Lessons for India from Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit

Originally published at Moneycontrol, 4 August 2022.

How is United States’ House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan relevant to Indian citizens?

One, it should teach Indians a thing or two about the value of separation of powers and the options it creates for conducting smart foreign policy. At a joint press conference with the Japanese Prime Minister in Tokyo in May, US President Joe Biden was quick to respond with a simple “Yes” to a question by a reporter if the US was “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan”. But in mid-July, Biden was quoted as saying the US military was against Pelosi’s visit.

While it is easy to interpret this as vacillation, it actually represents the number of stakeholders and the resulting vibrancy of debate on national security issues in the US system. Neither the US policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ on Taiwan nor calls for greater ‘clarity’ would mean much if the separation of powers did not exist, and thus also, the creativity in debates.

In India, however, the Prime Minister’s dominance of foreign policy with the support of the bureaucracy and Parliament’s lack of say — and sometimes, of interest — in matters of external affairs mean there is little space for creativity in India’s approaches to Taiwan, or in foreign policy, in general.

While individual Members of Parliament have strong views on Taiwan, the MEA has often pushed back in the ‘interests’ of stability in India-China relations. In 2020, when two BJP Members of Parliament, including Meenakshi Lekhi, now a Minister of State for External Affairs, attended online the swearing-in ceremony for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s second term in office, it was interpreted as the ‘Modi govt’s subtle message to China’. Earlier, however, two MPs — including Lekhi again — had to pull out from attending Tsai’s first inauguration in 2016 owing to what was called a ‘bureaucratic mix-up’.

The MEA declared ‘no instructions were issued’ by it but also that ‘no political clearance was sought from the ministry’ — implicitly indicating its preference that the MPs not go. The proximate reason then was President Pranab Mukherjee planned visit to China just the following week. Either way, the fact is that India’s MPs are denied agency in foreign policymaking, unlike Pelosi and her colleagues in the US Congress.

Pelosi pointed out her visit is one of several US congressional delegations to Taiwan. How many all-party Indian parliamentary delegations travel regularly to other countries either to set the ground for high-level visits by the President and Prime Minister, or to follow up? What is the level of foreign policy expertise or support provided by the Indian government to the MPs? What is India’s equivalent of the public-facing US Congressional Research Service? Or of the study sessions of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo?

Indians might have had more questions answered about the nature of New Delhi’s policies towards China, including why it was caught napping by the Chinese transgressions in eastern Ladakh in 2020, if separation of powers were taken seriously by our politicians. As it stands, two Congress MPs — Gaurav Gogoi and P Chidambaram — took to the print media to highlight issues with the government’s China policy perhaps to mark over two years since the Chinese transgressions, and the lack of progress in restoring status quo ante.

However, no parliamentarians from the ruling party seem willing to do so, leave alone acting like Pelosi did to ensure that her President also from the same party, remains publicly accountable and transparent on the US’ China and Taiwan policies.

This then leads us to a second point; namely, the Indian government’s Taiwan policy. As seen in the case of the MPs above, the current Indian government has not been consistent. In another example, the head of the unofficial Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre was invited to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014, but not invited to the 2019 swearing-in. While India-Taiwan relations have certainly grown in recent years across official, economic, and other channels, it is antics like those of BJP leader Tajinder Bagga, who in 2020 put up posters near the Chinese embassy felicitating the Taiwanese on their National Day that get the most, if also transient, attention in India.

The lack of willingness of the Indian government to publicise the more substantive parts of the India-Taiwan relationship effectively reduces India’s options vis-à-vis China, and makes New Delhi’s ‘one China’ policy look more like China’s ‘one China’ principle. In other words, not only does India implicitly buy into the dubious narrative that Taiwan was historically a part of China, it undermines its own interests and commitments to democracy, and to a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. By contrast, Pelosi’s first tweet on arriving in Taiwan was clear in its declaration, “Our delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy”. Many will argue that India is not in the same league as the US, or that its security interests are different. But claims of being a ‘leading power’ in international politics or ambitions of being a ‘global power’ will always be tested against the willingness to discuss and plan for contingencies as well as to commit resources. Breathless speculation in Indian media about whether China would use Pelosi’s visit to attack Taiwan, seem also to sidestep the question of what India’s own thinking is about security issues beyond India’s immediate neighbourhood, and especially its plans and options if China were indeed to attack Taiwan. It is the duty — sadly neglected — of Parliamentarians to seek answers of the government to these and other questions of India’s national security.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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