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Monday, October 19, 2020

Ladakh face-off may be linked to India aligning with US against Chinese tech players

The Chinese will try to open up another front to hurt India, and the board may include the technology front. Indian policymakers need to be ready.

Written by Anirudh Suri | Updated: September 25, 2020 8:42:19 am
It must also be noted that while the military conflict and tensions on the Ladakh border are dominating headlines in India, that is not the case in China.

It is a strange phenomenon when two of Asia’s largest economies decide that in the midst of one of the worst pandemics the world has ever seen, they want to raise the stakes in a decades-long border dispute. What is really going on, one might ask. Is there a war brewing between India and China?

The skirmishes on the Ladakh border might suggest that long-standing territorial issues are at the core of the conflict. But there is another possible explanation. A larger conflict is brewing, almost eerily along the lines of the conflict between China and the US. And the dominance of global technology platforms and networks is likely at the centre of it.

Various policy measures announced by the government in recent months — all coinciding exactly with skirmishes on the Ladakh front — have specifically targeted Chinese-origin technology players. Suddenly, China seems to have lost its mantle as the master of the Indian technology sector’s destiny — as Chinese VC firms/strategic investors have lost favour. India seems to be pushing back hard against China. Why?

One narrative that we’re hearing frequently is that India, under a stronger political leadership, has decided to take a tougher stance against China’s incursions, both at the border and on the economic front. But the question — why this tougher stance — remains unanswered.

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One hypothesis, and this incidentally partly also explains the narrative above, is that India is demonstrating its commitment to and alignment with a broader US strategy against Chinese technology players. Earlier this year, the Donald Trump administration rolled out the Clean Network programme, “a comprehensive approach to guarding its citizens’ privacy and its companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party”.

This programme is more significant than it seems. It is laying the seeds for a new kind of global alliance led by the US. This new alliance is centred not around military bases or economic ideology but on ensuring that the emerging global infrastructure of 5G technology — networks, carriers, storage, apps and cables — is built “cleanly”, that is, without Chinese companies.

Over 30 countries and many global telcos have signed up for this alliance already. From India, Reliance Jio has been named by the US as the trusted partner for 5G networks, ensconcing India and Jio firmly in the US camp. Not surprisingly, many of the recent global investors in Reliance Jio are prominent private and public players from the US and its allies.

Why is the 5G technology infrastructure so important? In the words of senior officials of the US State Department, “whoever builds a nation’s 5G networks gains the key to that country’s most sensitive personal, commercial, and governmental data”. 5G networks will form the underlying infrastructure for everything from financial networks, telecommunications, transportation and energy networks, to key government services such as defence and intelligence. So, if a 5G network fails or its security is compromised or its primary ownership or control lies with a foreign entity, there would be significant ramifications for all parts of society. The loss of economic prowess that will come by ceding ownership of the new “roads and seaways that connect the world” will be significant in itself.

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Now, note this: In response to India’s move to ban 118 Chinese apps in the interest of national security, privacy and data security, the Chinese spokesperson did not criticise India’s move as much as she hit back at the US by citing US programmes such as Dirtbox, PRISM, and Irritant Horn, all of which according to the Chinese were aimed at similar objectives as the ones the Chinese companies are accused of.

In doing so, the Chinese have wittingly or unwittingly admitted to two things: One, that some of their technology players might be engaged in trying to do what the Chinese are claiming the US has allegedly long done, and two, that China and the US are engaged in this land-grab on the technology and 5G front, and India is placing itself within the US camp.

In a way, it does not matter whether the Ladakh skirmishes are being caused by India firmly placing itself within the US camp, or vice versa. What is important is that both are intricately linked. The Chinese spokesperson’s statement suggests that China also views tensions on the Ladakh border as a manifestation of a broader strategy to encircle and exclude China from this Global Technology Alliance.

But the Chinese probably see the bigger picture. They definitely do not want to escalate the tensions to anything resembling a war right now with India or any other country that it has disputes with. China knows that its political capital with the rest of the world is at very low levels. That would explain why they have not hit back that hard.

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It must also be noted that while the military conflict and tensions on the Ladakh border are dominating headlines in India, that is not the case in China. At the same time, while the aggressive Indian stance might, secretly at least, generate respect for India amongst Chinese policymakers, it would not be surprising if the Chinese also think creatively about how to show India down sooner than later.

China will most likely not let Ladakh escalate that much more now, and we’ll probably see a rapprochement in the coming days and weeks. But rest assured, the Chinese will try to open up another front to hurt India, and the board may include the technology front. Indian policymakers need to be ready.

This article first appeared in the print edition on September 25, 2020 under the title ‘The technology front’. The writer is managing director, India Internet Fund

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