Indian Hour

Chinese checkers: App ban a legitimate security concern or politically motivated?

The latest ban on 54 Chinese apps by the Indian Government has raised eyebrows in many circles. The Ministry of Electronic and Information Technology (MeitY) has come up with a new list including apps like Garena Free Fire – a popular game with Indian users after the ban on PUBG.

Government officials cited security concerns as the reason behind the ban. A similar line was taken up after the ban that followed the Galwan incident between Indian and Chinese troops. Section 69A of the Information Technology Act permits the government to intercede in the interest of national security.

It states that the administration has the “Power to issue directions for interception or monitoring or decryption of any information through any computer resource,” if it feels that India’s sovereignty or integrity is under threat.

That being said, the move seems a little too convenient given the time frame and the unfolding geo-political scenario. Whatever the case maybe, it would be erroneous not to explore all existing possibilities behind this move.

Peeling the layers

In just a few months’ time, the Ladakh stand-off between India and China will have completed two years. It was on the back of this that the initial ban of 59 Chinese apps was announced by India. As the two countries continue to face-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the recent ban might be India’s subtle way of flexing its muscle without disturbing the status quo.

The ongoing Ukraine crisis could be another factor in this development. China has openly backed Russia’s actions in Europe while India chose to keep mum, setting off concerns about the chummy Sino-Russian relations. Beijing makes no effort to conceal its designs on Southeast Asia and the Pacific and a US tied-up in European affairs presents it with a rare opportunity to establish its superiority in the region.

While it may seem insignificant in the larger scheme of things, India’s ban on Chinese apps will surely strike a nerve in Beijing. The Indian internet market is largely untapped and its potential endless. According to the IAMAI-Kantar ICUBE 2020 report, the number of active internet users in India is expected to reach some 900 million by 2025. At present, the figure hovers around the 700 million mark. China will be loath to lose out on such a market.

The importance of the Indian market to Chinese app manufacturers is evident from the fact that a number of apps included in the most-recent list are either renamed or rebranded versions of previously banned apps.

An investigation conducted by the Times of India in August, 2021, found that at least 8 of the top 60 apps in India are Chinese operated. Most of these apps were registered under new names, with little to no information about ownership to mask the Chinese connection.

The move to ban Chinese apps can also be interpreted as an effort by New Delhi to wean off the overdependence on Chinese apps and products. It is no secret that soft power is an effective tool in today’s geo-political climate. Hard power can only do so much. The gains to be made through soft-power are long-term and often permanent.

The permeation of the US culture and ideals throughout the globe is the perfect example. No matter where one is in the world, he or she can always find traces of US influence. Contrast this with the US military operations in Vietnam and Afghanistan where hard power took precedence. Both resulted in humiliating withdrawals without any significant gains.

India understands the dangers of an unchecked Chinese influence. Remember the mini-riots at Indian homes and the uproar on the streets when the government announced the ban on PUBG? If a ban on a simple mobile game could evoke such sentiments, imagine the havoc China can effect if it truly wishes so.

The New Delhi-Beijing Fallacy

Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the economic costs of such moves. China is still years ahead of India when it comes to manufacturing technology. Chinese goods take up a significant portion of India’s total imports. This is clearly demonstrated by India’s rising trade deficit with its neighbor – $69.4 billion in 2021, up from $45.9 billion in 2020 and $56.8 billion in 2019. Bilateral trade between the two increased by 44 per cent YoY as import figures shot up by 46 per cent.

These numbers clearly underscore the importance of trade for both countries, especially India. Although, New Delhi and Beijing have been able to isolate their border issues from their trade relations, that may not always be the case. Economic decoupling is out of the question for both countries. They both have much to lose and little to gain from it.

In a perfect world, New Delhi and Beijing would come around and see eye to eye. Active co-operation and partnership would take precedence over disagreement and hostilities. However, we cannot always get what we want. One has to make do with what one has.

The stark reality is that despite the diplomatic maneuvering of both countries, distrust and suspicion fouls the air between the two. The realm of sunk-cost fallacy that New Delhi and Beijing have fallen in makes it nigh impossible to reverse the changes that have been put in motion.

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