For a number of reasons, the video interview given by Joseph Wu, the Taiwanese minister of foreign affairs, on October 16 to a correspondent for the Indian television company India Today is a landmark event. First of all, there is the mere fact that it took place, since one year ago this would have hardly been possible.
And not because some government “authority” in India would have advised the TV company not to do so. It’s just that the company management would most likely never even have thought about asking for this kind of “permission”. Of all people, certainly the attending participants in all aspects of how a modern state functions, are perfectly familiar with the categories of “political environments”, and in what state they are in at any given moment, or in various particular foreign policy clusters.
And a year ago, this “environment” in the area of relations with China that is the most important for India still remained (to a certain extent) under the positive influence of the “spirit of Wuhan”. Which would then be directly at odds with the very fact of any conversation occurring between a correspondent from an Indian television company (albeit a privately-run one) with one of the highest officials from the state of “Taiwan”, which does not even exist in the eyes of Beijing.
Since this happened now, then this is a sure sign that the abovementioned “spirit” has completely disappeared, the “environment” has radically changed, and management at India Today can now ignore the “subtle foreign policy sensibilities” of its colossal neighbor.
It should be noted, however, that many different signs of the beginning of another period of deterioration for Sino-Indian relations began to appear almost immediately after the “informal summit” held in April 2018 in Wuhan, where leaders from both countries took part, and these then gradually piled up over the next two-and-a-half years. We will just allude to the meeting between the US and India, held in a “2 + 2” format, which took place in early September of that same year 2018.
But the current, almost complete collapse of relations between the two Asian giants was the result of clashes between groups of border guards from both countries that began on May 3-4 this year in one of the mountainous areas along the (quasi) border of the former principality of Ladakh. Afterwards, in the area where the incidents occurred, there was a rapid buildup on both sides of army support units equipped with heavy equipment. To date, it is estimated that each group contains 50,000 service personnel, which, taking into account the peculiarities of the local topography, cannot do anything but boggle the imagination. Suffice it to say that the forward units are located at an altitude of over 5,000 meters.
Although direct clashes have not been observed for more than three months, the tension in the zone of a potential military conflict between India and the PRC (on a scale at least no less than that in 1962) is not waning. According to the results of the latest and 7th round of a series of closed meetings between representative delegations that was held on October 12, the parties only agreed to “continue negotiations”.
This is the backdrop against which the interview took place between a high official in Taiwan and a television company from one of those same Asian giants, with relations between each other now in a state of heightened (to put it mildly) tension. This may be now a relative trifle, but still an extremely remarkable one, and it completely fits into the aforementioned backdrop.
The significance of this event, however, is enhanced by what Mr. J. Wu said during the interview, responding to questions posed by Ms. Geeta Mohan, the newscaster from India Today. It is worth noting that the nature of questions asked is, certainly, also of interest. A complete list of both questions and answers can be found here.
The very first question reflected the Sino-Indian bickering that happened a week before that when some Indian publications extended congratulations to Taiwan on the occasion of the anniversary of the beginning of the Xinhai Revolution (October 10, 2011), which is celebrated both in Beijing and Taipei.
In this regard, the PRC Embassy in Delhi made a statement in which it noted that the aforementioned publications ignored the “one China” principle, something that the Indian government has repeatedly expressed its respect for. In response, a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of India spoke to the effect that the Indian media operate in a democratic country, and are free to assess certain events and problems independently.
Already in response to the abovementioned first question, two fundamental theses during the entire interview attracted attention that were related to designating the PRC as “the Chinese” (“who put pressure on other countries”), and Taiwan as “a state” (“that shares the same values that Indians do”). It is worth remembering that at the heart of the political course taken by the currently ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan, and the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, is the idea of the island being given full-fledged statehood. In the context of this course, the people of Taiwan are trying to identify (including at the legislative level) themselves as a nation that stands apart from the “mainland Chinese”.
It would be hard to call the second question (about the prospects for “full recognition by the Indian government of Taiwan as an (independent?) nation”) a direct challenge to the PRC. It is not surprising that the way it was worded elicited gratitude from Joseph Wu. It should be noted, however, that this question was presented as the reaction of Indian “activists” to Beijing’s position on the overarching “Kashmir problem”, which has undergone significant changes after the well-known legislative acts adopted in 2019 by the Indian Parliament.
All the other questions were just as challenging. For example, on the need for Taiwan to be recognized in the UN, on collective measures to oppose China within the Quad, on building commercial ties that bypass the PRC.
This time, the Chinese Embassy in Delhi could not sit by idly and not comment on yet another attack on one of the fundamental principles of Beijing’s foreign policy. However, the statement made by the representative of the Chinese diplomatic mission was again rather targeted toward India’s “political space” and, of course, was not an official appeal made by government officials.
For, once again, we should underscore that an interview with a high Taiwanese official was given to a private governing board with the Indian media that was not obligated, generally speaking, to approve all the particulars of the event with the country’s government. In the same vein, that latter does not bear any responsibility for the fact that the interview took place, or its content.
But taking into account all of the above, the folklore hero comes to mind with his dictum, which has become a meme: “a trend, I guess”. It should be added: this is an alarming trend that fully fits into the general context of how current relations are deteriorating between the two Asian giants.
Vladimir Terekhov, an expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.