For most Indians, the generally visible presence of China in their lives are the daily use items—from electric bulbs to sophisticated mobile phones.
The hundreds of shops spread across a maze of narrow corridors in Delhi’s Old Lajpat Rai market (just off Chandi Chowk) and in Gaffar Market in Karol Bagh, one could, and can still, buy originals and clones of the world’s sophisticated inventions: from sleek top-end mobile phones to palm-sized iPod rip-offs.
These shops were, and on many occasions still are, filled with branded and unbranded Chinese goods, as were thousands of markets across India, part of the same onslaught of consumer goods that China made across the world.
According to IDC (International Data Corporation), Chinese companies accounted for more than 70 percent of all smartphones that came into India in the January-March quarter of 2019. Government data shows that the total size of India's trade with China was $87 billion in 2018-19, and electronics accounted for $20.6 billion of total imports from China.
There is, however, more to the Chinese invasion in India’s, indeed the world’s, daily lives than these gizmos and things seemingly as innocuous as safety pins.
How dependent is India on China? Some statistics standout. China accounts for nine per cent of India’s total exports and 18 per cent of total merchandise imports.
In several sectors India’s import dependency is heavily skewed in favour of China. India imports more than 70 per cent of its active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), 70 per cent of electronic components, 45 per cent of consumer durables, 40 per cent of leather goods and the 20 per cent of auto components from China.
This import dependency, which is accounted and tangible, may well be masking an even potent perimeter of digital encirclement that China has been building over the two decades.
The story celebrating the trailblazing startups is also a tale of how China quietly has created a significant place for itself in India in the last five years – in the technology domain.
“Unable to persuade India to sign on to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has entered the Indian market through venture investments in start-ups and penetrated the online ecosystem with its popular smartphones and their applications (apps)”, said a March 2020 report entitled “Chinese Investments in India” by Gateway House, a research organisation.
While India has refused to sign on to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), this report shows India's positioning in the virtual BRI to be strategically invaluable for China. Nearly USD 4 billion in venture investments in start-ups, the online ecosystem and apps have been made by Chinese entities, the report said.
The standoff with China in Ladakh, and the subsequent decisions to ban hundreds of Chinese apps including the popular video-blogging app TikTok is seen as India’s intent to walk the talk on drawing the line on Chinese dependency.
Earlier this month, the government approved a new set of rules that could result in restrictions on the procurement of Chinese telecom infrastructure by Indian companies.
Under the National Security Directive on Telecommunication Sector, the government will designate “trusted sources” and “trusted products” to be integrated into the nation's telecom network architecture, a latest in a series of steps to lower India's reliance on Chinese equipment.
The government has also set up a special panel to look into the potential participation of Chinese companies, mainly Huawei and ZTE, in India's 5G trials.
Chinese telecom companies are getting increasingly isolated with many countries deciding to exclude these firms from participating in the 5G rollout in their respective countries.
In India, however, plans for a smooth indigenous transition to a 5G telecom network has run into unforeseen roadblocks. For one, the only Indian company—Reliance Jio—that has announced plans for the roll out an indigenously developed 5G architecture, is currently facing hostility both from opposition political parties as well as protestors against farm laws.
On December 8, Reliance Industries (RIL) Chairman Mukesh Ambani said Jio will roll out 5G in India in the second half of 2021.
“India is today among the best digitally connected nations in the world. In order to maintain this lead, policy steps are needed to accelerate early rollout of 5G, and to make it affordable and available everywhere. I assure you that Jio will pioneer the 5G Revolution in India in the second half of 2021," Ambani said during his virtual address at the India Mobile Congress (IMC).
Reliance Jio infrastructure, however, has been subjected to vandalism with hundreds of its towers in Punjab being forcefully blacked out by people in support of the farmers’ protests.
Reliance Jio Infocomm has written to Punjab Chief Minister and Punjab Director General of Police (DGP) seeking their intervention into "incidents of sabotage and vandalism at Jio Network sites" in the state by unknown persons.
More than 1500 cell sites have reportedly already been damaged.
Farmers are camping along the borders of Delhi and have said they will not move until the three farm laws that the government recently legislated are taken back. Here is a lowdown on the issues involved.
The government has argued that these laws are aimed at shifting the terms in favour of farmers by getting rid of unscrupulous middlemen and vested interests that distorted markets.
Protesting farmers fear that the new laws would usher in big corporate groups such as Reliance into agriculture produce markets. This could create monopolies, allowing them to fix prices at low levels, hurting farmers.
These protests have drawn widespread support from the political opposition, mainly the Congress and the Left parties, both of which have minced no words in attacking Indian companies, which they believe will be the main beneficiaries of the farm laws at the cost of peasants.
In the final analysis, regardless of the merits of the farm laws, discrediting Indian companies ostensibly for political opportunism can only, unwittingly, end up aiding the Chinese purpose of digitally encircling India and other regions.“Reliance Industries Ltd. is the sole beneficiary of Independent Media Trust which controls Network18 Media & Investments Ltd.”