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Tik-for-Tok retaliation

01 July 2020

By Austyn Close, Senior Executive

It comes as no surprise that India has banned up to 60 Chinese social media apps this week, including the app which has made celebrities of us all during lockdown, TikTok. Until now, the two hegemonic states have been staring one another down across the vast Asian continent for decades – if not centuries.

The news of India’s latest move comes within the context of one of the deadliest border clashes between the two titans where 20 Indian soldiers were fatally killed along the disputed Himalayan border. This is well and truly a power dynamic fit for the modern age and one with meaning and global relevance. For years, western nations have debated and deliberated over the role of Chinese telecoms in their digital infrastructure programmes, citing security reasons as the major red flag. Whispers of Chinese and Russian interference in election campaigns is not a new narrative in western political circles.

India’s decision appears to echo these long-held fears. The government’s official statement suggested that the Chinese apps (which also include WeChat and Weibo) are “prejudicial to [the] sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.”

China and the apps’ parent companies, which include the technological behemoth Tencent, have yet to formally retaliate but it doesn’t spell good news for business and political leaders in China. India is TikTok’s largest foreign market – almost a third of the country’s population use the app - while the massive sub-continent is tied in some respects to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which spans across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Several cybersecurity and information agencies within India have called out the action as necessary for the personal securities of the Indian people, claiming that Chinese digital companies have been mining vital information to be exploited. You could perhaps see this within the context of an ‘existential’ crisis for India – a nation whose External Affairs Minister claimed that the post-WWII global order hadn’t been of benefit to the Indian people to date during a recent emergency Trilateral summit between Russia, China and India.

But India’s worries are not unwarranted. In fact, it has every right to take decisive action, particularly when China is circling the state from all corners. The cosiness of the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor and the hegemonic influence over mutual Indo-China neighbours is unnerving to India.

It spells a trend on how democratic countries may react against Chinese digital and political influence in the near future. In May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson scaled back the UK’s commitment to the ‘Golden Era’ of UK-Sino relations. In Australia, the state-backed publication, China Daily, issues paid supplements in local newspapers in a bid to peddle Chinese rhetoric. With a growing China, western markets are finding it a challenge to reel themselves off China investors and suppliers. As one very simple example, TikTok is providing new Gen-Z advertising opportunities for brands that are trying to navigate a challenging consumer marketplace amidst a global pandemic. In real estate, the inbound investment from China is most certainly welcomed and savoured.

But with great financial success comes political and security concerns. There are countless cases of the western world’s woes, but the success of China’s ambitions relies on how well its technological exports can embed themselves in foreign markets and navigate respective security and information constraints. It may not be too long before the west takes a leaf out of India’s book.