Interview with Sana Hashmi, a scholar and policy expert

Sana is a Visiting Fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF)

Dr Sana Hashmi is an International Relations scholar and an expert on China and Taiwan. Sana was kind enough to share her thoughts about recent developments in Taiwan-India relations and the rest of East Asia.

1) What are the current challenges in growing the bilateral cooperation between India and Taiwan? And how do you think India and Taiwan can overcome these challenges? 

A range of factors obstructs India-Taiwan ties. Some are structural constraints, while some could be removed if India and Taiwan work together and try to find a solution. India’s adherence to the One-China policy is not new. A concern emanating from there is that abandoning the policy will worsen the ties with China. The China factor does loom over the prospects of India-Taiwan relations, but we can work around it. 

I believe that we do not have to be so focused on security and formal aspects of relations alone. There is so much that could be done even under the current framework where bilateral relations are managed by the representative offices (quasi embassies). The scope of the bilateral ties focused on economic and cultural cooperation. One way to look at India-Taiwan cooperation is that in the age of the pandemic, cooperation should no longer be viewed through the conventional lens. Engaging Taiwan by consolidating cooperation in areas such as health and education is immensely crucial. 

As India’s approach towards China is changing, it also needs to rethink its Taiwan policy. It is important for India to realise that relations with China and Taiwan could go on a parallel track. 

Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, comprising the 10 ASEAN member states, Australia, and New Zealand, and six South Asian countries- Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, with India at the centre. Taiwan also needs to come up with concrete plans to strengthen cooperation with India. 

At the regional level, like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific should facilitate Taiwan’s greater participation in areas of mutual cooperation. A concerted policy framework is required to include Taiwan in the deliberations.

2) How do Taiwanese people view India? Have their views transformed because of the recent geopolitical events?

Overall, India is considered a friendly democratic country with a rich cultural heritage, historical legacy, and ethnic and culinary diversity. Some also view it through the ‘enemy’s enemy is a friend’ lens. Reports of the milk tea alliance and China’s hostile behaviour towards India and other democracies in the region have also highlighted several commonalities between India and Taiwan. India-China standoff had a huge role to play in generating mass awareness about India in Taiwan and vice versa. 

Taiwan’s COVID-19 response and India’s vaccine diplomacy have made these two countries outshine a lot of countries during these difficult times. It has also led them to admire and appreciate each other.  

3) Taiwan’s success at bringing the pandemic under control has raised the country’s global profile. Has this confidence led to increased support for the DPP and contributed to rising nationalistic sentiment? 

Taiwan has been able to provide normal lives to its citizens without undertaking harsh measures such as lockdown and shutting down the economy. In the process, it has also gained an international appreciation of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Regarding the domestic support of government policies, the approval ratings of Taiwan Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung, and President Tsai Ing-wen have gone up in the past year. There is certainly a sense of pride among common Taiwanese, but the narrative has not taken an anti-China shape despite the People’s Republic of China blocking Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly. 

4) Did Taiwan support India during the border crisis of 2020? If yes, what support do you think Taiwan had offered? 

No official statement has been issued on the India-China border standoff, but on several occasions, President Tsai Ing-wen has called for like-minded countries to work towards ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. President Tsai and other politicians have made veiled reference to China’s growing assertive postures and criticised its unilateral move to change the status quo on the India-China boundary. While Taiwan did not directly reference India-China's standoff and overt support to India, the diplomatic message was effectively articulated and conveyed to the international community. 

5) As a scholar of China who has worked in India, you must be familiar with the challenges that China-related scholarship in India. Given that China has changed under Xi Jinping, what strategies do scholars in India need to adopt to improve overall knowledge about China from a policy and scholarly perspective? 

I think the most important thing is to visit the region. You have to be in China, Taiwan, or at least the countries that have a large presence of Chinese diaspora to understand politics. The biggest handicap for the majority of India-based scholars in China is that they try to understand it from newspapers and books. While that does give a perspective, meeting real people in a real situation is the most important thing. So, I would suggest that those who aspire to specialise in China/East Asia or Southeast Asia must visit those countries and stay there if possible. Interact with people, go places, learn about the country from original authentic sources that are people themselves.

6) The study and research of International Relations remain a male-dominated subject around the world. What would be your recommendation to promote the participation of female scholars, researchers and policymakers in the field of IR in India and around Asia? Does Taiwan have any lessons to offer in that context? 

Well, the President of Taiwan herself is a living example of how gender-egalitarian this country is. Regarding IR as a professional field, a systematic approach is needed to make this change. The situation is better in Western countries; it is India. I am most worried about it. There are so many government-led think tanks, and not one is headed by a woman. Women are not given their due representation. Also, we have to get more firm in boycotting all “manels” irrespective of who all are participating. Naming and shaming those who directly and indirectly support is crucial.

7) Please recommend any books that you think people should read. 

• Politics in Taiwan: Voting for Democracy, Shelley Rigger, 1999. 

• From Opposition to Power: Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party. By Shelley Rigger. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001.

• Party Politics in Taiwan: Party Change and the Democratic Evolution of Taiwan, 1991-2004. Dafydd Fell

• Accidental State: Chiang Kai-shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan, Hsiao-ting Lin, 2016

• The New Southbound Policy: Deepening Taiwan’s Regional Integration (CSIS Reports), Bonnie Glaser et al., 2018. 

• Perspectives on Taiwan: Insights from the 2018 Taiwan-U.S. Policy Program (CSIS Reports), Bonnie Glaser and Matthew P. Funaiole (eds.), 2019. 

Several Western scholars have worked and extensively written on Taiwan’s political system, Taiwan-China ties, and Taiwan’s relations with the western world. What is missing from the discourse on Taiwan is sufficient literature on Taiwan relations with Asia, particularly India. 

8) If you were to recommend one cuisine of Taiwan, what would that be? 

Not in a particular order: Dumpling soup (even dumplings in general), stinky tofu, hotpot, pineapple cakes, pancakes. Coffee in Taiwan is amazing, and so is bubble (boba) tea.

Sana Hashmi, PhD, is a Visiting Fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF). She was the 2020 Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Fellow and a former consultant with India’s Ministry of External Affairs. She has also worked with the New Delhi-based Centre for Air Power Studies.  She is the author of China’s Approach towards Territorial Disputes: Lessons and Prospects.