Digitizing the India-China Geopolitical Conflict: A Means to What End?
India-China relations have been characterized by conflicts for quite some time now. The lack of agreement on the border issue and the subtle disregard of various resolutions signed between the two countries have paved the way for several face-offs. The latest in a string of related developments is the combat that took place among soldiers on both sides of the Line of Actual Control, in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley Region. In response, the Indian government banned 59 Chinese apps including Tiktok, Shein, and CamScanner, two of which had over 100 million users in India. While the combat itself did not involve any firearms, it claimed the lives of over 20 Indian soldiers, while the number of casualties on the Chinese side remains unclear.
Tensions have constantly brewed over where to mark the LAC, and China has persistently refused to abide by the McMahon Line. Historically, as the atmosphere of conflict around the border areas developed, the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along LAC in the India-China Border Areas, 1993 and Agreement on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC in the India-China Border Areas, 1996, were signed. The latter was aimed at banning the use of firearms and hazardous chemicals within 2 kilometers of the LAC. While the terms of the agreement were adhered to, the essence of the understanding has been violated on multiple occasions. The two most populous countries of the world have both made claims, subtle and otherwise, to areas that are constitutionally ruled by the other. This stands true of Aksai Chin (the eastern portion of the larger Kashmir region, now lying in the Tibetan autonomous zone) and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Moreover, China has also overstepped its bounds by blatantly brushing aside the global backlash that it received for its violation of international obligations.
The incident in Galwan Valley and the subsequent banning of apps, however, cannot be analyzed in isolation with political and economic repercussions they carry, especially in the backdrop of the COVID-19 Pandemic. China has threatened to call-off all investments in India as a response and has also called out the app-ban as being “selective and discriminatory” towards the Chinese. The move is also likely to conflict with the interests of the Indian users of these apps and would hamper the employability potential that these apps boast of. The Indian government listed threats to data security and national integration as reasons for the sudden move, but not much effort was made to veil what we know is a response to the geopolitical conflict. The move is being popularly claimed as a “digital strike”; the voices of Union Ministers chiming in with a similar tone. While the privacy concerns for some of these apps have been legitimate and are being registered for quite some time now, there are other non-Chinese apps (Facebook is one that comes to mind) that have also been known to carry out privacy violations. This move proves that the government's laxity on the internet regulatory front is indeed selective, and based on choice. The fact that India hosts 687 million active internet users1 and a 50 percent internet penetration rate should have prompted the government to be cognisant of the intricacies of data sharing. Regulatory frameworks that are now being said to be imposed on all Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) coming in via the internet, should have been imposed much earlier. In fact, China itself has banned the use of a number of apps in its mainland, including the big 4 - YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter. Beyond the digital characterization of the conflict, the sufficiency of this move must not be overplayed. As surprising or strong a response as this might have been, a display of diplomatic magnanimity is the only way a solution to the persistent problems could be worked out. The ruling party has again, even before reaching an appropriate solution, begun to turn this into a political rebuttal - by questioning opposition parties regarding their stance on the Sino-Indian conflict2. India cannot afford to saturate this issue at the moment. War and combat come with a price, the economics of which can be overlooked but the human cost, both in terms of the lives lost and the impact it will have on the victims (including families of those who lose their lives), will be unprecedented.
The ban will definitely be a cost to bear for the Chinese businesses as well, especially given that India was one of the largest foreign markets for most of their commercial activities. However, if there is one thing that India should always remain cognizant of, it is that Chinese politics is a game, and the Chinese state has infinite stamina for continuation. Our experiences from the Sino-Indian war of 1962 tell us that elaborate displays of friendship with China almost never lead to any political good3. The only way to carry out affairs with China is through shrewd and strong diplomacy - anything less is an invitation to China for it to act more.