Mumin Chen, deputy representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Center in Delhi and professor of international politics at National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan, was the first Taiwanese national to visit Tawang, when he traveled to the border district from Arunachal Pradesh in 2012. It took him three years to get permission and the visit was for academic purposes. But it was of great significance to Chen because Tawang is a symbol of democracy’s victory over Chinese aggression. Right now, his compatriots are enduring the wrath of the dragon, following the visit of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to the island nation. He fears it could get worse, citing how Russia attacked Ukraine when everyone thought it wouldn’t.
Chen believes that now is the time for India to strengthen its ties with Taiwan and isolate China militarily and economically. “Many Taiwanese companies are pulling out of China. These companies need an alternative market and manufacturing base, and India can be the perfect destination,” he said in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
Q. How do Taiwanese view Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the country?
A. The majority in Taiwan welcomes his visit. The visit shows America’s support for Taiwan. It is extremely symbolic of the courage and strength shown by two female world leaders, Pelosi and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (Taiwan’s first female president), who speak not of war games, but of defense. democratic rights and collaboration for people’s prosperity. Pelosi’s visit to the National Museum of Human Rights in Taipei, which is a symbol of Taiwan’s democratic transition, followed by his meetings with prominent human rights defenders, formerly imprisoned in China, showed his country’s commitment to defending human rights and democratic values. I saw mixed reactions in the Indian media and abroad; some welcomed his visit while others said it was inappropriate. But it is the most important message not only to China but to the world that human values and democracy can never be crushed.
Q. As China deploys its military forces around Taiwan, is the country in imminent danger?
A. Before Russia attacked Ukraine, did anyone predict it? Everyone said Russia wouldn’t. But Russian President Vladimir Putin did. We therefore cannot say whether China will attack our island, because we do not know what Xi Jinping thinks. No one could guess what was on Putin’s mind either. It must have its own reasons, although some may want to examine it from a geopolitical perspective. The reasons are best known to the leaders who make this decision. I think the same logic applies to the current situation in Taiwan. Xi could be a rational person or not. Who knows! But one thing is clear, if there is an escalation of tension or the launch of an invasion from another country, it will make him a criminal in history. If the Chinese government really cares about the Taiwanese people, then Xi should act more rationally.
Q. There are reports that China wants to complete “reunification” with Taiwan by 2040.
A. First, the truth is that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never ruled Taiwan. In fact, it didn’t even exist in 1945 when World War II ended and Taiwan was placed under the governance of the Republic of China. The PRC was created four years later, on October 1, 1949. So there is no reason for them to say that Taiwan is part of China. It’s a joke.
Even ordinary people in Taiwan, who are not interested in politics, feel disgusted by what China is doing today. They have no connection to the PRC and are proud Taiwanese citizens. If the Chinese care about the Taiwanese people, then they should do them good. Any so-called unification, even between two individuals, can be achieved through friendship, mutual respect and appeasement, and never through violence and threat. Here are two distinct nations. But ultimately, we’ll have to wait and watch what Xi thinks.
Q. Taiwan has a huge commercial presence in China.
A. Over the past decades, Taiwanese companies have invested more than $200 billion in China, which is understandable due to geographical proximity and the use of the same language. We have all had the perception that China will one day change and over time society will become more plural, liberal and democratic. When I was a university student in China in 2001, everyone felt that. But after 2012, since Xi took office, China has not only become powerful but also very aggressive. Today, many Taiwanese companies are pulling out of China. The business environment is deteriorating, the cost of labor is high, and the Chinese government is forcing Taiwanese companies to show their loyalty to China by abiding by the one-China policy, etc. Therefore, more and more companies want to withdraw. They not only need an alternative market, but also a manufacturing base.
Q. Do you think India can take advantage of this opportunity to provide a base for Taiwanese companies?
A. Although India is an ideal destination, many Taiwanese companies travel to Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and even Bangladesh. India must realize that its competition is not with China but with countries like Vietnam which provide an attractive business environment for Taiwanese companies. Previously, India was not very attractive to Taiwanese businesses or tourists due to lack of understanding of people, culture and society. For example, there were stereotypes about high crime rates and crimes against women that deterred Taiwanese from entering. The situation has certainly improved a lot today, but there is room for greater bilateral cooperation.
Q. In what areas can India and Taiwan strengthen their cooperation?
A. Most of Taiwan’s trade, tourism and bilateral cooperation is with neighboring countries like Japan and Korea and ASEAN countries, as well as China. Before Covid, every year around 30,000 people from Taiwan came to India and a few hundred Indians visited Taiwan. These numbers are invisible when compared to the nearly one lakh Indians who travel to Singapore every month. If we look at bilateral trade, trade between India and Taiwan is pegged at around $7 billion, which is a drop in the ocean compared to Taiwan’s trade with China ($120 billion ). These numbers are insignificant and invisible when you consider India as one of the biggest markets with full potential and young population. Taiwan sees India as a rising economic power after China.
Q. How important are Taiwan’s ties with India?
A. India-Taiwan relations began in 1995, when the Indian government established substantial relations with Taiwan. It’s been 27 years and it’s going well. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Center in New Delhi is our only diplomatic mission in South Asia. We do not have offices in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Pakistan. The diplomatic mission in Delhi is therefore essential for us. With Taiwan playing a greater economic and technological role on the world stage, much progress has been made in increasing trade, people-to-people contacts and signing several memorandums of understanding. However, much remains to be done on all these fronts.
Q. Does China’s control over Buddhism also have an impact on Taiwan?
A. Buddhism in China is rapidly disappearing due to political control. In Taiwan, 40% are Buddhists, 40% are Taoists and the rest belong to other faiths. So we have a large population of Buddhists who belong to different sects. It is true that we are different from Tibetan Buddhists and follow the practices of Chinese Buddhists. But after China’s control over religion, Buddhism in China faded and today Taiwan is the only country in East Asia where Buddhism thrives.
India’s role here becomes very important since 40% of all Taiwanese tourists are Buddhist pilgrims who see India as the original seat of Buddhism. They visit Bodh Gaya, Dharamsala and monasteries across Ladakh and even southern India. The younger generation of Taiwanese are interested in visiting India and since the topography, weather and even the eating habits of the people of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram are quite similar to ours, India would do well to promote tourism more significantly. With Ladakh being granted union territory status, it has become easier for foreign tourists to travel there. I think that for a country to assert its territorial integrity and its borders, the best way is to allow foreign tourists to visit these places.