India’s decision on Tuesday to block another 43 Chinese mobile applications hardly comes as a surprise. Since June, following escalation of tensions with China at the border, India has blocked over 250 Chinese mobile apps, a bunch at a time, on the grounds that they have been engaging in activities “which are prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”. The latest instance of app blocking has come at a time when the two sides, while still talking, are struggling to come up with an agreement for disengagement along the Line of Actual Control. With the immensely popular TikTok and PUBG already blocked, this time it was the turn of the likes of Alipay Cashier, Snack Video, Chinese Social, Adore App, and Alibaba Workbench to meet the same fate. China, not for the first time either, has charged India with using national security as an excuse to target Chinese apps. Zhao Lijian, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, has asked India to “correct its discriminatory approach and avoid causing further damage to bilateral cooperation”. China crying discrimination is ironical — its version of the Internet is tightly controlled and heavily censored, and has been so for years. There may not be much to argue against decisions made on the grounds of national security. But the question to ask is: would this have come about if all was hunky-dory between the two countries?
In the short run, it may be useful for India to use its vast market for Internet services as a leverage in its attempts to keep China in check at the border. Indian app alternatives may also find the much-needed space to grow now, and initial reports indicate as much. But there are a few risks with this approach, especially given India’s global ambitions in technology. First, this approach runs the risk of triggering an unconventional battle between the two countries in the larger technology realm, if not in the larger business space. China, being an important player in the technology global supply chain, will be hard, if not impossible, to sideline. Second, there is a risk that moves such as blocking apps would be perceived adversely by global investors and Internet companies. While it is true that there has been some push back against Chinese companies and technology globally, India must stick to a rules-based approach in regulating the Internet. There is a need to implement the long-pending data protection law. It is also important to engage with the ecosystem and provide clarity on these issues as India has to win the technology battle as well.