By Greg Torode and Jess Macy Yu
HONGKONG/TAIPEI (Reuters) – As Beijing intensifies its effort to further isolate Taiwan diplomatically, Taipei is actively but discreetly broadening security ties with regional powers beyond its long-standing relationship with the United States.
From efforts to share intelligence on China’s military with India and the prospect of engaging Japanese experts in its submarine programme, Taipei’s push is gradually bearing fruit despite sensitivities surrounding relations with Taiwan, according to government officials, military attaches and diplomats.
As well as India and Japan, Taipei has targeted Australia and Singapore.
While the effort is being kept low-key to avoid further inflaming Beijing and adding to pressure on countries aiding Taipei unofficially, the moves mirror Taiwan’s more public “southbound” policy to deepen commercial and cultural links with the region.
It also comes amid several recent successes by China in luring away some of the few nations that diplomatically recognise the democratically self-ruled island.
While Taipei battles to keep its remaining formal allies, it is keen to deepen strategic ties with larger regional powers, sensing an opportunity as they too seek to cope with a rising China, Taiwanese officials say.
“We want Taiwan and those countries to have more in-depth understanding of the strategic or security environment we are in,” Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told Reuters.
As China grows more powerful and assertive, he said “many of these countries feel the pinch and they might want to know more about Taiwan as an interest to them, rather than something they want to avoid.”
China considers democratic Taiwan to be a wayward province and has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control. It has intensified military activity surrounding Taiwan in recent years.
El Salvador switched ties to Beijing last month, while the Dominican Republic did so in May and Panama changed sides last year – leaving Taiwan with just 17 diplomatic allies, six of which are small Pacific island states.
“None of the other regional powers will come close to what Taiwan is doing with the U.S.,” said Bonnie Glaser, a security expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But it is clear that there are intersecting interests, and that these are being actively explored.”
Washington, like other major powers, maintains a “one China” policy that thwarts formal diplomatic relations with Taipei but remains by far Taiwan’s largest weapons supplier and most powerful international backer.
That relationship has been boosted under U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration is eyeing more weapons sales and is encouraging official exchanges.
According to U.S. estimates obtained by Reuters, on average 100 U.S. officials, including military personnel, visit Taiwan each week.
Anecdotally, the intensity of interactions is rising under the administration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
While security ties with Tokyo, including some intelligence sharing, have been evolving for some time, Taipei’s ties with New Dehli are rapidly growing, according to people familiar with discussions.
Unofficial military attaches have been placed within Taiwan’s new de-facto embassy, the Taipei Economic Cultural Centre, while senior Indian military officers regularly visit Taipei on ordinary rather than official passports.
Taiwan also fields military attaches unofficially in Tokyo and Singapore as well as Washington.
Taiwan’s knowledge of Chinese military deployments, including troop movements in the west of the country are of particular interest, said an Indian source familiar with ties.
“We are dependent on Taiwan because they are watching the Chinese,” the source said. “Indian serving officers regularly go to Taiwan, they go on so-called study leave.”
When asked for a formal Indian government response, a source familiar with the government’s thinking declined to comment on security cooperation, but said India’s “engagement with Taiwan is limited to economic and commercial links. And people to people contacts.”
Taiwan is also pushing Australia, a major U.S. ally, for closer co-operation, regional diplomats told Reuters. Discussions remained largely in the exploratory stage over shared interests over watching Chinese manouvers in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, where China’s presence is growing.
Like the Indian relationship, it is most likely to evolve into information sharing on Chinese activities, deployments and intentions rather than hard weapons’ programmes.
An Australian government spokesman declined to comment.
Euan Graham, a regional security analyst at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, said Australia would likely remain cautious, despite deepening understanding in Canberra of Taiwan’s strategic importance.
“It might be a bit ambitious of the Taiwanese to think Australia would go as far as say Japan,” he said.
“Directly taking on a military-to-military relationship with Taiwan would be very uncomfortable for Australia.”
Singapore, however, has repeatedly signalled to Taiwanese officials it intends to maintain its low-key military presence on the island despite pressure from Beijing, according to people close to discussions.
That decades-old presence – revolving detachments of troops for infantry and heavy armour training – faced Chinese criticism in late 2016 when Hong Kong authorities temporarily seized armoured personnel carriers being shipped from Taiwan to Singapore.
“Taiwan is pleased that Singapore has resisted Chinese pressure and, beyond the training elements, exchanges between senior officers are broad and deep,” said one Singaporean scholar familiar with the relationship, speaking privately due to sensitivity that surrounds it. “In the current environment they have plenty to talk about.”
Speaking privately, other Singaporean academics say that state-linked Chinese counterparts frequently complain about Singapore’s on-going military relationship.
“They inevitably ask: when is Singapore going to finally give this up?…the hint is clear,” one veteran scholar said.
Singapore’s Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Taiwanese scholars said retired Japanese engineers have been coming to Taiwan to assist with research and development in its nascent submarine programme.
The Taiwanese defence ministry referred Reuters to a previous statement by the navy in which it said reports of Japan’s assistance with Taiwan’s submarine programme was “completely conjecture.”
A Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said they had no knowledge of any involvement of Japanese engineers in the project.
“Our stance towards Taiwan is based on the 1972 joint communique by Japan and China meaning our relationship is not an official one between governments but is conducted at a working level,” the spokesman said.
More broadly, a Taipei-based think-tank close to the office of the president forms a key part of the growing semi-official effort.
The Prospect Foundation, in part funded by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with close ties to President Tsai’s National Security Council, reaches out to a wide range of scholars, retired officials and military brass and sometimes still-serving officials.
As the foundation helps Taiwan create reciprocal exchanges, scholars have noted if serving military officers are involved, no uniforms are worn on foreign trips, underscoring the discreet nature of the missions.
(Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in TAIPEI, Sanjeev Miglani in NEWDEHLI, Tim Kelly in TOKYO, Colin Packham in SYDNEY and Jack Kim in SINGAPORE; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)