India’s Vaccine Diplomacy Reaches Taiwan

As New Delhi and Taipei draw closer together, the map of the Asia-Pacific could change for good.

By Harsh V. Pant, the director of research at the Observer Research Foundation, and Premesha Saha, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
A woman holds Taiwanese flag during local elections in Taipei on Nov. 24, 2018.
A woman holds Taiwanese flag during local elections in Taipei on Nov. 24, 2018. Chris Stowers/AFP/Getty Images

This spring, India has provided COVID-19 shots to more than 90 countries. One of those is Paraguay, which received 100,000 doses of India’s Covaxin vaccine last month.

That might seem par for the course of New Delhi’s vaccine diplomacy, which has seen the country use inoculations and other medical equipment to cement its status—except for the fact that the supply to Paraguay apparently came after a request from Taiwan. This was reflected in an April statement by Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu that the Chinese government had tried to convince Paraguay to drop Taiwan as a diplomatic ally in exchange for vaccine doses. “In the last few weeks, we have been speaking to like-minded countries, including Japan, the United States, India etc., and India fortunately has been able to provide some Covaxin vaccines to Paraguay,” Wu said.

Despite New Delhi’s own statements that the vaccines were in fact delivered at the request of Paraguay, it was evident that, one way or another, Taiwan is increasingly going to be at the center of emerging fault lines in the Indo-Pacific.

Like most countries, India does not formally recognize Taiwan and adheres to the “One China” policy that has become the global norm. But, at the same time, its foreign policy seems to increasingly recognize the strategic importance of Taiwan and the benefits of more comprehensive bilateral ties, especially after the 2020 Galwan Valley clash with China.

For both countries, the economic benefits of increased partnership are clear. For one, India’s huge market provides Taiwan with major investment opportunities. The two signed a bilateral trade agreement in 2018. In 2019, trade between the two countries grew 18 percent, and around 200 Taiwanese companies in tech and manufacturing now operate in India. There may well be more soon; the Taiwanese electronics firm Hon Hai (better known as Foxconn) has announced plans to establish a bigger presence in India, including to build a new plant in Maharashtra to the tune of $5 billion over five years. There are also joint projects in the works, including a $200 million investment agreement between Optiemus Infracom, an Indian telecommunications firm, and the Taiwanese Wistron Corp. to make telecom products in India.

The Modi government has even suggested the possibility of a free trade agreement with Taiwan on the lines of the cooperation agreements that Taiwan maintains with Singapore and New Zealand. Support is growing in New Delhi to formally start talks on a trade deal with Taiwan as both democracies see relations with China deteriorate.

The security calculations are obvious, too. Taiwan has an important role to play in the security and stability of the wider Indo-Pacific, especially at a time when China is threatening Taiwan more blatantly than ever before. The Indo-Pacific cannot be fully inclusive without Taiwan becoming integral to the larger regional bodies. New Delhi seems willing to reciprocate and move to substantially elevate ties with Taipei against the backdrop of its deteriorating ties with China.

And Taiwan, meanwhile, has been looking to engage with countries of the Indo-Pacific region through its New Southbound Policy, an initiative launched under President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 that aims to enhance cooperation and exchange between Taiwan and countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Oceania. “We have to think about the way for democracies, for like-minded countries, to work further together,” Foreign Minister Wu noted last year. “We have traditional, good relations with the United States, with Japan, and we want to develop closer ties with India as well.” Tien Chung-kwang, who represented Taiwan in India for seven years, has been made Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister.

Acknowledgement of these dynamics has come at a time when other countries, such as the United States and Australia, are changing their stance toward Taiwan as well. For instance, during the tenure of former U.S. President Donald Trump, defense cooperation between the United States and Taiwan picked up pace. The Trump administration announced in 2019 that it had sold 66 F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan for $8 billion, one of the single largest arms sales to the island in many years. The Biden administration has been equally supportive of Taiwan in its initial days and has signaled a strong commitment to Taipei.

Fear of provoking Beijing has historically worked to repel collaboration among the democracies of the Indo-Pacific, but as India increasingly comes to view China as a threat, it is natural to expect greater coordination and cooperation between New Delhi and Taipei. Yet beyond the China question, there are plenty of other benefits for the countries in the areas of trade, research, global health, technology (electronics, semiconductors, and 5G, where Taiwan is one of the global exemplars), tourism, and the like. And as two democracies, greater political engagement should come naturally.

Around the world, there is a newfound interest in Taiwan—for the way it has handled the COVID-19 crisis and for the way it has stood up to Chinese belligerence. India is no different, where there is a great degree of respect for the country. Cooperation in the realm of defense and security may not result immediately, but there are several avenues that India and Taiwan can explore that will eventually result in a true strategic partnership, the time for which seems to have arrived.

Harsh V. Pant is the director of research at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and a professor of international relations at King’s College London.

Premesha Saha is an associate fellow with the Observer Research Foundation’s strategic studies program. Her research focuses on Southeast Asia, East Asia, and the South Pacific.