India’s ban of 56 Chinese apps heralds a new normal in Sino-Indian relations, one that will no longer be decoupling trade and politics. However, much needs to be done before the country can adequately firewall itself from the prying eyes of the Dragon in the fraught realm of cyberspace.
In a move IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has termed a ‘digital strike’, the government last week barred dozens of Chinese apps from operating in India. Though likely just a pinprick for China, which notched up $70b in exports to India in 2019-20, it does signal a hardening of the Modi government’s stance against China’s encroachment into Ladakh and Galwan. The ban on Chinese apps is India’s riposte to ‘talk-talk, fight-fight”, a Mao-era construct aimed at pushing the envelope militarily while harping about peace. India is no stranger to this form of psychological warfare, having been on the receiving end on more than one occasion – the most recent being the 2017 Doklam standoff.
The Chinese apps ban is India’s riposte to ‘talk-talk, fight-fight”, a Mao-era construct aimed at pushing the envelope militarily while harping about peace.
Though the Narendra Modi government hesitated to act against Chinese business interests back then for fear of effecting trade ties, the latest move, for once, sets the record straight. It is a lesson India has learned the hard way. Its strategy of decoupling business interests from longstanding bilateral disputes – codified by a string by agreements throughout the 1990s and early 2000s – has only made New Delhi critically dependant on its Eastern neighbour for everything from fabrics to pharmaceutical APIs. The opportunity cost of this is only now becoming clear to a business community that has long been addicted to cheap Chinese imports.
Trade: Just a means to an end
Within hours of the ban being imposed, the Chinese Embassy denounced the Indian government for “selectively and discriminatorily aiming at Chinese apps on ambiguous and far-fetched grounds.” In a statement released to the media, it went on to accuse India of “violating WTO rules” and “abusing national security exceptions”. In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Zhao Lijian expressed his country’s “strong concern” over the development and called for the “legitimate and legal rights” of international investors to be upheld.
China can hardly call itself a beacon for the rule of law given it has stonewalled international diplomatic recognition of Taiwan by leveraging trade deals and development aid. In fact, five countries have even switched diplomatic recognition to China since 2016 due to relentless pressure from Beijing. China’s crumbling Belt and Road Initiative is perhaps the biggest example of how Beijing has systematically cultivated pliable governments and tinpot dictators in exchange for preferential access to emerging markets. China may be the world’s largest market for apps but it is also among the most restrictive for foreign apps and websites. “Cyber sovereignty” – which the ‘Great Wall’ firewall system is designed to protect – is a Chinese concept it now wants to export to the world.
Defending against a creeping cyber invasion
China has covertly and overtly co-opted local companies to serve as the eyes and ears of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A 2017 cybersecurity law makes it binding on them to share user data for “national cyberspace security” purposes. While that, in itself, is not surprising for an authoritarian regime, Beijing has taken the liberty to extend this cyber-surveillance web far beyond its borders. China has been using ‘plausible deniability’ – a concept popularised by the CIA – to snoop on data belonging to private citizens, businesses and governments in dozens of countries. Indian intelligence agencies have been warning about the vulnerability of Indian consumers’ personal and financial data to Chinese cyber spying since at least 2017.
Watch: How China tracks everyone
A list released in December of that year identified a total of 42 apps as high-risk, including many that have now been embargoed – a full 2.5 years later. For the record, companies like TikTok have denied any wrongdoing and are lobbying for the ban to be overturned. However, rather than mere assurances, the time is ripe for the Indian government to insist on a comprehensive cyber-security audit just as the Chinese government requires foreign internet companies to do, in order to continue operating within its borders. Surely, India cannot be blamed for something that the Chinese government regards as a sovereign right.
Battle lines drawn
The US – once the world’s foremost champion of free trade and globalization – has gone to the extent of formally declaring Huawei and ZTE, China’s leading telecom companies, as “threats to national security”. Geoffrey Starks, the Commissioner of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has vowed to work “toward identifying the problematic equipment in our systems” and begin replacing them. It has made federal funding support to corporate America contingent on US companies gradually moving away from the two Chinese telecom majors. Though the FCC has admitted “there is much to do”, it has set the ball rolling by blacklisting Huawei and ZTE.
Watch: US Government’s ban on Dahua and Hikvision
In India, pressure has been growing on the Modi government to stop Huawei from participating in 5G trials. Experts say that giving China a piece of India’s 5G pie would be akin to signing away India’s sovereignty. While the government has gone into a huddle on the matter, there are other vulnerabilities that need fixing much more urgently. For example, Chinese CCTV major Hikvision, which has captured 35% of India’s electronic security solutions market, presents a much bigger security threat in the short term. The company is currently bidding for a contract from the Indian Railways for high-tech thermal cameras which could potentially be used to spy on the movement of Indian military supplies en route to border areas. Ironically, the railways tender document clearly specified a proprietary AI technology used only in Hikvision’s cameras as a prerequisite, triggering allegations of favouritism from other competitors.
Giving China a piece of India’s 5G pie would be akin to signing away India’s sovereignty
For India to succeed in its fight back against the Chinese tech juggernaut, token bans will not do. Land and labour reforms must be backed by increased investments in local research and development to leverage domestic demand. If Chinese companies use their dominance of the Indian market to trumpet their arrival on the global stage, so can our own.