Historical Diplomacy and Modern Sensitivities: Taiwan, the US, Japan and India

It is hard not to notice in historical paintings and drawings, the characteristic (for South Asians) truncal or central obesity in profound figures who led Indian soft power historical diplomacy -- for example the South Indian monk Bodhidharma (known in Japan as Daruma) who is credited with being the founder of Zen Buddhism, and lived and taught in ancient Imperial China in approximately 500 A.D. He and others also reportedly transmitted the Keralite martial arts, Kalaripayattu, along with his Zen teaching that over centuries evolved into the East Asian martial arts - such as Judo, Aikido, and swordsmanship (see here and here)

Today, most people around the world assume that Zen is a Japanese invention because Daruma so effectively transmitted his teachings that they thereafter propagated and took root in Japan. Zen is practiced in Japan and millions of foreign tourists visit the exquisitely preserved ancient Zen temples in Kyoto and other parts of Japan. Similarly, other famous Indian monks such as Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra resided full-time in China while teaching Buddhism 1,300 years ago, and their protégés directly taught the famous Japanese monk Kukai who first brought one branch of Buddhism to Japan. Naturally, all this occurred well before the era of passports and visas and before there was an Indian or Chinese government, in the current sense.

Fast forward to today's era, and even minor issues raise untoward sensitivities. Pertinent in this respect, is the recent brouhaha over the Taiwanese President's inauguration and India's uncertain response that only evokes concerns about weakness or irresoluteness. Prominent journalist Ms. Coomi Kapoor, a friend of many in Indian ruling circles, wrote about how the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) raised objections to a trip by two current Members of Parliament (MPs), one from the Government side and the other from the Opposition, using the excuse that they would have traveled on diplomatic passports, but India does not have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, though each country maintains a representative office in the other since 1995 when the late Mr. P.V. Narasimha Rao was the Indian Prime Minister. It is hard to imagine that the MEA alone would have taken such decision on the MPs without consulting the Indian Prime Minister's Office.

Seen as a renegade province by China, Taiwan has been managing its own affairs since the end of World War II, now for nearly the past 71 years. Indeed, as a private citizen, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Taiwan and often tells the story of his encounter with a less-than-aware interpreter in Taipei who asked him about snakes, snake-charmers and elephants in India. I myself attended PM Modi's speech at the Reception in Tokyo in 2014 when Mr. Modi told the story of his visit to Taiwan.

Further, Mr. Modi, when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat State, assiduously courted Taiwanese investment, and has guided his current protégé-Chief Ministers of Indian States like Mr. Fadnavis of Maharashtra to work to secure investment from companies like Hon Hai / Foxconn Technology Group -- that recently acquired Sharp of Japan. Indeed, great efforts appear to have been expended to make Mr. Terry Gou, the maverick CEO and his team of Hon Hai that is a major components supplier to Apple, Inc. feel comfortable in areas outside the big cosmopolitan cities of India through very personalized & customized attention.

Disproportionate Size of Economic and Rhetorical Relationships China's trade and investment with Taiwan are massive, whereas India's economic relationship with Taiwan is miniscule by comparison. Taiwan's economic relationship with Japan, by comparison, is also very large. The US and Taiwan maintain strong economic and defence ties.

Taiwan's President's Inaugural Events On May 20th, 2016, after her assumption of office, Taiwan's President Dr. Tsai Ing-wen met with 30 foreign delegations, including Archbishop Joseph Chennoth, the Holy See's (Vatican) official representative who is the current Ambassador to Japan, who is himself an Indian national and belongs to the ancient Syro-Malabar Catholic Church that traces its history to the first century A.D. in Kerala State, India, about 1,400 years before the arrival of Europeans in India.

Also, Japan sent a 252-member delegation for the ceremonies led by ruling party parliamentarians Keiji Furuya and Seishiro Eto (both former Ministers) who participated in the Taiwan President's Inaugural ceremonies all as representatives of Japan.

Further, the Chairman of Japan's Parliament's House of Representatives' Foreign Relations Committee, who is also the younger brother of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (but uses their maternal grandfather former PM Kishi's surname) had visited Taipei to meet with Dr. Tsai earlier this month. The US also sent a high-level delegation, led by a former Cabinet member of the Obama Administration.

Comparing Parliaments: India, Japan and the US I had believed that Indian parliamentarians are among the most progressive and independent in the world. However, the recent fracas makes it likely that while some individual parliamentarians are indeed great parliamentarians, who come prepared with research, clear points of view and advanced public policy goals, the system as a whole is inimical to that very independence. Virtually no private member's bills get passed, ever, despite Fridays afternoons being dedicated to discussion on such bills in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House). At best, those bills only serve to alert government ministries about specific issues. Time is very limited for Indian MPs to speak, and party discipline includes not being able to speak on particular issues often when more senior members are addressing a particular topic.

On the other hand, the US Congress has multiple committees and sub-committees that go in-depth into particular topics, even controversial ones. See this hearing/debate in a US Congress sub-committee on the future of US-Taiwan relations. Imagine the commotion if an Indian MP had requested such debate/discussion in either House of the Indian Parliament.

Also, the language used in the Congress is often direct, and almost nothing is ever expunged from the record. We learned recently that even mentioning a member from the other House of Parliament gets that name expunged in the Indian parliament. See how a prominent US Congressman refers to China.

The Japanese parliament is not known for being terribly independent, given the strong party affiliation of each member. Indeed, it had been assumed that some Japanese parliamentarians would benefit through training (collegial work in each other's offices) with independent-minded Indian MPs. In Japan, even without giving show-cause notices, MPs were expelled from the erstwhile Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) then the ruling party, by the then Prime Minister Mr. Noda who was the President of the Party, merely because some members voted against top-line (revenue item) tax-increases that the then ruling party was supporting. However, despite that background, Japan took the approach to reach out via formal and informal channels on the troubled East and South China Sea matter, including by sending a large delegation of MPs, and others to Taiwan.

Innovative Indian Approach Prof. D.P. Tripathi, MP, sent a letter in April 2016 to the incoming Taiwanese leadership and stated that "It will be most fitting to have a Centre in Netaji's memory to promote Taiwan-India investment & trade, and be a focus of cultural, educational & research efforts named the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Taiwan-India Centre located in Taipei and be responsible for immensely upgrading relations from the Taiwan side." Prof. Tripathi recalled that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, national hero for all Indians, who led the anti-colonial struggle based out of the Far East, was last seen alive in Taipei before he took off on his fateful journey.

After attending the Inaugural, BJP's Mr. Vijay Jolly, a former Member of the Legislative Assembly from Delhi, along with Prof. Madhav Nalapat, Editorial Director of the Sunday Guardian (both who were in Taiwan in their personal capacities), said that Mr. Jolly would be sending a supportive letter. Thus, with both the Opposition side as well as Government side sending letters for the creation of a Netaji Centre in Taipei, coupled with President Tsai's keen interest unprecedentedly highlighted in her Inaugural Address, it is very likely to become a reality. That should promote a number of exchanges and activities to boost working relations between people in both India and Taiwan. Indeed, Prof. Nalapat was the host when Dr. Tsai as the then-leader of the Opposition in Taiwan visited India in 2012.

Informal, Complementary versus Formal-only Diplomacy The US treasures informal channels and actively cultivates those individuals and institutions that have special links with key people in important countries. When India only has a similar number of diplomats as does New Zealand, which is a country having about 0.003% of India's population, shouldn't outstanding Indian parliamentarians such as Prof. D.P. Tripathi (known to his colleagues and friends as DPT) and others be encouraged to enhance India's outreach and goal to seek $1 trillion of foreign investment? Further, in the case of Taiwan, Netaji Bose's robust anti-colonial struggle based out of the entire Far East involved Bose criss-crossing multiple countries around the globe in the process -- hardly obsessing about diplomatic niceties.

Analyst Prakash Nanda, who has written a book on former PM Vajpayee's foreign policy, saw India's current actions as a continuation of former Prime Minister Vajpayee's "appeasement of China". In effect, rhetoric not matching up to actions, and also not much reciprocation taking place from the other side.

China has become a great power by diligently pursuing self-interest; in that process, the Chinese have outmaneuvered most countries, indeed economies that were multiple times larger when it started its aggressive economic path in 1979 led by then-Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping. India needs to learn from that history, but must pursue its own agenda, and indeed must be guided by its own ethos. Key pillars of the current government, like Mr. Arun Jaitley, have overcome great adversity to reach where they have, and they never stepped back in the face of aggression.

Therefore, the recent diplomatic actions that reek of obsequiousness cannot enhance India's reputation built over thousands of years.

Full Text of President Tsai's Speech It is indeed extraordinary that President Tsai mentioned India specifically when explaining what her Administration plans to do to upgrade ties with foreign friendly nations:

President Tsai spoke warmly about outreach to India: "We will share resources, talents and markets with other countries to achieve economies of scale and to allow the efficient use of resources. This is the spirit on which our "New Southbound Policy" is based. We will broaden exchanges and cooperation with regional neighbors in areas such as technology, culture and commerce, and expand in particular our dynamic relationships with ASEAN and India."

See full-text of President Tsai's speech here.

A Missed Opportunity It is very regrettable that both MPs who were scheduled to be at the Inaugural, could not. In future, if traveling on diplomatic passports to certain countries becomes an issue, MPs should get an ordinary passport and travel as individual citizens, thereby avoiding imbroglios.

It seems quite hard to imagine that the Indian Foreign Ministry Mandarins in New Delhi thought that the actual Mandarins in Beijing would be swayed to give up major concessions (such as supporting India's candidacy for Membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group that China has been openly opposing), in exchange for minor concessions like blocking the two Indian MPs' trip to Taiwan, and facilitating the largely procedural visit by India's ceremonial president Mukherjee to China (see here and here and here).

Incidentally, India's position of refusing to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons often referred to as Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT would have found favor with some of the conservative advisors to the late President Reagan, including the late U.S. Senator Malcolm Wallop, a member of Reagan's kitchen cabinet, who was helpful, friendly and non-discriminatory to then-young people like me. Senator Wallop co-authored a book titled "The Arms Control Delusion" to lay out his view that countries that want to cheat on proliferation can easily do so (and indeed have been proven to have done so) despite signing intrusive agreements like NPT, and therefore the entire Treaty should be scrapped.

Conclusion India and Taiwan ought to find multiple ways to collaborate and cooperate, as Prof. D.P. Tripathi, MP, and his friends & advisors suggest, including ideas in his book "India and Taiwan: From Benign Neglect to Pragmatism," utilizing multiple channels that go well beyond the cramped inter-governmental or post-World War multilateral frameworks. The era of having to wring hands endlessly and "walk on eggshells" to get approval from the U.N. Permanent 5 (any of which can block any budding partnership within the existing multilateral frameworks) is very passé.