New Delhi: The conversation around United States’ House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has been dominated by China’s reaction, but the region itself stands to be impacted by the two powers and their tussle for dominance. In this, India, which would want to be a serious player in the Indo-Pacific region must take a side, says Harsh V Pant, Professor of International Relations at King’s College. What matters, Pant points to, is the fact that India is “fighting a war with China at the border… (So) how can you be non-aligned? The choices are very clear”.
While India follows the ‘One China Policy’, Pant further emphasises on why the country must take a stand: “We are part of QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a strategic grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States), we are emphasising on the Indo-pacific. We will not say that we are going to challenge China on a global level, but we are telling in our own way that we will stand up to China and we will continue to push back against Chinese assertion and aggression.”
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, a country China wants to “reunify” with itself and control, sent China reeling. It decided to conduct military exercises around the island of Taiwan including the use of advanced weapons like the J-20 stealth fighter jet, H-6K bomber, J-11 fighter jet, Type 052D destroyer, Type 056A corvette and DF-11 short-range ballistic missile, according to Global Times. China also announced suspension of trade ties with Taiwan in commodities including imports of some fruits and fish from Taiwan, and exports of natural sand from China.
But this, Pant says is China merely testing the waters. For India, the question becomes how it crafts a policy to respond when the competition between US and China is happening, “as this will continue to shape the environment which we live in. Some people in India still talk of non-alignment, but that was a world during US and Soviet Union (power tussle), now its US and China.”
India’s bitter rival, Pakistan, even issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned over the evolving situation in the Taiwan Strait, which has serious implications for regional peace and stability”. Pakistan depends on China, and is its open ally. With India’s sour relations with them both, how does it choose to react to the current powerplay?
Global Disruption Vs Strategic Power
Pant, who is also Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, points to two ramifications of the current scenario. One being with escalating tensions over Taiwan, the country’s ability to be part of global supply chains would be impacted. Taiwan, being a major hub for semi-conductor industries, and its micro-chips used everywhere, means it could lead to a disruption in the global economy still reeling from the effects of Covid-19.
The Chinese retaliatory actions with military drills, also goes to shows how China could pose a threat to major ports and shipping lanes in Taiwan, forming a complete blockage to the island nation. In terms of just India and its trade with Taiwan, an article in the ORF points to the increase in bilateral trade between India and Taiwan from $2 billion in 2006 to $5.7 billion in 2020, registering a 185 percent growth. It also points to around 106 Taiwanese companies—with a total investment (actual and proposed) of about $1.5 billion— which were operating in India in sectors including information and communication technology, medical devices, automobile components, electronics, and engineering, amongst others.
But the other impact that Pant points to is a strategic challenge, which he says impacts not just America but their partners. After two decades of US-led war in Afghanistan, a complete withdrawal from the country in August of 2021, saw the Taliban immediately come back to power. This, many observers believed to show that President Joe Biden’s administration was not willing to get into anymore conflicts.
“A lot of the countries were observing this (Taiwan situation) carefully, to see whether America would blink because America has been under pressure after Afghanistan. The fact that America did not blink this time means that some of that has been restored.”
“There would be multiple sighs of relief across the region because Indo-Pacific even today relies very much upon American presence, (be it) Japan, Australia, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia; some are alliance partners and some defence partners. And in that sense even India would be looking at how far America would go. If America would have blinked then Taiwan would have almost given up. But also, the other countries. Why would one rely on America if they can’t stand up to Chinese belligerence?”
Dispute At Large Over Sea
China’s state-run English Channel CGTN had said that China would conduct military exercises in the South China Sea from August 2 to 6 with off-limit areas marked out. The sea also marks the area where United States has joined in challenging China’s territorial claims. Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) calls US’ stand a strategy on the ground of its political, security, and economic interests in the region.
China claims the sea, which very importantly holds, an estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This has obviously frustrated many countries, but not just for economic reasons, but also for territorial and security.
The countries challenging China’s claim include Japan, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. As early as the 1970s, is when countries began to claim islands and various zones in the South China Sea, such as the Spratly Islands, which possess rich natural resources and fishing areas
In recent years, according to CFR, satellite imagery has shown China’s increased efforts to reclaim land in the South China Sea by physically increasing the size of islands or creating new islands altogether. In addition to piling sand onto existing reefs, China has constructed ports, military installations, and airstrips—particularly in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, where it has twenty and seven outposts, respectively. China has militarized Woody Island by deploying fighter jets, cruise missiles, and a radar system.