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Can the world’s two largest democracies unite to counter China’s territorial aggression and strategic ambitions in cyberspace? This question ought to be front and center for policymakers in Washington in the wake of India’s sweeping ban on 59 Chinese apps and its escalating economic campaign against Beijing.

The app ban, which comes in response to China’s recent incursions in Ladakh, has drawn comparisons in India to a “digital airstrike” and won praise from local TV pundits and politicians alike. But analysts who have studied the ban and its immediate impact on Chinese companies believe it may have more bark than bite.

Though India’s app ban will weigh on the long-term market share of Chinese companies, it imposes only minimal revenue losses in the short-term — potentially depriving TikTok owner ByteDance of just $5.8 million in annual revenue on global revenues that touched $17 billion in 2019. Moreover, the ban does little to reverse China’s dominance in core segments of India’s digital ecosystem, such as smartphones, where Chinese brands Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus, and RealMe collectively hold 80 percent market share.

The hard truth is that even with India’s newfound vigor to tame the digital dragon, countering Chinese economic influence at home is a quest rife with challenges. And like any quest, it is one best pursued together with trusted partners.


Also read: TikTok teens try to trick Trump campaign, again


Launching a digital airlift

Herein lies the opportunity for the United States. Can Washington now move with speed and strategic vision to support India in its time of crisis and bolster its digital counteroffensive against Beijing? Just as President John F. Kennedy dispatched planes to aid and supply India in the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the time has come for the United States to conduct a “digital airlift” that prioritises three goals.


Also read: TikTok plans to change its corporate structure to distance itself from China

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Goal 1: Raising immediate economic costs on Beijing

A US digital airlift should aim to add extra oomph to India’s counterpunches and thereby raise the immediate costs of Chinese territorial aggression. Here, India’s app ban can serve as a potential starting point. Washington can crack down on — and encourage partners and allies to curtail — the same Chinese apps cited by India on shared national security grounds. More importantly, it can work with allies and partners to widen the aperture of exclusion beyond consumer-facing apps and across various links in the digital value chain.

Such efforts would build upon the Trump administration’s long-running campaign to block Huawei from 5G networks worldwide. But rather than rely on the same pressure tactics, Washington should work to create a political context and narrative that empowers India and other allies to act against Huawei and ZTE on their own accord and in defence of their own sovereign interest. Recent efforts by the FCC to designate Huawei and ZTE as “national security threats” are welcome moves that carry weight in Delhi.


Also read: The US-China rivalry is broadening from trade to everything


Goal 2: Enhance India’s cyberdefence capabilities

India’s digital counteroffensive is likely to provoke Chinese retaliation in the days ahead, especially if Delhi succeeds in rallying the United States and its partners to join in on app bans. And as Australia has seen in recent weeks, Beijing is more than willing to employ cyber capabilities to project coercive power and advance geopolitical objectives. Accordingly, the second goal of a US digital airlift must be to enhance India’s cyberdefence capabilities.

Washington should ensure cybersecurity specialists at the senior and working levels are in regular contact with Indian counterparts, sharing best practices to defend against Chinese cyberattacks. Regular coordination and intelligence sharing could potentially allow the United States to launch coordinated cyber counterpunches when India faces cyberattacks from Beijing, providing added digital firepower to India instead of vague promises of troop deployments. Plugging up vulnerabilities in the private sector will also be critical, and both sides should use the upcoming US-India ICT Dialogue expected to take place in September to discuss short-term risk mitigation strategies with leading private sector players.


Also read: Why India’s ban on Chinese apps opens a gold mine for Mukesh Ambani’s Jio & Silicon Valley


Goal 3: Accelerate India’s growth as an ICT manufacturing hub

US industry can serve as a tremendous asset to Washington and New Delhi as both look to impose medium-term economic costs on China and restore dynamism to India’s economy. A clear opportunity lies in the ICT manufacturing sector, where India is actively courting investment from multinationals that are eager to de-leverage supply chains from China in the post-COVID-19 environment. Thus, the third goal of a US digital airlift should aim to accelerate India’s growth as an electronics manufacturing hub.

This will require a future Trump or Biden administration to take an enlightened approach to digital cooperation and trade relations with India. Instead of criticising US companies for shifting production from China to India and demanding they reshore jobs solely to the United States, Washington should tacitly encourage companies to Make in India and boost local value creation and exports. In a similar vein, the White House should also refrain from imposing retaliatory tariffs on Indian ICT exports if upcoming Section 301 consultations and long-running trade talks break down. These measures do not require the United States to set aside American interests and bilateral trade concerns. They do, however, require the United States to align its trade policy around a strategic vision instead of a short-sighted fixation on deficit reduction.


Also read: 49% Indians say Chinese firms can operate if there isn’t data sharing with China: Survey 


Seizing a golden opportunity

Chinese aggression in the Himalayas has exposed the widening power differential between Delhi and Beijing and lent new urgency and importance to efforts that deepen the US-India partnership. It is vital that Washington does not miss its moment to cement ties with Delhi nor squander a golden opportunity to amplify pressure on Beijing. A digital airlift offers Washington a path to do both in one stroke using modern tools of statecraft, not boots on the ground. It is a worthwhile endeavor for the Trump administration to pursue and one that the next occupant of the White House should carry forward beyond 2020.

Anand Raghuraman @ AKRaghuraman is a senior associate at The Asia Group. Views are personal.

The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.

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3 Comments Share Your Views

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  2. Pakistan never accomplished anything by walking on Washington’s crutches and India will also not become great by using crutches provided by Washington. Washington or for that matter anyone else will not provide even a walking stick to anyone unless one agrees to become a pawn or at least a servant and crutches may help you to just hobble forward but not much more. It is more important for India to introspect why India is economically so much behind China when in 1980 PPP GDP of India was more than that of China? Why did Piketty write in 2013 that China has left India far behind in investments of tax revenues in Health ,Education and Infrastructure? Did this comment attract attention or raise eyebrows in India.? No .Why does India’s budget have an allocation of Rs 69000 crores for healthcare and Rs 400,000 crores for defense?Why in spite of this huge lopsided allocation defense experts whine that army is short of funds? Why did India have to abrogate Article 370 just to win an election when it knew that it would put it on a collision course with China? Why did the Home Minister announce in Parliament that India would shed blood to wrest Aksai Chin from China when it did not have the force to do it? Honest introspection on these questions would be much better than grovelling and kowtowing before the US.First of all India should make peace with its own people. Then it should make peace with its neighbors.Then it should devote all its energies to improve the lot of its people so that they can face the coming disaster due to global warming that threatens to destroy the subcontinent by 2070 A.D.

    • Miss/Mr Observer, you really nailed it! Biggest enemy for India is India herself! (1) No Indian ever thinks of oneself as Indian first; only as a North/South/etc. Indian. Based on region, religion, caste, language, color, height etc. Indians are mostly Indians in Passport only. (2) Everybody talks of corruption but hardly any action; since common man is stuck in that spiral… (3) Total lack of political will (all political parties with no exception). No accountability. (4) Villages and small towns are made orphans with no ‘say’ in any walk of life/decision making. (5) many more… such items to look inwards (6) Indians should start “Hate to Hate and Love to Love” attitude with neighboring states/languages internally. Then only India can dream of progressing as one!

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