The Sino-Indian sabre-rattling at the border has started to take its toll on a topography that is far removed from the world of diplomatic brinkmanship and defence dynamics in its strict military sense.
India’s decision to ban 59 Chinese apps, citing a threat to national security and breach of privacy, is being seen as New Delhi’s most potent response to ramping up of Chinese military hardware and personnel along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and its reported incursions into Indian territory.
Modi’s hyperlocal pitch in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic could not perhaps have found a better strike partner than this ‘app-attack’ on Chinese interests — without needing to fire a single bullet at the border!
A bloody skirmish between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China over a disputed patrolling point (PP14) at Galwan Valley in Ladakh on the night of June 15 had resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers. There were unconfirmed reports of an even higher number of casualties on the Chinese side.
This flare-up over claims and counter-claims of territorial sovereignty on either side of the 3,448km-long LAC was the most serious escalation of bilateral tension between the two nuclear-armed Asian neighbours in four-and-a-half decades.
Even as corps commander-level talks are still under way between the two sides to ensure a sustainable de-escalation and disengagement, New Delhi has pushed through with its decision to ban 59 Chinese apps, primarily used on smart phones, in India.
The most popular among these apps is TikTok, a video-sharing social networking service owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based internet company. One look at TikTok’s India numbers, compared to its global reach, makes it quite clear why a ban on this app is significant.
In a country with 450 million users of smart phones, there are about 300 million users who have one Chinese app or the other on their phones.
And TikTok has been downloaded 467 million times in India, which is one-third of its total global downloads, providing parent company ByteDance with a revenue of $479,000 (Dh1.76 million) in its first full year of operation in India in 2019.
By imposing a ban on these apps, particularly TikTok, the Indian government has tried to send out three crucial messages at one go.
First of all, it wants to let Beijing know that New Delhi is now in a position to retaliate not just with its military hardware at the border, but is also ready to play hardball in economic and technological terms by targeting something that has always been seen as a soft under-belly so far as China is concerned and that is: The realm of the internet.
Given that China’s legendary obsession with control over information-sharing among its own domestic audience had seen it impose curbs on the use of Google and Facebook, by tightening the noose around Chinese apps, New Delhi sought to pay Beijing back with the same coin.
This — apart from its obvious economic impact — in an age of proliferation of information-sharing and opinion-sharing platforms on digital devices, can actually constitute a potent sociological weapon to complement conventional artillery or air defence-based response to counter cross-border threats.
From that perspective, it is only natural that India ought not to be tied to any moral or ethical obligation really. And that constitutes the second important message that New Delhi has sought to convey to the wider world.
It is common knowledge how China suspended telecast of America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) games after an NBA official had made a Twitter post supporting the demonstrators in Hong Kong last year.
Earlier, Beijing had restricted import of Norwegian salmons after the Nobel Committee had awarded the Peace Prize to dissident Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010.
By banning popular Chinese apps, India has made the rest of the world realise that if China has a right to clamp down with retaliatory economic steps against any country or statute that it perceives as detrimental to its interests, then the world too reserves the right to effective counter-measures to shore up its interests against China.
Now for the third point. With this move, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led dispensation in New Delhi has also sought to bolster its image as a proponent and pursuer of its own brand of muscular nationalism.
Modi’s pitch for ‘Make in India’ and 'vocal for local', seen in tandem with this decision to scrap Chinese apps, is being termed in a section of the Indian media as ‘techno-nationalism’.
Modi’s hyperlocal pitch could not perhaps have found a better strike partner than this ‘app-attack’ on Chinese interests — without needing to fire a single bullet at the border!
Mixing statecraft cleverly with stagecraft has been Modi’s forte and he knows it only too well how to address a domestic audience that has been seething with anger over the loss of 20 precious lives in the line of duty.
And herein lies a challenge for Modi. It’s a double-edged sword that he has opted to pick up.
Dictating terms of engagement
As social media and digital communication devices have allowed an absolute commoner to air his or her views to a much wider audience, without any intervention from the establishment or any help from conventional mass media outlets, attempts have also been made by governments the world over to try and dictate, as much as possible, the terms of engagement in this free space.
By citing the issue of national security as the reason behind banning these Chinese apps, the Indian government has ensured that it will be difficult for any entity to challenge this ban through legal channels.
But how much of this effort will be perceived by the larger Indian public as a fitting reply to Beijing’s reported incursions into Indian territory and how much of this will be interpreted as putting a chokehold on freedom of expression and choice only time will tell.