The election in Taiwan on January 11 is a milestone in its contemporary history. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led by incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen was returned to power securing 57 per cent of popular vote, humbling its rival KMT by a convincing margin. The elections were held in the backdrop of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong which resonated in Taiwan.
Hong Kong which was returned to the People’s Republic of China on 1 July 1997 by Great Britain after the expiry of the lease of the territory is governed under an innovative political arrangement of ‘one country, two systems’ providing for continuance of the extant political and economic system in the territory for fifty years from the date of its reversion to China. The Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, the mini constitution of Hong Kong stipulates a road map for gradual democratisation of its legislature – the Legislative Council.
In fact, Chinese leaders had conceptualised the ‘one country, two systems’ for Taiwan in the first instance. The system was, however, implemented in Hong Kong. Over the years, however, the people of Hong Kong have been fighting for their democratic yearnings and aspirations which were intensified ahead of the election in Taiwan. What fuelled the democratic fire in Hong Kong was the proposal for an extradition bill providing for offenders to be extradited and tried in China. The bill itself was provoked by an incident when a Taiwanese who fled to Hong Kong after killing his girlfriend in Taiwan was to be tried by a Taiwanese court.
As Hong Kong did not have extradition provisions in its present legal system, the enactment of the law was required. The extradition Bill was, however, withdrawn after a huge protest in Hong Kong. Be that as it may, the pro-democracy movement found an echo in Taiwan and was reflected in the election result. Taiwan was born as a democratic entity named the Republic of China after the protracted civil war in mainland China in 1949 which saw the birth of communist China. The story of Taiwan ever since its inception has been a poignant one of tenacity and struggle to preserve and promote its independence and democratic identity under the shadow of its mighty estranged sibling.
Taiwan has all the attributes of a nation state – a physical territory, a population, a government, and also enjoys sovereignty; but it lacks the icing on the cake – membership at the high table of the United Nations and international recognition. Only 15 sovereign nation states have recognised it. Some countries in recent past have withdrawn recognition and have recognised the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan lost membership of the United Nations in 1971, when the People’s Republic of China replaced it at the United Nations as an outcome of the Shanghai Communiqué signed between USA and China.
Taiwan, however, became a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and enjoys observer status with World Health Organisation. As far as India is concerned, it does not accord any diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. Since 30 December 1949, it only recognises the Peoples’ Republic of China as the legitimate government of China. However, India’s economic and commercial links as well as people-to-people contacts with Taiwan have expanded in recent years. Bilateral trade which stood at over $8.5 billion have registered a jump of 36 per cent in recent years. A Free Trade Agreement with Taiwan has been under preparation, but in deference to Chinese sensitivity, it has not been clinched yet.
Taiwanese investments in India are impressive. One of the biggest Taiwanese MoUs for investment in India is the $178 million electrical steel plant by China Steel in Dehaj, Gujarat. India and Taiwan may be separated by a huge physical distance, but the distance has been bridged in recent times thanks due to increased contacts. A familiar image of Taiwan is its niche identity of electronics. It is, however, much more than gadgets and smartphones. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre in New Delhi has been very active in promoting people-to-people contact and showcasing its cultural products like film shows in India. It is perhaps not widely known that Taiwan has produced some of the best film directors of the world, not to mention Ang Lee of Life of Pi fame.
In fact, the film has an Indian story line and casting. The film has been a huge success internationally, particularly in China. In the field of education India and Taiwan have great potential for cooperation. Taiwan has some of world’s best universities and since medium of education is also English, Indian students can avail such opportunities. Recently a MoU has been signed between Indian Council of Social Science Research and a Taiwanese entity for academic cooperation. India should also offer slots to Taiwanese in its Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC). Similarly, Indian Council of Cultural Relations should open its chairs for Indian studies in Taiwanese universities. The economic engagements and people-to-people contacts with Taiwan can be taken to next level without hampering India’s diplomatic relations with China.
(The writer is senior fellow of Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) at Indian Institute of Public Administration. Views are personal)