2020 is our Black Mirror moment. Each day reflecting back at us the deepest and darkest fissures of our digital societies and of our increasingly binary selves. Conversely and perversely, perhaps, our screens were also our only windows to the world, enabling us to stay connected and engaged, offering fulfillment even as the pandemic kept us apart, isolated and distant. We are, consequently, having to relentlessly engage with cleavages in society, amplified by technology, that we had buried and forgotten in the euphoria of globalisation.
Alongside our vulnerabilities, the ‘attention economy’, where human engagement with devices translates to value and valuations, grew at an unprecedented scale and intensity. From mobility to consumption and transactions, our existence became ever more enveloped in the embrace of big tech and smart tech. The pandemic had tilted the scales of an open debate, and, indeed, human activity and choices (data) were oil in this new industrial cycle. What the Gulf War was to television, COVID-19 has been to online platforms: millions were glued to personal screens, watching human death and misery unfold through the imagery of bar charts and log curves. Millions more were struggling to find — in the digital realm — means to sustain life and livelihood; and nearly all who engage with us at this conference today, were discovering their personas, politics, preferences and, indeed, identities in the world of chrome.
You are connected; therefore, you are.
As identities become indelibly linked to the online world and the apps that kept us connected, these became venues of renewed interest and importance for the state, corporates and communities to mobilise, market and manufacture consent. A heady cocktail of fear and uncertainty saw the emergence of digitally-induced conformity. From masking up to letting go of privacy and choice, we saw a global willingness to conform, submit and allow “draconian but necessary” surveillance measures — think of the submission to temperature readouts and the sharing of our travel history. In this scared and scarred new world, reality flipped over and, suddenly, it was the mobile device that carried a human. In the end, we were little more than our IP code or our mobile number. And the pandemic was certainly was not the only guilty party.
This year’s Digital Debates echoes the darker undertones of 2020 and the decade ahead of us. Through three big stories that have taken centre stage, the nine essays capture the zeitgeist of our times.
First, the pandemic has demonstrated that the workplace is inconsequential to the creation of value. Are we racing towards the threshold where humans themselves become inconsequential to work? Utkarsh Amitabh disagrees. There is infinite possibility, he says, afforded to ordinary individuals through online spaces. His essay celebrates the arrival of the passion economy, hailing the demise of the workplace as an enabler for people to monetise their skills and create economic opportunities for themselves. Manavi Jain, however, says it may be too early to ring the death knell on our coffee machine chats: our need for collaboration, and for a clear demarcation between work(spaces) and life, will compel us to return to brick and mortar offices. We may, in fact, finally see employee well- being and mental health being given the attention it deserves.
Yet, in the short-term, the outlook appears bleak. 400 million full-time jobs disappeared in the second quarter of the year and many others found themselves unwillingly trapped in circumstances that are typical to the gig economy: “flexible” work hours that served as a veneer for exploitation of labour, and the loss of a social safety net. Analogous to this phenomenon was the deification – though not appreciation in any concrete way – of essential workers in so-called low-skilled sectors. Is it time, as Sangeet Jain enquires in her lucid essay, to shed the denigration of manual labour and reassess what “valuable” work means? Paradoxically, will prolific digitalisation catalyse reassessment of how to price human labour?
Is it also time to formally price unpaid labour? While gender equality in the office space has been an agenda on HR manuals for some time now, the pandemic has taken that discussion straight into people’s homes. In a survey conducted across the cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune and Kolkata , 50% of the women reported facing motivational challenges in the work-from-home setup as they disproportionately bore the “double burden” of taking care of household duties while holding down a full-time job. It appears that while men are willing to cede women some space in a formal office set up, they seem unwilling to lend their partners a helping hand at home. Another study showed that women accounted for 55% of the increase in job losses in the US in April this year.  This threatens to push back gender equality — in the now fused home and workspace — by decades.
Second, for millennia, a regime change by an external power was achieved through violent conflict, war, and annexation. Now technology allows regimes to be destabilised with a degree of simplicity. This was first brought sharply into focus by the 2016 US Elections. Disinformation, misinformation, falsehoods and lies were the legacy of that election. Millions believe that external actors shaped the US mandate. Whether it actually happened was immaterial. Perceptions were sufficient to bring about a loss of trust in institutions and the delegitimisation of the Trump presidency. As a consequence, the US of A is still a divided polity as we head into the next election cycle. This delegitimisation of regimes is agnostic to political systems — democratic, authoritarian, or otherwise. As we entered the new millennium two decades ago, technology held the promise of giving power back to the people by democratising media and communications. The opposite has happened. The imminent US presidential election has underscored the importance of regulating technology (and with it misinformation and disinformation) to secure democracy. Genie Gan canvasses the cybersecurity landscape during the pandemic, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific, and highlights how trust and transparency have become the currency that sustains partnerships between governments and businesses, and between state and citizen.
The (lack of ) trust in tech goes beyond just politics and governance. Even as we navigate the digital realm with renewed vigour during this pandemic, the safety of cyberspace has deteriorated at an accelerated pace, resulting in a scenario where age- old divides and cleavages are only getting more pronounced. The unregulated web is rife with hate speech, phishing attempts, and cyberattacks with attacks against hospitals and healthcare institutions rising by leaps and bounds during this pandemic. Those groups that faced marginalisation in the real world are facing increased aggression in the virtual, with women and minorities on social media bearing the brunt of online abuse across the world. How do we create safe spaces in a virtual world that is lightly ordered and under- regulated?
Third, technology no longer “intersects” with politics: technology is politics. The intimate enmeshing of technology and national identity has become the driving force of geopolitics, and the pursuit of technological gains is not restricted to the realm of fabs and factories, but envelops societies and global regimes and systems as well. James Lewis delves in depth into the exercise of state control in cyberspace, the so-called “Balkanisation” of the internet, while noting with acerbity that the sovereigns are simply reclaiming their role from the quasi-sovereigns, the unwieldy tech giants, whose economic worth has skyrocketed during this pandemic even as economies contracted and half a billion people faced being pushed into poverty. Elina Noor problematises this framework by pointing to asymmetries between the so-called Global North and Global South, where although the latter represents the fastest growing market for digital products and services, they are not proportionately represented in the norms and international frameworks being built around these technologies. Coining the term technology centrism, Cuihong Cai explores the different strategies — offensive or outward-looking techno-nationalism vs. defensive or inward-looking techno-nationalism — adopted by nations in pursuit of their technological goals, whether to address or maintain global asymmetries. While Cai calls for an interdependent digital community, with the well-being of people at its core, Lewis underlines cooperation between like-minded nations, noting simply, “Seeking consensus with the authoritarians is a waste of time.” Noor, meanwhile, explores the idea of true independence, where all nations are afforded the choice of placing their own self- determination front-and-centre.
In a plagued world — in both the literal and figurative sense of the word — where gated globalisation is the consensus and digital fences are visible across jurisdictions, it is crucial that we hold on to the kernel of hope espoused by the defenders of interconnectedness. Three-quarters of humanity resides in 137 developing countries, and, according to the UNCTAD Digital Economy Report 2019 , these countries account for 90% of global digital growth. Billions residing in these nations will be lifted out of poverty through digital tools during this Fourth Industrial Revolution. The grand finale of Digital Debates, therefore, is Nisha Holla’s piece, a clarion call for the democratisation of digital technology, emphasising inclusion, rights, legal recourse, and affirmative sovereignty. Content created must now reflect the aspirations of these billions, especially in a diverse country like India. For instance, the rise of local language content in India is perhaps inevitable with enough users coming online who are conversant only in local dialects.
The hopes and aspirations of these next billions should serve as the motivator for all to strive towards an internet for all. Just as the Cold War “hotline” was a symbol of connectedness even in the face of protracted conflict, the digital lines must remain open even if there is disagreement. CyFy exists not just to debate discord, but to find common pathways for our common humanity. Ideas and perspectives streaming this year from CyFy, New Delhi, reflect a section of the aspirations of India’s 1.3 billion people that are mirrored in Abuja, in Jakarta, in Bogota, in Dhaka and beyond.
As investors ponder the impact of the world’s greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, emerging markets (EMs) face a swift reversal of fortune. Some of the fastest-growing economies in the world have been brought to a virtual standstill, reeling with the effects of an exogenous shock to demand, a public health emergency, and nascent infrastructure with which to combat the pandemic.
While multilateral development banks and international financial institutions have moved swiftly to address critical funding shortfalls, the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt severe challenges to the EM growth model — and to the livelihoods of people within these countries. As governments in emerging markets and developing economies (EMDEs) have less fiscal space at their disposal — but harbour an ongoing need for spending on relief and stimulus measures — credit downgrades from the ratings agencies may be inevitable.
Yet, even in the wake of downgrades, this juncture of COVID-induced distress might open up a propitious opportunity for international investors and companies to invest in infrastructure in EMDEs. As such, these investors would address existing and future gaps in critical infrastructure, and ideally provide options for a green future. It will also be critical for governments within EMDE countries to align priorities with pools of institutional capital.
In light of the exceptional circumstances of COVID-19, as investors consider their portfolios, investment committees (ICs) will need to approach their geopolitical asset allocation in a creative way. As the clouds and confusion begin to clear with regard to living in a drastically altered landscape, a significant opportunity is likely to emerge for infrastructure investors to deploy capital to EMDEs with a long horizon.
With $13.7 trillion worth of negative yielding assets held in portfolios, the hunt for yield and long-term value are likely to reemerge as the concerns for safe havens begin to wane. As such, we explore potential guiding mechanisms for investors to help navigate the shifting macroeconomic and geopolitical environment in EMs, as well as potential policy recommendations for officials tasked with rebuilding their countries after the virus.
Macroeconomic snapshot: the perfect storm
Emerging markets and developing economies have faced a perfect storm in the wake of COVID-19. As the virus hit China in January 2020, emerging markets faced unprecedented capital outflows from foreign investors – dwarfing outflows during previous crises, including the 2008 Financial Crisis (GFC), the taper tantrum of 2013 (when investor panic triggered a spike in US Treasury yields on news that the Federal Reserve was slowly putting the breaks on its quantitative easing programme), and the renminbi depreciation of 2015. In the face of outflows – and depreciation of local currencies – sovereign borrowing costs have risen, thus placing a strain on the ability of many EMDE governments to continue to fight the public health emergency, as well as to shore up their economies amidst the reverberating shock to demand.
As a result of the sudden economic stops around the globe and the ongoing lockdowns, trade activity has plummeted. Commodity prices – typically a bellwether for economic growth for many EMDEs – have remained painfully low, with the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil plunging to an unprecedented nadir in negative territory. Demand for tourism – another key driver of economic growth and job creation in many emerging economies, such as Mexico, the Philippines and Thailand – remains severely curtailed. Indeed, international tourist arrivals are projected to plunge by some 60 to 80% in 2020. Remittances – another key source of national income and contribution to household purchasing power for many EMDEs – are down, and this precipitous fall is currently most pronounced in Latin America.
And, while many companies rush to secure funding from governments and capital markets, non-financial corporations in EMs continue to suffer from a debt overhang. Some $31.2 trillion sits on non-bank corporate balance sheets. At the end of 2019, an estimated $3.8 trillion of this debt was denominated in US dollars, which might place undue pressure on borrowers to service their debt in light of local currency depreciation. (If one accounts for offshore borrowing and the use of FX derivatives, the total amount of US dollar denominated debt on EM corporate balance sheets could be much higher). Looking at total debt spread across corporates, banks and sovereigns, some $7 trillion of bonds and loans are due to come to maturity in EMs through the end of 2021.
The upside: amplified macroprudential measures
Despite this conflagration of economic challenges, governments and central banks within some EMDEs continue to exhibit a strong implementation of macroprudential policies – namely, by working to keep a lid on inflation, reducing the fiscal deficit and maintaining floating exchange rates. Core inflation (omitting volatile food and energy prices) remains muted within many EMDEs, underscoring the ability of central banks and economic officials to maintain successful inflation targeting regimes, both prior to and throughout the corona crisis. Notable examples on this front include Brazil, Colombia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Additionally, at the end of 2019, as a result of concerted efforts to reduce their fiscal deficits, Colombia posted the first fiscal primary surplus in almost a decade and Brazil posted its smallest annual fiscal deficit since 2014. As a result of lockdowns and recessions, imports have also been constrained: consequently, several countries boast current account surpluses. Notably, Brazil’s trade gap has narrowed by the greatest amount since 2007. And, although EM currencies were battered throughout the start of COVID-19, depreciation against the US dollar has largely stabilized, with some currencies significantly undervalued at the time of writing.
On the whole, central banks in EMs have been able to step in and help provide liquidity support to households and corporations hard hit by the crisis. In many cases, central banks have used the architecture and tools established during the GFC to be able to help to enable price stability and sufficient liquidity and functioning of financial markets. One EM central bank has even embarked upon the policy experiment of monetary financing; that is, of monetizing state debt by buying bonds directly from the government, rather than from the secondary market.
While foreign investors digest these moves, it is important to point out that at the time of writing, governments and central banks – acting in concert with the financial sector and central banks in advanced economies – have thus far been able to avert a financial crisis, despite the onset of a global health emergency and the worst peacetime economic slowdown since the Great Depression. While many EMDEs take up the fight against COVID-19 and its aftermath – mirroring actions and commitments from officials in advanced economies to “do whatever it takes” – EMDEs do indeed have less fiscal room for manoeuvre than developed markets.
To date, the COVID-19 fiscal response in EMs has amounted to only one-fifth of that of advanced economies. In contrast, countries such as the US can reap more fiscal space by being the world’s reserve currency. Additionally, some eurozone bonds (such as the German 10-year bund) are also considered to be a safe haven for some institutional investors.
Amidst mounting sovereign debt and constrained fiscal space, credit downgrades in EMs have begun to unfurl, posing a challenge to the ways in which investment committees traditionally approach geographical asset allocation. In the wake of a downgrade, it is important for investors to take a step back and ask the following questions:
Which countries demonstrated a robust commitment to implementing macroprudential measures prior to the outbreak of COVID-19?
Which countries have a strong domestic market, rendering them somewhat resilient in the face of an exogenous shock?
Which countries have boasted strong labour force productivity, with a commitment to boost competition in sectors of long-term demand in the post-COVID recovery landscape?
Even if a country receives a downgrade as a result of its enhanced fiscal efforts deployed to help combat COVID-19 and to address the exogenous shock of the pandemic, it is important to recognize that for some countries, these efforts are an expansion of spending during exceptional circumstances, rather than a departure from an overall commitment to macroprudential measures.
Reading the tea leaves: geopolitics and deploying long-term capital to infrastructure
While we might recognize that there are some countries that fit the bill in terms of their economic planning and policy, for investors looking to EMDEs, geopolitics can often cloud the landscape for investing. For the private sector, and specifically investors and executives, geopolitics relates to infrastructure in three key ways:
1) Geopolitical asset allocation, at the portfolio level
On a country-by-country basis, which countries manifest the strongest risk-reward ratios? Here, it is important for investors to distinguish between absolute and perceived risk. For example, an institutional investor with little risk appetite might consider investing in airports in Paris to be a geopolitically low-risk investment, versus deploying capital to airports in Vietnam, which might be perceived as higher risk. However, in light of the rise of populism in advanced economies, and risks of potential nationalization, some countries or regions perceived to be less geopolitically risky might indeed harbour more absolute risk.
2) Managing geopolitical risk, at the asset management level
While operating assets on the ground, infrastructure investors are often confronted with effectively managing geopolitical risk at the asset level. Several questions that may need to be addressed include: how might any (small or large) breach of project safety engender a shift in perception by the host country, potentially rendering the investor a target of local political ire? How might changes in the regulatory environment affect investments, and how might investors anticipate potential changes in the regulatory environment? How might investors best navigate potentially conflicting positions between federal, provincial and municipal authorities? Recognizing that taxes can become a tool amidst a rise in geopolitical tensions, how might investors be able to anticipate potential changes in taxation that might hinder their position, both in terms of profits and also in ease of operation?
3) The intersection between geopolitics and economics
Infrastructure investing has the power to spur a positive feedback loop within an economy. By creating both direct and indirect economic growth and employment, and improving livelihoods and quality of life, greenfield infrastructure investments can provide a foundation for generating economic growth via agriculture, manufacturing and service activity. Brownfield infrastructure investments – including upgrades to existing assets – have the potential to greatly enhance the quality of life in a given area, as well as to boost efficiency (for example, upgrading a toll road can ease traffic and congestion). By acting as a foundation and a multiplier effect of economic growth and quality of life, infrastructure investments can, over time, potentially reduce geopolitical risk by contributing to livelihoods and generating economic opportunities.
In trying to discern which EMDE countries may prove attractive for investment, it is advisable for investors to identify which governments exhibit a strong capacity for follow-through on policy reform. In order to attract voters – or possibly, foreign investors – political leaders might promise many pro-growth or pro-business policies. To promise is, of course, not enough. The question for investors is: which countries have demonstrated the potential to ratify and implement such change?
For example, the Brazilian Congress ratified the country’s historic pension reform in October 2019. Although this had been a policy priority of the current and previous presidential administrations, the country’s legislative body followed through on the reform. In the case of India, while many executives and investors had complained about the opacity of the country’s complex tax system, the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST) greatly simplified taxation. Sometimes, policies such as the GST might induce short-term pain for long-term gain. For investors, It is advisable to identify signs from governments which might harbour this long-term vision – and the capacity to see it through to implementation.
For investors, it is advisable to identify signs from governments which might harbour this long-term vision — and the capacity to see it through to implementation. Partly, this depends upon the strength of existing institutions, as well as the ability to reform institutions as the need arises. Notably, in the case of Brazil, while some investors have been deterred from the ongoing Lava Jato investigations, this demonstrates the strength of the institution of justice.
Crucially, it is not necessarily only democracies which exhibit the capacity for follow-through on pro-business and growth-oriented policy reforms, as well as the ability to constructively reform institutions. Vietnam is a key example here, where foreign and institutional investors continue to respond positively to the government’s ongoing market reforms by deploying billions of dollars to the country. Again, taken together with a consideration of which governments might harbour a commitment to macroprudential measures, a tried-and-tested capability for follow-through on policy reform may also be a signpost for investment committees to identify in light of a potential downgrade.
At the sector level: building back green
In the World Economic Forum’s Great Reset initiative, as many governments chart out policies to constructively rebuild their countries in the aftermath of COVID-19, a clear emphasis is placed on addressing critical gaps in soft infrastructure, which may help enable countries to withstand a health crisis or a sudden stop in economic activity. This includes hospitals and public health institutions, broadband connectivity, educational platforms to continue teaching in a virtual classroom, and supporting sustainable food security, access to clean water and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Of course, these investments are not limited to EMDEs. Advanced economies such as the US and France have worked to address some of these gaps in critical infrastructure in the wake of the pandemic. Accordingly, these types of soft infrastructure categories – rather than the hard infrastructure of ports, roads, airports and bridges – are likely to be immediate policy priorities for some EMDEs in magnetizing foreign investment. Utilities and power are also likely to rank high on the list, insofar as power underpins this softer infrastructure.
In considering economic vitality after COVID-19 – and to do so in a way that shapes a more sustainable and resilient future – governments across the globe have touted green and digital as key policy priorities. However, in order to attract foreign investment, EMDEs will need both strong institutions, as well as the capacity for institutional reform, which would possibly then foster a sense of confidence in fund managers that these might be deployed effectively.
Environmental, social and governance (ESG) indices have outperformed traditional benchmarks during the current pandemic and are likely to attract more funds going forward. Nevertheless, it is crucial for ESG investors to identify jurisdictions with clear green taxonomies and government policies designed to enhance innovation and market creation.
Government action, alone, can’t do the job: the private sector will have to be the locus of climate action. This should require a fresh focus on the ease of doing business, policy certainty and a regulatory landscape, which prioritizes green sectors. Undoubtedly, for many companies facing high fixed costs and negative sales – as well as heightened uncertainty about the future – the coronavirus pandemic has constrained the ability for some corporations to deliver on past commitments to consume green energy.
A critical question to address in the post-pandemic era will be the creation of new growth centres and adaptations of growth models. In EMDEs, cities have been the locus of economic activity and have successfully brought millions out of poverty. However, as the current pandemic – or recent waves of natural disasters – show, one shock can risk undoing the work of years and potentially push millions back into poverty. Highly dense urban centres can also put pressure on both the environment and natural resources. As the risks of climate change mount, growth models in emerging markets should need to prioritize resilience and quality of life, alongside efficiency and profits. This can include the rapid development of smart cities, something Singapore has done remarkably well.
Additionally, while parts of global value chains might be onshored in the wake of COVID-19, a potentially significant opportunity arises for international investors to deploy capital for localizing supply chains. A well-developed domestic supply chain may require improved connectivity, both physical and digital. Digital platforms and knowledge sharing will likely be integrated nodes on the value chain. Smaller self-contained habitats will be required for workers, and sustainable solutions are likely to be needed for housing, mobility and utilities, as well as natural resource management.
Investments in clean power should be requisite to underpin both old and new economic growth: that is, for industrial activity and digital connectivity. Finally, these countries will need to develop the human capital required to carry out jobs that are likely to rely upon increasingly complex technologies. Catalyzing infrastructure investment in the wake of COVID might provide much-needed jobs, and may also sow the seeds for future skills to meet changing patterns of demand in the new economy.
Conclusion: getting it right
In the pre-COVID age, one advanced economy within the Asia-Pacific region has managed to deftly invest in infrastructure in developing countries for the long haul: Japan. Indeed, Japan has had a long history of exchanging overseas development assistance for resources to fuel its manufacturing growth. In later years, it has become an exporter of what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls “quality infrastructure investment”.
Recipient countries such as India have affirmed the high quality of such investments – including bullet trains and subway stations – and the Japanese government has also prioritized the facilitation of knowledge exchanges to help nurture and develop human capital. Critically, Japanese infrastructure investment is not necessarily hinged upon whether a country is classified as a democracy, suggesting that both lucrative profits and economic and financial stability may not just emanate from states which profess to be democratic.
It should be noted that Japan has been criticized for its use of coal at home and for its development of coal plants abroad. Indeed, even in light of commitments made by several Asian governments (most notably, South Korea) to “build back green”, Japan has allocated only a nominal amount of the country’s $2.1 trillion COVID relief package toward the green energy transition. However, as relief segues into stimulus and the global economy inches toward recovery in a post-pandemic world, Japan has the potential to help provide an environmental component with its quality infrastructure investments. Indeed, Environmental Minister Shinjiro Koizumi recently announced increasing regulation for building coal power plants overseas — a move that is in keeping with the Japanese business community’s action to help reduce carbon emissions.
Similarly, Australia has declared its intention to become a “renewable energy export superpower” with a commitment to export solar energy to Singapore via cables and the use of the world’s largest battery. A resource-rich country known for exporting coal and natural gas around the world, Australia has the potential to build upon its past relationships and know-how to help bolster the energy transition within emerging markets and advanced economies alike.
In a world of competing visions within foreign policy, both Japan and Australia demonstrate that it is possible to invest abroad without ideology and preconditions – which is a straightforward approach, and likely necessary to help address infrastructure gaps around the globe.
Finally, while infrastructure investors can look to generate profit in EMDEs over the long term, it is advisable for the governments within these countries to explain to their voting publics the importance of attracting foreign capital. This requires clear data, and also versatility in how this data and story is communicated to different interest groups – be it provincial or municipal governments, citizens or local businesses. The story needs to continue throughout the lifespan of such investments – and indeed, potentially after completion.
Development banks within host countries can help provide such continuity amidst changes in administration at the federal level. It is also worth exploring the ways in which some development banks can become independent entities, rather than organized via political appointments. This might provide a much-needed ballast for the dry powder that waits in the wings – and for institutional capital with nascent exposure to infrastructure in emerging markets.
The US elections are witnessing heated, contested, loud and aggressive debates, with media (new and old) donning visibly partisan robes. One such media report has sought to pull India and Indians into the middle of the Trump Vs Biden campaign battle.
First, there is a simple fact that often eludes social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook as well as the easily outraged proponents of the newly-minted ‘cancel culture’. Social media platforms may have their own terms and rules of engagement and content monitoring; it is their prerogative. But those terms and rules cannot—and, more importantly, must not—be allowed to supersede the law as framed by sovereign states, especially democracies, where these platforms operate.
Social media platforms may have their own terms and rules of engagement and content monitoring; it is their prerogative. But those terms and rules cannot—and, more importantly, must not—be allowed to supersede the law as framed by sovereign states, especially democracies, where these platforms operate
For example, the law as it exists in India, based on its constitutional and penal provisions, overrides terms and rules framed by social media companies based anywhere in the world, operating within its territory. After all, if these companies ensure compliance with Indian law in order to conduct business, equal compliance would be in order for content monitoring and management. There cannot be two separate arrangements.
It is necessary to underscore this point to unclutter the debate triggered by an article in the Wall Street Journal, which imputed that Facebook has shown extraordinary preference for the BJP on account of the political bias of some of its employees. Facts do not bear out the newspaper’s contention, which is of a piece with what is termed as ‘cancel culture’, where only those views that are endorsed by a ‘select few’ may be allowed a public platform. The ensuing shouting match needs to be contested with a tempered view on the more substantial issue of a platform’s self-assumed supreme right and absolute authority to decide what can and cannot be allowed to be said.
It is quite obvious that the upcoming US presidential election and the attempt to coerce platforms into becoming an extension of the campaign for or against the incumbent Administration—which is no secret within and outside social media corporate offices—instigated the outrage against Facebook’s alleged political bias in India. It is a proxy that prepares the ground for what lies ahead.
It is quite obvious that the upcoming US presidential election and the attempt to coerce platforms into becoming an extension of the campaign for or against the incumbent Administration—which is no secret within and outside social media corporate offices
But since it involves India, and Indian users of Facebook and all other platforms, let us locate this debate within the Indian context and focus on three crucial questions surrounding platform accountability and compliance.
First, what is the Indian consensus on what constitutes freedom of expression online? It certainly must not be what Facebook, Twitter, et al deem fit. The Constitution of India guarantees its citizens certain fundamental rights that cannot be encroached upon except under special circumstances and that too only by the state, not an external agency. Article 19 (2) qualifies freedom of speech and expression with “reasonable restrictions … in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.” More often than not, these restrictions are followed in the breach, unless there is a specific complaint.
India’s judiciary has intervened to either uphold or strike down these restrictions depending on their application. In other words, there are no specific, watertight definitions guiding Article 19 (2). By and large, all speech, unless it violates India’s penal code, is held to be free. Perceptions and legal positions have changed over time. For instance, DH Lawrence, once held to be ‘obscene’ by the courts, is now a part of university curricula. Barring the early years of the Republic, the restriction on speech that may harm relations with ‘friendly countries’ has never been imposed. The Supreme Court’s Hindutva judgement has elasticised political speech. ‘Hate speech’ is broadly defined as speech that promotes enmity between communities while ‘violent speech’ is understood to be speech that calls for or poses an imminent threat of violence. There are separate laws to deal with both and judgements to guide their application.
Now, for some recent examples of free speech, social media responses and the consequences. Last week, P Naveen, a relative of Congress MLA Akhanda Srinivasa Murthy in Karnataka, posted content—in response to another post—which was deemed to be “anti-Islam” by a mob that ran riot, burning down the legislator’s house and ransacking two police stations. The police opened fire; four people lost their lives. It could be argued that had Facebook been alert and ‘unbiased’ in its content monitoring, then it would have pulled down the provocative post that prompted the response by Naveen, thus, nipping all mischief in the bud. But since the first post remained untouched, could that be imputed to Facebook’s bias towards a specific community and against another? At which point does accountability come in?
Also last week, Twitter locked the account of JNU professor and well-known public figure Anand Ranganathan for posting a verse from the Quran that called for “punishment” of those who “abuse Allah and his messenger” in the context of the Bengaluru riots. Twitter has said that Anand Ranganathan’s account has been locked because his tweet violated the platform’s rules that explicitly state, “You may not promote violence against, threaten, or harass other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.” How can something that can be freely stated, either in writing or verbally—in Indian media because there is no legal bar on it—be out of bounds on Twitter? Do Twitter rules supersede Indian laws?
Which brings us to the second question: What should be the operating law for social media platforms? Is it the law of India or is it the law of the country where the parent company is based? Or, more ominously, is it the ‘law’ as framed by the company, regardless of the law(s) of either the parent or the host country. With respect to the brouhaha over Facebook and its alleged bias, were company officials pushing back against Indian law or were they pushing back against a presumptive ‘law’ to (selectively) govern speech globally? It is this grey area in which social media platforms operate that creates fertile ground for mischief and indeed for political capture and gaming. It is imperative that there be no ambiguity in this regard, especially because it concerns the rights of citizens.
The third big question that arises is: What recourse do we have when someone – an individual, an institution, or the state – seems to be erring on the side of hate speech? Will the errant entity or individual be held to account by law or by dissent? As of now, it is unclear as to exactly which authority we are appealing. Without a framework to approach and remedy cases like these, Indian social media users will remain subject to the whims and fancies of content platforms, who will arbitrarily decide for themselves what is the ‘common good’, often with scant regard for the law of the land. For instance, if Twitter were to ban the account of an Opposition leader, it would prompt cries of censorship. On the other hand, if a ruling party leader were to be banned, should it be seen as acting under pressure?
It is for the state, a sovereign entity, to respond (in keeping with its extant laws) if there is a speech violation, intentionally or otherwise. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter cannot be allowed to arrogate to themselves this role and render the sovereign power of the state meaningless. As mentioned earlier, the Constitution allows only for the State to restrict citizens’ rights in extraordinary situations, and even that is open to judicial scrutiny. If we were to allow Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to have the executive power to infringe upon our freedoms, it would create space and scope for them to be used as political tools by those in power or out of power. That would be against all canons of national sovereignty and fly in the face of freedom.
Therefore, social media platforms cannot, and must not, interfere in the domestic debates and political processes of a sovereign country. If cause and effect (to a social media post) are limited to a local jurisdiction, content platforms cannot, and must not, get involved, except for providing evidence to aid law enforcement, if called upon by the courts. If the effect of social media content is transnational, then international agreements between the countries concerned may be used for law-enforcement application.
Social media platforms cannot, and must not, interfere in the domestic debates and political processes of a sovereign country
The noise over Facebook’s alleged bias aside, we are talking about the sanctity, integrity and safety of societies, communities and countries. Sovereign states, more so in democracies, are responsible for these areas of public life and are accountable to national institutions as well as citizens. Social media and content platforms, however, are accountable to nobody but their boards. They are far removed from the concerns of the user whose time and patronage they actively solicit.
Corporate governance cannot be restricted to the non-digital world; it must now extend to digital platforms. Platforms should be held both answerable and actionable for their decisions, which cannot be unfettered from the law of the land where they operate. Everything else is superfluous.
Post-Brexit Britain needs to move away from its China-centric policy and step up trade engagements in the region, which offers potential for win-win economic gains. London should also look to join its allies, including the US, India, Australia in the support of regional security to manage the risks posed by Beijing
We are living through the Indo-Pacific Century – a moment of great opportunity in world history when the balance of power and wealth is shifting eastward for the first time in hundreds of years.
But 2020 has offered proof that this century will also be a challenging one.
First, the coronavirus pandemic has been the biggest shock to the global economy for decades. Even countries that have avoided the worst of the public health crisis have seen significant negative economic effects. The disease has served to underline how globalisation has connected all of us, for better and for worse.
Second, the pandemic has been accompanied by a more assertive China. In recent months, Chinese troops have had a bloody face-off with India along the border between the two countries in the Himalayas, while Beijing continues to aggressively press its claims in the South China Sea – all this amid its extension of control over Hong Kong through the controversial national security law.
These factors may have contributed to Britain’s decision to ban Huawei from its 5G network, as Australia did earlier. Telecommunications will play an increasingly central role in developing closer security partnerships, and Britain’s choice is a clear indication of the country’s willingness to continue to work shoulder to shoulder with the United States and its other partners. The UK is not alone in this realisation. India, the US and Japan have also banned, or are considering banning, Chinese apps.
This context prompts a vitally important question. How can Britain better partner and work with countries in a region spanning an area extending from India to Japan and reaching down to Australia and the South Pacific, to partake in the growth-led opportunities and manage the risks posed by a prosperous and expansive China?
A London think-tank, Policy Exchange, has announced an Indo-Pacific Commission that we are part of, to examine these issues. Together with other experienced policymakers from around the world, we will discuss and recommend new approaches Britain and its allies can take to further the rules-based order across this strategically important region. Naturally, for the UK, this interest also reflects a new post-Brexit awareness of the importance and potential of the Indo-Pacific, as London looks beyond the European Union to strengthen alliances and explore new markets.
Our advice to Britain, though it applies to other countries, would start with two basic ideas. First, avoid being too China-centric. As the commission’s chairman, former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, has observed, a focus on China alone – both its positives and negatives – would be to overlook the myriad opportunities for trade and other cooperation on political, defence and diplomatic issues with countries including Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia and Singapore in the Indo-Pacific region. Think, for example, of the opportunities that the City of London could explore in South and Southeast Asia in financial innovation, in which it is a world leader.
Second, Britain should reimagine its place in the world order. It might have retreated from “East of Suez” more than half a century ago but this is the time to step up. As the world’s fifth-largest economy, there are potential win-win economic gains to be made in the Indo-Pacific; for example, in entering existing multilateral trade agreements, as well as bilateral agreements with Australia, India, Japan and other growing Asian economies.
Britain also remains a leader in innovation and technology, as shown by the phenomenal global success of entrepreneurs like James Dyson, whose company is now headquartered in Singapore and whose technology and products are considered a global standard for future-oriented innovation. More recently, the leadership role of the UK can be seen by the strides Oxford and Astra-Zeneca are making on a Covid-19 vaccine. Astra-Zeneca has partnered with the Pune-based Serum Institute of India, which is the largest vaccine maker in the world by volume, to manufacture 1 billion doses of this vaccine.
Britain also remains a leader in innovation and technology, as shown by the phenomenal global success of entrepreneurs like James Dyson, whose company is now headquartered in Singapore and whose technology and products are considered a global standard for future-oriented innovation
This is a precursor to the potential of partnership between Britain and the Indo-Pacific countries. This leadership – bolstered by the fact the UK is home to no fewer than six of the top 50 universities in the world – means that the country has the potential to be the knowledge lab for the Indo-Pacific economies, where many young people still see the UK as their key destination for education and business.
Just as the UK should build on existing multilateral trade agreements in the Indo-Pacific, it should also look to join its allies in the support of regional security and defence. What are the most effective ways for London to join partners and allies – notably India, Australia and Japan – to strengthen regional security through defence engagement and presence? One answer can be found in the recent news that British officials are debating whether to base one of the UK’s new aircraft carriers in the Far East, where it would conduct military activities with allies including the US and Japan.
Just as the UK should build on existing multilateral trade agreements in the Indo-Pacific, it should also look to join its allies in the support of regional security and defence
This, of course, builds on what is already happening, with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force conducting trilateral exercises recently in the Philippine Sea with the Australian Defence Force and the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group. Britain, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council – and a country with existing defence arrangements with Singapore, India, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and Japan – can play a role here, not least in the context of the contested South China Sea. Britain has an opportunity in the Indian Ocean as well. It should seize this new geopolitical moment and participate in the shaping of a new coalition along with India and the US.
As five Dassault Rafale fighter jets – the first of 36 India agreed to purchase from France four years ago – landed at Ambala Air Force base, there was understandable celebration among civilians and those who don the military uniform in India. After all, this is the first high profile defence acquisition, barring the American assault helicopters, in decades.
The celebratory mood, however, must not hide the dark reality of India’s inept defence procurement process. The Indian Air Force, hobbled by fleet depletion and aircraft well past their fly-by-date, first communicated its desire to procure 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) to the Ministry of Defence in 2000. After two decades, three prime ministers, four Governments, and a dizzying number of flip-flops and somersaults, the first five Rafale fighter jets finally landed in India on 29th July.
Opportunistic media hype apart, the arrival of these jets should be a moment of sombre national introspection. A nation that set out to procure 126 aircraft is able to obtain just five after two decades, that too by having to throw away piles of files that prevented any progress. This is a saga of a nation with an incompetent ‘system’.
The arrival of these jets should be a moment of sombre national introspection. A nation that set out to procure 126 aircraft is able to obtain just five after two decades, that too by having to throw away piles of files that prevented any progress
India is unprepared for the ensuing decade that will witness a world in upheaval and where national security will demand a significant share of resources and human capital. The Biblical ‘Four Horsemen’ have long symbolised the end of times. An honest enquiry into India’s national security preparedness will be defined by the four horsemen whose arrival portend the coming of the Apocalypse.
First, as the MMRCA saga shows, is India’s institutional inability to quickly arrive at a decision, which is invariably followed by inadequacy when it comes to swift execution of that decision.
The Rafale story serves as a demonstrator of the Indian state’s woeful (in)capacity – of its severe budgetary constraints; its inept (and self-serving) bureaucracy; its crusty defence establishment riddled with turf wars, ego battles and a vaulting sense of entitlement; and its incompetent political class that has spectacularly failed to rise to the defence of India by putting national security above party politics.
These stakeholders must be reminded of history’s abiding lesson: No nation has achieved its full potential without first establishing a strong national security industrial base. In recent times, India has set itself on the path to realising this goal with an overwhelming dependence on foreign powers. Even then, it has repeatedly stumbled due to procrastination by the ‘babu-neta’ combine.
Second, the inability to be honest with oneself. This is marked by the inability to read history correctly and to recognise India’s real enemy. Despite the obvious lessons New Delhi should have drawn from its defeat in 1962, it has largely privileged placating Beijing only to further fuel China’s untenable ambitions. As part of this perverse posture, India’s custodians of discourse have downplayed the bloody nose India has given China on at least two occasions last century and even the significant battlefield losses inflicted on China this summer.
India’s many dalliances with China, be it at BRICS or over the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), were shaped by the romanticism of co-creating an ‘Asian Century’. That should have ended with Doklam in 2017. It was a promise China never meant to keep or maybe never even made at all.
India’s many dalliances with China, be it at BRICS or over the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), were shaped by the romanticism of co-creating an ‘Asian Century’. That should have ended with Doklam in 2017.
We have hidden facts from 1962 onwards from all, and we continue to hide facts about Chinese behaviour and action even today. Since 2013, Chairman Xi has made abundantly clear his absence of interest in Asian multi-polarity. In Doklam, he shouted it through a megaphone for all the world to hear. China apologists do not hear and do not care.
They fail to assess China as an implacable neighbour and Xi as afflicted with an insatiable lust for power and territory. They ignore the China that views India as a civilisational foe and the Communist Party that seeks to undermine its neighbour’s political, economic and social architecture. Instead, these ‘experts’ crowd out other views from powerful pages, explaining Beijing’s malfeasance as a consequence of India’s sovereign decisions, internal politics and enhanced partnership with America.
What will it take for India to admit, unambiguously, that its neighbour is a long-term geopolitical rival and an existential threat? The tangential elements of this outlook are in place: India’s rejection of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and, more recently, its digital avatar. But the question is: Will such tactical moves serve as the cornerstone of a long-term strategy? Or, since the elephant in the room can no longer be ignored, is the template for Wuhan 2.0 being drafted by the blind men (and women) who have over the decades led India to its China conundrum?
Third, the inability to sense and seize an opportunity. Many countries have realized, or are beginning to, that they hedged their bets in Asia incorrectly. Their misplaced mission to socialise China into a rules-based international order having totally failed, they are now confronted by the reality of an imperial Beijing. Can New Delhi leverage this opportunity?
In 1972, China sensed America’s need to counterbalance the USSR and used that moment to sneak past the Iron Curtain. The Great Thaw was less a Henry Kissinger masterstroke and more a Mao success. The historic photograph in The Washington Post of a grinning President Richard Nixon with an inscrutable Paramount Leader Mao Zedong told the story best.
Beijing thought ahead and seized the moment, letting Washington foolishly believe it had stolen a march over China. Neither Nixon nor Kissinger could look beyond their immediate political imperative; China looked into the future, almost into the next century.
The lesson from that singular act of China was, and remains, that shadows of the past should not be allowed to precede India’s foray into a new world order. In 1971, Nixon ordered the US Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 74 into the Bay of Bengal as a nod to America’s ‘tilt’ towards Pakistan and to signal opposition to the Indo-Soviet Treaty.
But history moves in unpredictable cycles. The contrast between then and now is striking: The US has sent a carrier battle group into the region at a time when India and China are locked in a border confrontation. This time round, the group is exercising with Indian naval forces, bolstering a US-India partnership dedicated to resisting China’s coercive tactics and ensuring that the Indo-Pacific remains free and open. Clearly, 2020 is not 1971.
Asia has come a long way since the 1970s. In the retail market of the region’s geopolitics, India still commands a premium. As prospects of a two-front war become increasingly probable, can India shed its coy reluctance and operationalise arrangements that will welcome American naval presence in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal? A US frigate or two would send the signal to Rawalpindi to behave if India and China do engage militarily in the Himalayas. It would, in the medium term, also allow India and the US to manage the inevitable increase of Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean.
The first step towards this would be operationalising, even if for optical purposes, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement by inviting US ships exercising in the region to use Indian facilities. This should further expand into the Indian Ocean with India facilitating an agreement on the Chagos Islands by leveraging its bilateral relations with Mauritius. A US presence at Diego Garcia is in India’s interest. It always was; now more than ever before.
Simultaneously, and before it’s too late, India must militarise its southern tip, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands: An air base and a naval docking facility are passé; India needs its very own Diego Garcia in its own national waters. If India does not do it now, very soon a rising crimson tide will leave it with no political room to have any choice. Far from matching China on the seas, if the Rafale saga is a pointer, Indian boats may need Chinese permission to leave the lagoons as our hardware would be weak and partnerships non-existent.
Although there is bi-partisan consensus in the US on Washington’s China policy, it is worth recalling that Joe Biden was part of an Administration that once harboured imaginations of a ‘G-2’ world. Drawing the US into the Indian Ocean and India’s seas will stymie such inclinations as well as get rid of the shadows of 1971 that lurk in some minds.
Although there is bi-partisan consensus in the US on Washington’s China policy, it is worth recalling that Joe Biden was part of an Administration that once harboured imaginations of a ‘G-2’ world
From the seas to the mountains, India must use the response to China’s hostility to its advantage – boldly, robustly and openly. For instance, the Quad can be taken beyond maritime security if India were to invite its partners for mountain exercises in the Himalayas next summer. China has militarised the Line of Actual Control (LAC). India militarising its Himalayan zone and creating special multilateral training and collaboration programmes would be an apt sovereign response.
The ongoing confrontation in Ladakh reminds us that claims over territory have to be backed up by connectivity, military presence and control. We may need to prepare for a highly militarised and un-tranquil LAC in the coming years.
As always, our commentariat will be pleading and pushing for ‘inaction’ as a policy option, in the mountains and in the seas. The underlying argument will be consistent with the ones deployed in the past – our actions must not provoke the dragon. The fact remains that China’s belligerence is not predicated on India’s actions, it flows from Beijing’s hostile and expansionist worldview.
Last, though not least, the inability to take its citizens into confidence. India is the only nation with great power ambition that has not adopted a formal and declared national security strategy. What passes for one is the frail doctrine of ‘strategic autonomy’, open to multiple subjective interpretations. Like ‘Panchsheel’, ‘Non-Alignment’ and ‘South-South Cooperation’, it is just another convenient phrase. It serves as a shield for indecisiveness, not as a lighthouse for agile decision-making.
Beyond the shrill prime time media wars that shape the foreign policy outlook of India’s voters, they largely have no metrics through which to judge the actions of their elected Government. India’s 1.3 billion citizens deserve far better. But since that awareness is denied to them, they applaud the landing of five fighter jets while awaiting another 31 on some unknown date, even as the country faces off Xi’s forces in the north and a ‘terror factory’ to its west.
Beyond the shrill prime time media wars that shape the foreign policy outlook of India’s voters, they largely have no metrics through which to judge the actions of their elected Government
The question is, should we ignore the four horsemen and continue marching straight into a geopolitical Apocalypse?
There are five major takeaways from the ongoing crisis in Ladakh that will inevitably shape India’s China policy significantly. The first is that Xi Jinping’s China is at a stage—and in a year—where it has simply ceased to care about global public opinion or parameters of reasonable conduct. It has little interest in healthy relations with India and considers the diminishing of India’s role, growth, weight and presence as a key foreign policy objective.
Xi Jinping’s China is at a stage—and in a year—where it has simply ceased to care about global public opinion or parameters of reasonable conduct. It has little interest in healthy relations with India and considers the diminishing of India’s role, growth, weight and presence as a key foreign policy objective.
From its blatant support of terrorist infrastructure directed against India to its defence of terror states, the Chinese world view sees an India under siege as necessary and useful for its own strategic comfort. By seeking to grab territory by force, it has announced it considers India an adversary and will seek to harm it more directly. Some in India can continue to sink their heads deeper in the sand and avoid reading the letter from Beijing, but the message is clear—the “Hu & Wen” days of “partnership”, of an “Asian Century for all”, of “BRICS for a better world” are passé. This is Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics.
The second takeaway is that China is perfectly at ease with the coexistence of commerce and conflict, trade and war. It has perfected the ability of sleeping with its enemies and selling to them as well. Beijing has successfully done so with the Americans for decades. It has inveigled successive regimes in Washington to underwrite and create the biggest geopolitical risk to a world order crafted by the US and its allies. With this experience, China believes it can attack India, abuse Indians and support violence against Indian interests, all while conducting economic statecraft and everyday business. The Chinese are smug in their belief that actions in Ladakh will not hinder trade with India but may even win it negotiating space vis-à-vis a diminished India. It is for New Delhi to puncture this notion.
Beijing has successfully done so with the Americans for decades. It has inveigled successive regimes in Washington to underwrite and create the biggest geopolitical risk to a world order crafted by the US and its allies
The third takeaway points to the Chinese strategic ability to manipulate and game democratic societies. China creates dissent and discord through misinformation and propaganda. This summer, it has weaponised the openness of the Indian public sphere. And it will continue to do so. Delegitimising the government and political system of the enemy is a central objective of long wars, and there should be no doubt that this is an epic struggle, which may have started in the Himalayas but will travel to maritime Asia and the Pacific. India cannot ignore the propensity of the Chinese to turn Indian democracy against India itself.
China creates dissent and discord through misinformation and propaganda. This summer, it has weaponised the openness of the Indian public sphere. And it will continue to do so
In the recent episode, if the Chinese attempt at information warfare was thwarted, it was only because of the inability of Chinese influence operations to overcome the domestic media/social media bulwark. This provided a teflon coating to the national leadership that the Chinese found hard to breach. But such dynamics cannot be taken for granted forever. They have to be future-proof and individual-agnostic.
The fourth takeaway is simply: “No way, Huawei”. India must attach costs to Chinese ambitions. Even though there is stark asymmetry between the economic and military capabilities of the two countries, the defender has the advantage of being able to deploy specific tools that even unequal realities. Banning Chinese apps and making this tendency viral globally must be an Indian priority.
We must also draw lessons from recent history. India was the lone significant absentee when the nations of the world presented themselves at the court of Emperor Xi in 2017, at the Belt and Road Forum. Today, India is no longer alone and there is a considerable coalition against BRI. Similarly, India’s app ban and digital wall against China must be evangelised and turned into a global endeavour, particularly in the developed world—the key geography that matters to Beijing.
India’s app ban and digital wall against China must be evangelised and turned into a global endeavour, particularly in the developed world—the key geography that matters to Beijing
The final takeway relates to the unpredictability of the actions of the 16 Bihar Regiment, their dogged resistance and their fierce aggression. Besides economic costs, battlefield costs must also be imposed. Towards this, 16 Bihar and its brave soldiers inflicted costs that the Chinese are still assimilating and factoring into their land grab programme. Causalities in the battle theatre were the ‘unknown unknown’ even for the Mandarins in Beijing. As the defender of sovereign territory, India will need to be ready to escalate costs for Chinese adventurism.
Battlefield grit and determination will be of utmost importance in the dark days that may define the Himalayan relationship. Similarly, interdiction and disruption capability in the oceans will be crucial. To count on others to intervene and assist in these objectives may be a bonus but must not be our core strategy. Atmanirbharta to handle China across terrains and domains is what India needs. To this end, it is time to shed inhibitions and build capacities and partnerships—where feasible—that will deny China space, literally and figuratively. Politics of presence is the essence of sovereignty. India must be present through roads, infrastructure and potent force in the mountains and in the seas, which may well be the next theatre of action.
On June 29, the minister for electronics and information technology and law and justice, Ravi Shankar Prasad, tweeted that “For safety, security, defence, sovereignty & integrity of India and to protect data & privacy of people of India the government has banned 59 mobile apps.” After the usual partisan bluster surrounding this move subsides, India must operationalise and strengthen this momentous decision. India, its people, and its territory that are now increasingly digital, must be protected from China’s encroachment and influence.
This long-term response has to be shaped by three ideas. First, India must not contribute to the success, proliferation and performance of digital weapons that will be ranged against it. China’s tech must be recognised as one. Second, it must wean itself away from an iniquitous trade relationship that makes it dependent on a country that seeks to harm it. And, third, India needs to step out of the shadow that stunts its own economic growth, diminishes its political clout and limits its digital ambitions.
The presence of China’s hardware and platforms in India’s digital ecosystem constitutes a long-term security threat. Arriving at this conclusion requires no strenuous leap of logic. A level-headed assessment of China’s stated intentions and observable actions is enough. China has manipulated democratic means to transmit its propaganda and advertised its way to ensure suitable reportage and headlines. It has leveraged WeChat to interfere in Canadian politics, and to intercept content beyond its jurisdiction, and adopted western social media platforms to target dissidents abroad, exacerbate racial tensions in the United States (US), interfere in Taiwan’s political processes and spread disinformation about the coronavirus. China has entrenched the influence of its tech platforms in key global institutions such as the United Nations in an attempt to redraw the rules of information flows and the ethical applications of emerging technologies like facial recognition systems.
China has entrenched the influence of its tech platforms in key global institutions such as the United Nations in an attempt to redraw the rules of information flows and the ethical applications of emerging technologies like facial recognition systems.
These are fundamental to China’s great power ambitions — they assist Beijing to expand its “discourse power”, develop indigenous technologies, create lock-ins through standards and infrastructure, weaponise its economic and technological interdependence, and emerge as a technology superpower. Relations with India are inconsequential to Beijing’s imagination of the world. India has to look out for itself. This new mindset to review engagement with China tech is a vital first step to protect itself.
China will continue to gather information on Indians. More worrisome is the insidious ability of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to interfere in or influence India’s political and social spheres. During the Doklam stand-off, the security establishment discovered that the Chinese-owned UC Browser was filtering certain news on Android handsets in India to shape perceptions and outcomes — classic information warfare in the digital age. Recently, we have seen content critical of China being taken down on one of the banned apps and moderation of other incidents and images as well.
This is not unique to Chinese platforms. But far-reaching national security legislations, and subservience to a one man-led party that is inimical to India, make their continuance untenable. Indian democracy, howsoever flawed, must steer clear of the digital “tea rooms” owned by the CPC.
Will this Indian decision cause economic harm to Chinese platforms? In terms of revenues, clearly it will not. In terms of value, tremendously so. Platforms rely on network effects to scale — every additional user drives up valuations and the aggregate data that they produce feeds into other commercial and research and development activities and product development. Indian eyeballs and data should not fuel Chinese malfeasance directed against them.
Similarly, India must bar China’s telecommunications infrastructure from its 5G networks. It is time to say “No way Huawei”. Countries such as Singapore, the US, Australia and others have already signalled different degrees of intent to manage the Dragon. New Delhi’s decision should strengthen this trend and encourage others. Political trust is increasingly going to shape the direction of technology flows. India must work with its allies and partners through new initiatives such as the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to compete with and contain China.
India must bar China’s telecommunications infrastructure from its 5G networks. It is time to say “No way Huawei”
India’s actions will invite consequences. China will respond using other aspects of the economic relationship. India’s dependence on electronics, pharmaceuticals and other industrial inputs are well-documented and easy pickings. China’s response could manifest itself along the Line of Actual Control or through cyber intrusions. China’s ability to impose costs must serve to motivate India.
Bilateral trade is healthy when there is a balance. With China, it is a doubled-barrelled shotgun trained between India’s eyes. It is important that we fix this now as a three trillion dollar economy. Otherwise, all our future growth will only serve to strengthen the entity which seeks to weaken us.
India’s decision has come at a time when economic activity is already under siege from the Wuhan virus and when major economies are also questioning their dependence on China. A reconfiguration of value chains is inevitable. Public opinion favours this and the short-term pain will be acceptable to many. As India restarts its pandemic-stalled economy, let us create value chains that are not of dubious origin.
The current violent confrontation between India and China in east Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control should come as a surprise to none. This was inevitable. An inexorable chain of events was set in motion in 2017 when New Delhi rejected Beijing’s imperial invitation to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) event presided over by President Xi Jinping. A second rude rebuff followed later in the summer of that year when India stood up to China’s efforts to reorganise Himalayan political geography on the Doklam plateau. India must be prepared to strongly repel the backlash from Beijing on our mountains, in our waters and through our digital platforms.
The Indian commentariat is needlessly agonising over the drivers of the latest Chinese actions. Let us stop theorising and be bold enough to accept that China is just being itself. India has made decisions like independent nations do as an exercise of their sovereignty. To argue otherwise would be tantamount to ignoring the sum total of Beijing’s behaviour during the ‘Made in China’ pandemic: The acceleration of territorial revisionism in the South China Sea; the subjugation of Hong Kong through the stoutly contested national security law; repeated violations of Taiwanese airspace; heightened naval aggression around Japan’s Senkaku Islands; and its most recent encroachment in Nepal.
There is a pattern to this madness; a reason for this seemingly inexplicable restlessness.
In Jiang Zemin’s 2002 report to the 16th Party Congress, the Communist Party of China (CPC) presciently foresaw a 20-year “period of strategic opportunity” for China – linked to its entry into the WTO and America’s misguided interventions in the Middle East that enabled Beijing to play a deft game of Chinese Checkers — and build national power. Emperor Xi, anointed to office for life with a heavenly mandate, is now exercising that power as a counterpoise to the diminishing clout of American influence, and the weakening resolve of a wavering EU and unsure Europe. This is the moment for the Xi Dynasty (like the Mao Gang in another era) to take charge of the wheel and steer China to its centennial objective of world domination by 2049.
The new version of Chinese exceptionalism shaped and directed under Xi’s tutelage is linked to China’s past identity, largely a product of myth-making. It has willed itself into believing that it does not need to work within the matrix of international laws, rules and norms. It has decided that the time when China would “hide and bide” its motivations and capabilities is past.
The new version of Chinese exceptionalism shaped and directed under Xi’s tutelage is linked to China’s past identity, largely a product of myth-making. It has willed itself into believing that it does not need to work within the matrix of international laws, rules and norms
The CPC is now externalising the authoritarian idiosyncrasies it wields at home. Medievalism is the hallmark of Chinese external assessments. This is evident from its insatiable urge to redraw boundaries as an adventure sport and from its estimation of its population (as well as others) as mere fodder. This behaviour is exemplified in China’s ‘hostage diplomacy’ with Canada. Chen Weihua, the European Union bureau chief of the China Daily,offered an unsympathetic glimpse into how China views the issue: “People often fail to note that Meng is worth 10 Kovrig and Spavor, if not more.”
Supplementing this behaviour are two critical tools: an expansionist military and modern methods of engagement. Xi has overseen what is arguably the most wide-ranging modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army: purging it of corrupt or disloyal officials, ensuring its transition to a capable and expeditionary naval force; undertaking crucial administrative and organisational reforms; and reaffirming its absolute loyalty to the CPC and its ideology. In parallel, Xi has presided over China’s long-term efforts to securitise and weaponise global supply chains, flows of technology, finance and data, and institutions of global governance. The all-pervasive Chinese state is but an instrument for the benefit of the CPC.
Time and again India has confronted these realities at 14,000 feet above sea level and soon it may have to defend its blue waters against the rising crimson tides. At one level, Beijing is merely attempting to ‘remind’ India of Asia’s geopolitical hierarchy—that failure to kow-tow to the Middle Kingdom carries consequences. More worryingly, Beijing may have concluded from India’s history that heightened aggression along the LAC will invariably bring India to the negotiating table—that India will grant China greater political concessions, market access or economic bargains as the price for “peace and tranquillity”. The Indian state will have to dispel and disprove this Chinese assumption.
China is also using this moment to send a message to its other neighbours in the East and South China Sea. While a similar escalation in those waters by China carries the risk of drawing in American military response, the attempt to reorganise boundaries on the Himalayas conveys the same intent. China is demonstrating to the world the limitations of decaying American power without having to actually confront it. In its neo-Confucian assessment an Indian capitulation may signal the final rites of Pax Americana. Beijing may be in for a surprise on both counts, provided countries are able to correctly assess the deeper import of recent Chinese actions.
China is also using this moment to send a message to its other neighbours in the East and South China Sea. While a similar escalation in those waters by China carries the risk of drawing in American military response, the attempt to reorganise boundaries on the Himalayas conveys the same intent
India must begin with the daunting acknowledgement that the world’s second largest economy is its primary long-term geopolitical and geoeconomic rival. It must also internalise that it will not be able to negotiate its way into any favourable outcomes with China. While nations must talk and unofficial summits like Wuhan and Mamallapuram are important, India must have the singular purpose of investing in and developing robust political, economic, digital and military tools that should, for the short to medium-term, be able to protect territory and rebuff the northern marauders.
For too long, Delhi has been hesitant to impose costs for China’s military adventurism, preferring instead to settle matters diplomatically. In doing so, India has failed to realise that while Xi’s China is irrational, it is not an entirely unpredictable actor. It sees capitulation and a preference for negotiation as a sign of weakness. Delhi must be creative about how it imposes costs for this behaviour—creating unconventional and asymmetric options that help in ‘area denial’ operations in the Himalayas. Accelerating roads and infrastructure is one part, building emplacements is the second. The politics of ‘sharp’ presence (physical) is the only vocabulary understood in those terrains.
For too long, Delhi has been hesitant to impose costs for China’s military adventurism, preferring instead to settle matters diplomatically. In doing so, India has failed to realise that while Xi’s China is irrational, it is not an entirely unpredictable actor
The adage ‘it is the economy stupid’ has never been more relevant. Obsession with building India’s economic heft must override all other considerations. China’s rise was underwritten by its strategic co-option of globalisation. In an era where global flows of data are outstripping trade in goods, and where technology supply chains are being jealously guarded, India’s goal should be to emerge as one of the centres of the topography of digital globalisation. India did well to reject the BRI; it must now ensure that it rejects BRI’s digital avatar as well.`
The banning of Chinese goods may be important signalling but will have little impact on the northern neighbour due to the asymmetry in trade. Zealous protection of India’s digital backbone and networks (5G) and billion people plus digital platforms from Chinese encroachment and intrusion, either openly or by stealth, must be the clear-eyed strategic objective. But India cannot do this alone. And here is where its own period of strategic opportunity begins. In a powerful dissent against the Xi regime, Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun laments the consequences of Beijing’s global assertiveness: “Instead of embracing a [global] community,” he writes, “China is increasingly isolating itself from it.” The challenge for India is to capture this moment – to shed (self) righteous theories of foreign policy in favour of pragmatic, even cynical, partnerships that bolster its economy, provide it with technology, arm its military and support its global ambitions.
That India is still debating Non-Alignment as a choice is a sad reflection of its inability to grasp the reality that stares it in the face, its failure to read the writing on the wall, its myopic disregard for what the future holds. When Non-Alignment was conceived it was an attempt by the leadership of the day to carve out a space for India in a world dominated by two superpowers. Does its propagation allow similar space to India now? Or does a string of strategic partnerships (not of the variety that exists in the dozens) serve India’s interests better?
That India is still debating Non-Alignment as a choice is a sad reflection of its inability to grasp the reality that stares it in the face, its failure to read the writing on the wall, its myopic disregard for what the future holds
Indeed, the time for hiding behind ‘strategic ambiguity’ is over. This stands true for New Delhi’s involvement with international institutions as well. How will India take advantage of its seat in the UN Security Council, its upcoming presidency of the G-20, its chairmanship of the WHO, its position in the Global AI Alliance, or its leadership of the International Solar Alliance? India now increasingly finds a place on the high table of global governance. Question is, can it make the most of these arenas? Can Delhi marshal its diplomatic resources to convince the international community that events in the Himalayas carry global consequences, and that silence now, only emboldens China’s perverse great power ambitions in other geographies and domains? Will New Delhi develop the appetite to call out China on Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong in international forums? And can it incubate a discursive space that will challenge ‘wolf warrior’ propaganda?