India must not contribute to the digital and economic rise of the same power that harms it
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.
This commentary originally appeared in Hindustan Times.