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Taiwan labour envoy plan

India may soon have unusual "ambassadors" in Taiwan - not diplomats but labourers from the northeastern states hired by the island that Beijing claims and New Delhi does not recognise diplomatically.

By CHARU SUDAN KASTURI
  • Published 4.01.17
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New Delhi, Jan. 3: India may soon have unusual "ambassadors" in Taiwan - not diplomats but labourers from the northeastern states hired by the island that Beijing claims and New Delhi does not recognise diplomatically.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has laid the ground for an unparalleled "quantum jump in relations" between India and Taiwan, which is now also eyeing labour from India's Northeast as a bridge towards deeper bilateral ties, the island's top diplomat here has said.

The comments by Taiwan's trade and cultural representative in New Delhi, James Tien, in an interview to The Telegraph represent the biggest public acceptance in years of tightening ties between India and the island that are likely to leave China uneasy.

They come at a time India and Taiwan have quietly inked a series of pacts - previously unreported - ranging from agriculture to railways since September and are exploring a mechanism by which Indian labourers can work on the island.

Last month, Indian parliamentarians also formed a first-ever forum to promote friendship with the island, days after Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen shook Beijing with a telephone conversation with US President-elect Donald Trump.

"This period in our relations, after Prime Minister Modi came to power, is the most dynamic in our history and I promise you there will be a quantum jump in relations over the next three-to-four years," Tien said. "There is a convergence of values and of interests."

New Delhi observes Beijing's "One China" policy, under which countries can have diplomatic relations only with the People's Republic of China or with Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China. India does not recognise Taiwan, and has diplomatic relations only with the mainland.

But over the past few months, India has carefully circumvented diplomatic restrictions to try and deepen political and government-to-government contact, such as through the use of the parliamentary forum - some of whose members have also visited Taiwan.

"We know governments can only do so much because of limitations," Tien said. "But institutionalising mechanisms like a parliamentary exchange help make up for what governments cannot directly do."

Officially, the Indian government has not commented on its deepening ties with Taiwan.

But Tien returned earlier this week from Taipei where he signed a letter of intent with India's representative there, Sridharan Madhusudhanan, for collaboration in preserving and promoting heritage railways like the one in Darjeeling -- built by the British both in India and Taiwan.

In September, Tien signed two other agreements with the Indian government --- one on improving air connectivity between India and Taiwan and the second on enhancing cooperation in agriculture.

Over the past few days, India and Taiwan have begun negotiating an agreement under which the island plans to hire Indian nationals from the northeastern states to work in its hospitality sector, Tien said. Indian officials confirmed the agreements and the negotiations on the labour migration plan.

Taiwan already hosts over 500,000 foreign workers --- from the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia --- but needs more, especially in the hospitality sector, to assist its ageing society

A substantial Indian workforce in Taiwan will also help improve an understanding of the island in the mind of Indians, Tien argued.

"The central Indian government's attitude on this proposal has been very supportive," Tien said.

A strong strategic interest --- for both India and Taiwan --- underpins the recent bonhomie. Both share concerns over China's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea --- a central theme of India's Act East policy. And China has in recent months needled India by pressing ahead with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir despite New Delhi's protests.

China last week formally blocked India's attempts to enforce UN sanctions against Masood Azhar, the chief of the proscribed Pakistan-based terror group, Jaish e-Mohammed.

That strategic push for stronger ties with Taiwan was confirmed to this newspaper last week by BJP Lok Sabha MP Harish Chander Meena, who heads the recently formed parliamentary forum for friendship with Taiwan. "I don't need to spell out the strategic aspects of this decision," Meena said.

But Modi has also long been a votary for stronger ties with Taiwan. In 1999, he even visited the country as BJP general secretary. Taiwan too has carefully cultivated the Indian leader, especially over the past decade, during which Gujarat has emerged the state with the island's largest investments in India.

Tsai, Taiwan's President since this past summer, has also emphasised on deepening ties with South Asia and Southeast Asia --- as a part of her "New Southbound policy".

"Prime Minister Modi is probably the leader in India who has the most understanding of Taiwan," Tien said. "And I can tell you, his Act East policy and our New Southbound policy have met."