India’s unique response to Chinese aggression created ripples in other countries as well. The US, which is simmering over strained ties with China, also adopted the same strategy, and the Trump administration moved quickly to shut down TikTok.
Though the decision – like many other actions by the outgoing US President – is being scrutinised in the US courts, China too has jumped on the ‘banned-wagon’.
In what is being termed as a ‘clean-up of illegal apps’, China has removed Tripadvisor and another 104 apps from its app stores. Most of the banned apps are Chinese but the inclusion of US travel app Tripadvisor has raised eyebrows. Tripadvisor is a pioneering American online travel company that offers bookings and ratings for hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites. Founded in 2000, it revolutionised self-booking and is understandably popular among Chinese travellers.
China’s action could be premature as Americans are divided over by this new form of cyberwar. US district judge Carl Nichols’ judgment stated that President Trump overstepped his authority when attempting to ban TikTok on national security grounds, and was the second judge to rule in favour of the popular Chinese short video-sharing app. However, India had no such qualms. The government merely invoked its power under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 read along with relevant provisions of Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 (the Blocking Rules) and declared the apps’ activities as “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.” At first, the move to ban apps was met with bemusement.
After all, could stopping people from accessing TikTok or playing PUBG really be seen as a fitting response to an armed battle at the borders? But when one examines the impact of these bans in some amount of detail, it plays out as almost a Machiavellian move.
India has about 574 mn Internet users, and the ban caused a significant loss of userbase and data capital to the app, directly impacting the revenue of the Chinese firms. As per reports, TikTok had 120 mn users in India while, UC Browser had 130 mn, ShareIT had 400 mn and WeChat had 200 mn. In addition to user base, the loss in advertising revenue has also been significant. A back-ofthe-envelope calculation would put the figure in billions of dollars. When TikTok was banned briefly in India in 2019 on the grounds of allegedly promoting pornography, the company had reportedly said it was losing roughly $15 mn a month as a result of the ban.
Even as the stand-off continues with both nations sticking to their guns, there could be serious ramifications if the app war intensifies into a trade war. In the last five years, Chinese investors including Alibaba, Tencent, TR Capital and Hillhouse Capital, have invested over $5.5 bn in Indian start-ups, as per Venture Intelligence reports. On the other hand, India has the largest trade deficit with China which has doubled in less than a decade. Chinese smartphones dominate India with an estimated 72% share. Things are no better on the manufacturing side. With the economy struggling to recover from the pandemic, any escalation between the two nations could accelerate supply-chain risks. The pharma sector in India is particularly vulnerable as India gets 70% of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) used in drugs from China.
Yes, India may have more to lose by taking the battle to cyberspace, but it’s also likely that this form of absolutism can lead to significant results because it makes credible threats without aggression. Even as we wait to see who blinks first, it’s clear with the start of the ban movement, India has taken a leaf out of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War which famously said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”.