challenges its sovereignty and territorial integrity, India should reaffirm the pledge. But at the same time, India should safeguard relations with Taiwan, which have their own intrinsic value. However, if India were to reinstate the reaffirmation without operationalising the One-India policy in bilateral relations, officially verbalised first by Swaraj, it would undermine the diplomatic work of one decade towards this end.

Prashant Kumar Singh is Associate Fellow at the East Asia Centre, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

 This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.