Sino-Indian relations have taken another hit following New Delhi’s decision to ban 59 Chinese apps that it claims pose a “threat to sovereignty and integrity.” The move marks the latest salvo between the nuclear-armed neighbors after a Himalayan border skirmish on June 15 that saw at least 20 killed when troops from both sides clashed with clubs and rocks.
On Monday, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology released a statement claiming that popular Chinese apps—including ByteDance’s TikTok, Tencent’s WeChat, Alibaba’s UC Web and Baidu’s map and translation services—were harvesting data and sending it to foreign servers.
“The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defense of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures,” the ministry said.
Kiranjeet Kaur, a senior manager at market intelligence company International Data Corporation, said that the app ban was clearly spurred by the border clash, which took place in the remote Galwan Valley. “There had to be some ramifications or repercussions after what went on at the border so it’s not that surprising,” she said.
With 120 million local users, TikTok has its largest foreign market in India. The app was briefly blocked last year after a court ruled that some content exposed children to pornography, cyber-bullying and sexualization, but that ban was rescinded following a legal appeal. Many users have now taken to other forms of social media to lament the latest prohibition.
It’s unclear whether the ban augurs a broader Indian decoupling from Chinese tech like that being pursued by the Trump administration, which has sanctioned telecoms giant Huawei and is urging New Delhi to play a bigger strategic role in the Indo-Pacific region. But it is certainly a challenge for China’s faltering “wolf warrior” diplomacy—a bellicose form of statecraft named after a pair of Chinese military blockbusters. Beijing’s hawkish new postures, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, have contributed to global anti-China sentiment reaching its highest point since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, according to China’s Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
“I’m a little bit worried whether top leaders are getting real advice from professionals in the know,” says Prof. Yuan Jingdong, an Asian security expert at the University of Sydney. “Very honest, blunt advice is getting moderated, diluted or distorted so leaders only hear what they prefer to hear.”
Chilling of ties
Quelling this latest spat will take tact. Both neighbors are led by nationalists who have to satisfy the increasingly strident demands of the publics they have stoked. In India, following the Galwan Valley clashes, Chinese flags and pictures of President Xi Jinping were burned in the streets amid calls to boycott Chinese goods and businesses. (Some Chinese retailers in India—such as smartphone market leader Xiaomi—have been protectively pasting “Made in India” signs on their premises.) In turn, many Chinese have taken to social media to mock India for having “no exports to boycott.”
Tarun Pathak, of industry analysts Counterpoint Research, tells TIME that India may be willing to negotiate a truce if Chinese tech firms prove that all the data is locally stored and there are no privacy or security issue with their apps. “It remains to be seen whether this ban is permanent,” he says. “But if the government [withdraws the ban] in 10 or 20 days, the backlash will be fierce.”
In truth, both nations will suffer from a chilling of ties. Bilateral trade stands at $90 billion (though India has a $60 billion deficit.) India’s huge internet market is world’s second biggest and dominated by Chinese firms. Four of India’s top five smartphone makers are Chinese owned, comprising a whopping 81% of total market share. (Due to high import duties, 95% of smartphones sold in the Indian market are manufactured or assembled locally.)
While banning apps is easier that targeting hardware, Indian customs have already begun scrutinizing tech imports from China “more stringently, slowing components entering the country, which ultimately slows down the manufacturing process,” says Kaur.
A tech war between the world’s two most populous nations stands to hamper Chinese growth and threaten tens of thousands of Indian jobs against the backdrop of a coronavirus-related slowdown. India’s 490 million smartphone users constitute an enormous and still under-penetrated market, offering Chinese firms an invaluable opportunity for growth.
The question is whether China can temper its nationalist posture to negotiate a compromise. Recent signs are not good. On top of perennially frosty relations with Japan, South Korea, and rivals in the South China Sea, Beijing is also bickering with Australia over claims of espionage and political interference, Canada over the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wenzhou, and the U.K. over political freedoms in the former British colony of Hong Kong. All of this comes as relations with Washington reach a nadir.
“It’s clearly not good management of diplomacy,” says Prof. Yuan. “When everybody around the world is complaining about Donald Trump, China’s [status] should be on the rise.”