A larger conflict is brewing between India and China, almost eerily along the lines of the brewing conflict between China and the U.S. And dominance of global technology platforms and networks – not the Ladakh peaks – is likely at the center of it.
Various policy measures announced by the Government of India in recent months – all coinciding exactly with the skirmishes on the Ladakh front – have specifically targeted Chinese-origin technology players. Suddenly, China seems to have lost its mantle of the master of Indian technology sector’s destiny, as Chinese VC firms /strategic investors have all lost favor. India seems to be pushing back against China, quite hard.
- Various policy measures announced by the Government of India in recent months – all coinciding exactly with the skirmishes on the Ladakh front – have specifically targeted Chinese-origin technology players.
- One hypothesis could be that India is demonstrating its commitment to and alignment with a broader US strategy against Chinese technology players.
- Clean Network Program, announced in April 2020, is a US led coalition to ensure “clean” digital infrastructure.
- Over 30 countries and many global telcos based in those countries have signed up for this alliance already in the last few months.
- China views Ladakh tensions as an element of a broader strategy to exclude China from Global Technology Alliance.
One narrative that we’re hearing frequently is that India, under stronger political leadership, has decided to take a tougher, more aggressive stance against China’s incursions, and that this more pro-active stance is manifesting itself in the more aggressive moves on the border by India, as well as the tougher economic stance being taken by India against Chinese companies. But the question – why this tougher stance – still remains unanswered.
One hypothesis—and this incidentally partly also explains the narrative above—could be that India is demonstrating its commitment to and alignment with a broader US strategy against Chinese technology players.
Clean Network: A Global Alliance to Keep China at Bay
Earlier this year, Trump administration rolled out the Clean Network program, “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 (CCP)”.
This Clean Network Program, announced in April 2020, is actually more significant than it seems. It is laying the seeds for a new kind of global alliance led by the US.
This new global alliance is centered not around military bases or economic ideology but rather on ensuring that the emerging global infrastructure of 5G technology – networks, carriers, storage, apps and cables – is built “cleanly.”
In simpler language, without the presence of any Chinese companies.
Over 30 countries and many global telcos based in those countries have signed up for this alliance already in the last few months. These include Telefonica in Spain, Orange in France, Telco Italia, SK and KT in Korea, and all telecommunication companies in Japan, Singapore, Australia, and the United States.
From India, Reliance Jio has been named by the U.S. as the Trusted Partner for 5G networks, ensconcing India and Jio firmly in the U.S. camp. Not surprisingly, many of the recent global investors in Reliance Jio are prominent private and public players from the US and US allies.
What 5G Technology Means For National Security
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, which will be upto 100x faster than 4G networks, will form the underlying infrastructure for everything from financial networks, telecommunications, transportation and energy networks, and key government services such as defense 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. Not to mention, the loss of economic prowess that will come by ceding ownership of the new “roads and seaways that connect the world” to someone else will be significant in and of itself.
What Chinese Response to India’s ‘App Bans’ Signifies
Now, note this. In response to India’s move to ban 118 Chinese apps in the interest of national security, privacy and data security, interestingly, the Chinese spokesperson did not criticize India’s move as much as she hit back at the US by citing US programs 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 yes, indeed, 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 the Chinese and the US are engaged in this land-grab on the technology and 5G front, and that India is firmly placing itself within the US camp.
Is China’s Ladakh Stance a Response to Broader Digital Alienation?
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 more important to understand is that both are intricately linked.
The Chinese spokesperson’s statement suggests that the Chinese also view these 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, as they are wont to do, probably see the bigger picture here. They definitely do not want to escalate the tensions to anything resembling war right now with India or any other countries that it has disputes with. China knows that its own political capital with the rest of the world is at very low levels. That would explain why the Chinese have not hit that back hard either.
It must also be noted that while the military conflict and tensions on the Ladakh border is 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 policy makers, it would not be surprising if the Chinese also do 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 likely see a rapprochement in the coming days and weeks. But rest assured, the Chinese will try to open up another front to hurt India in the coming weeks or months. Sikkim and Ladakh done, Chinese policymakers and strategists might look elsewhere on the board to strike, and the board now may obviously include the technology front. Indian policymakers need to be ready.
(Anirudh Suri is Managing Director of India Internet Fund, a technology focused venture capital fund, and former Fellow with the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a prominent foreign policy think-tank based in Washington D.C.)