On Twitter, an active China watcher was quick to point out that while the United States, Australia and Japan were critical in their joint statement against China’s aggressive intent to take over Taiwan, there was no India. Where is India on this really? Many western commentators are wondering why the government of Narendra Modi is not critical of China’s attempt to browbeat Taiwan into submission over a controversial visit of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei.
The answers to this beguiling puzzle are not easy. Is there one answer or many explanations as to why the Indian government, despite losing 20 soldiers in June 2020 in the Galwan valley face-off with China and allegedly ceding so much territory in the cold deserts of Ladakh, chooses to remain silent? Interestingly, there have been no explanations from the government – not even background briefings from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) or Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) – on its refusal to name China as an intruder or perpetrator of economic harm to the country.
If signals have to be read, then a commentator could lose their way in the thicket of competing messaging. For instance, India was the first country to block China’s very popular app – TikTok. Later, 300 other apps were added to the banned list. Many believe that the advice for this action came from a right-wing think tank in Australia. Even the US under the then President Donald Trump or Australia under former Prime Minister Scott Morrison had gone as far as to ban anything – least of all apps. The Indian government did not confine itself to just the apps. It went further. It went after many Chinese telecom companies for what was claimed as a violation of its tax laws.
First, the telecom machinery provider, ZTE, was targeted. Thereafter, the famous company Huawei – headed by a former PLA General – came into the arc of the attack. Both these companies that could participate in the 5G trials were kept out without being told that they were penalised for what happened in Galwan. Huawei still nurses hope of getting an approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which sources claim, is not coming.
Indian tax authorities have particularly targeted mobile telephone companies selling inexpensive smartphones. These include the hugely popular Xiaomi, Vivo and the likes. Tax authorities have frozen accounts and taken tough measures claiming that these companies have been repatriating profits abroad in a clandestine manner. Besides, there are also allegations of serious excise duty violations, amongst others.
It’s intriguing why these objections have been raised now. Cognizant of the fact that Chinese telecom companies are government-controlled and any raid on them in India would be seen as an attack on Beijing itself. Is the Indian government using these raids on Xiaomi and Vivo as a bargaining chip to get a better land deal with China? The government in Delhi is aware that the Chinese smartphone companies had earned windfall profits during the last two years in India when their own market and that of others were shuttered down due to the pandemic. Understandably, it is dangling the carrot to China that it can continue doing business here if it does not embarrass India on the battlefield.
The Chinese have a different reading of New Delhi’s squeeze on the telecom sector. Its party newspaper, Global Times, has hinted at business lobbies dirtying the water. Others more vocal have made it clear that the Modi government has succumbed to corporate pressure and is trying to limit competition in the cheap smartphone segment. A junior telecom minister quoted by Bloomberg says that their (Chinese) market dominance has not been “on the basis of free and fair competition”.
Chinese sources allege the active role of the Reliance’s Jio phone that is trying to enlarge its market with the help of government agencies. There are allegations that this messy telecom war is spilling over to the geostrategic space, with Indian companies doing their bit to draw a wedge between India and China. Interestingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not succumbed to pressures to criticise China on salami slicing or any other issue. China was the only country that hosted him multiple times when he was experiencing a travel ban to the US and other countries after the Gujarat riots. It seems he has not forgotten their magnanimity. Since he came to power, Modi tried to improve relations with China until the Galwan stand-off took place. Despite the violent stand-off and the constant provocation by US-based think tanks that suggests large-scale intrusions by leaking satellite images, Modi has stood his ground – even after being persuaded to be part of an anti-China compact of Quad. India has seen its trade with China zoom to stratospheric heights.
India is also a member of BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation, both allow inordinate Chinese influence in the geographical space they operate in.
Other members of this four-member grouping would readily agree that India is its most reluctant and ambivalent member. Since the Galwan violence, which has seen extraordinary mobilisation at the border, New Delhi has taken pains to tell China that it is not keen to be part of any military alliance against them. There have been series of meetings between Indian officials like NSA Ajit Doval and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar with their counterparts. A significant one took place when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited New Delhi. Did he meet the PM? No one knows, but many observers claim that the trip was a turning point in many ways.
The 16 meetings that have taken place between the Commanders of the two countries may not have yielded much except tenuous peace, but informed sources claim that some kind of an agreement has been reached between the two countries, which goes beyond the four-point consensus to ensure business as usual. Before the Taiwan issue blew up, sources would claim that an agreement had been reached between the two sides, and it may be announced after the Chinese People’s Congress, where President Xi Jinping is looking at a third term.
With the US reasserting itself aggressively in the Asian continent and upturning its one-China policy, it remains to be seen whether Washington would countenance a situation where its valuable ally and member of Quad, India, jettisons it for China at a time when the world is being reordered post the Ukraine war. Russia and China would want that.