The high-level military personnel border talks between India and China have left the two sides to draw their own conclusions. For now, the surmise seems to be that both sides will deliberate further at the military and political levels. Apparently, there is no possibility of hostilities breaking out in the foreseeable future but in the longer run there are imponderables.
The Chinese have failed to describe the talks as ‘cordial’ while the Indians too are tight-lipped after the initial reaction that their delegation was received with warmth. Both countries had earlier indicated that they were not interested in US mediation and that they were for bilateral settlement of the border dispute.
The Chinese were piqued with India for working on two roads in the border area for better logistics support. While India insisted that the roads were well within Indian side of the border, the Chinese typically claimed the roads were on Chinese land which is a line fraught with mischievous intent.
China has said the standoff between the two armies will continue until India stops road construction. But the Indians are well aware that succumbing to Chinese pressure would be seen as a sign of weakness and would be exploited by Beijing to push its territorial claims.
Where does all this leave the two contending countries on their stated positions? The growing demand in India for boycotting Chinese goods and services will not shift into high gear for now. Yet, New Delhi will be wary of Chinese moves to get the better of India on contentious economic issues. This presages growing mutual distrust and suspicion and does not bode well for the future.
The manner in which Chinese goods penetrated Indian markets driving the small and medium scale Indian enterprises virtually out of the market which is one of the triggers for massive Indian unemployment was a lesson to India. Now, as the Indian MSME sector bounces back with some governmental props, it is to be hoped that the Chinese firms would not re-enter in droves in the manner in which they did earlier. Some systemic changes have been made to ensure that Chinese investment in MSME sector does not come charging in without proper safeguards against swamping the market at the cost of indigenous producers.
Indian startups, especially in the tech sector, have had a rough time. A report published by Gateway House, a think tank associated with the Indian Council on Global Relations, estimates that there are $4 billion worth of Chinese tech investment in Indian start-ups, an indication of how Beijing exploited Indian entry laws which have only recently been tightened.
As many as 18 of India’s top 30 unicorns (startups valued at more than $1 billion), most of them tech-driven, are now Chinese funded, it noted.
Published in February, the report lists 92 major startups in India funded by the Chinese. Major Chinese firms involved in Indian businesses through strategic investments are Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance.
The Alibaba Group alone has strategic investments in Big Basket ($250 million), Paytm.com ($400 million), Paytm Mall ($150 million), Zomato ($200 million) and Snapdeal ($700 million).
Likewise, another Chinese group, Tencent Holdings has its investment in Indian firms like Byju’s ($50 million), Dream11 ($150 million), Flipkart ($300 million), Hike Messenger ($150 million), Ola ($500 million) and Swiggy ($500 million).
These are big ticket investments but not enough to acquire majority control over these companies. Yet, they pose a danger to Indian control potentially. In isolation, these may not sound alarming but seen in the context of insidious Chinese efforts to intensify the Chinese stranglehold over the world through an insidious form of colonialism, they look sinister.
With Xi Jinping declared President for life by the Chinese Communist Party two years ago, spreading China’s influence is an important part of his agenda. There is no knowing where all this will stop considering the manner in which the Chinese are coveting control in various ways in the South China seas especially in the hinterland states and even in Japan in the eastern waters.
Another major Chinese presence in India is in TikTok, which has more than 200 million subscribers and has overtaken YouTube in the Indian market. TikTok’s parent company is a Beijing-based technology firm ByteDance. Recently it became clear where TikTok’s loyalty lies when it was seen to allegedly censor anti-Chinese content in India.
India will need to be very watchful with regard to such companies which can pose a threat to Indian interests. The recent example of HDFC bank where China tried to make an entry is a pointer that there is no room for complacency.
Xi Jinping is indeed in a hurry. Internal dissent is fast building up as the economy shows up the devastating effect of faulty policies. Estimates say that the ranks of the unemployed in the country have swollen to a whopping 800 million. Casualty figures for the deadly coronavirus are suspected to be much higher than admitted by the Chinese government. Hong Kong has grown to be a potential threat to the Chinese establishment in the extent of public dissent. There are other regions, too, where an anti-establishment mood is fast building up.
If Chinese leaders feel they can cap the unrest by diversionary tactics like a limited war with India, and muscle-flexing in the South China Sea, they must understand that it can work the other way around, too.
The Chinese government must rein in its expansionist ambitions in its quest for super power status.
The writer is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.