As tensions in Sino-Indian relations continue to escalate, the role of democracy in shaping India’s response to growing Chinese assertion has become increasingly prominent. Not only has the Covid-19 pandemic catalysed India’s move to re-evaluate its broader geopolitical strategies of contestation and cooperation, but this ‘new normal’ is further complicated by ongoing border disputes in Ladakh as well as India’s ban on 59 Chinese apps. Thus, as India finds itself in the middle of a new cold war between the United States and China, protecting its esteemed democratic values should be at the forefront amidst this rapidly evolving geopolitical dynamic.
With the United States standing up to China on various issues, such as recent levied sanctions on Chinese officials over their government’s repressive action in Xinjiang, tensions between the powers have indeed escalated. Yet although US President Donald Trump can undermine Chinese influence from afar, India’s geographical proximity to China places them in an extremely volatile position. The fact that India and China have been locked in battles along their Himalayan border since early May adds significant weight to this view. Especially following the recent casualties of Indian soldiers in Eastern Ladakh’s Galwan sector, Sino-Indian relations have undergone irrevocable damage.
Despite efforts to diffuse the immediate crisis, the bitterness that the incident has injected in bilateral relations is evident. Consequently, India has joined other major powers in pushing back against an increasingly assertive China on the global stage through technological means.
By banning various Chinese mobile applications, including top social media platforms such as TikTok, WeChat and Helo, India has taken a bold step to counter Chinese threats to India’s ‘sovereignty and security.’ However, having let Huawei participate in 5G trials, India has not yet announced their final decision on whether Huawei will be allowed to supply equipment to Indian mobile operators. The US and UK barred Huawei from their cellular network in a practical attempt to limit China’s ability to weaponise its economic might and reduce risks of Chinese espionage and cyber-attacks.
But this decision also holds great symbolic importance and is emblematic of the wider geopolitical rivalry between the Western democracies and China’s authoritarian power: a nation’s communication system is arguably the lifeblood of any democracy and China’s hold over Huawei significantly threatens this. Although India faces different economic, technical and strategic considerations when considering the future of their 5G network, the core concerns of national security remain a common denominator. India must therefore navigate a route through this technological Cold War between US and China through alliances with democracies in a neighbourhood of largely authoritarian regimes.
Moreover, although India was not one of the eight democracies which formed an Inter-Parliamentary Alliance of senior lawmakers early in June to construct a strategic response to issues related to the People’s Republic of China, India’s role in ‘uniting in a common defence’ of democratic values should not be overlooked. India’s engagement in ‘democracy assistance’ — for example, highlights their aim to extend democracy to societies hitherto ruled by authoritarian regimes and further the ‘democratic peace.’ Driven by a broader desire to enhance India’s status as an emerging power, such commitment to the international promotion of democracy and human rights is therefore seen to align with India’s economic and security interests, particularly when China’s readiness to overlook human rights violations is taken into consideration.
China’s new national security law introduced in Hong Kong, for example, overrides local laws and gives sweeping powers to security agencies whilst allowing for a new national security agency, which will not be under the jurisdiction of the local government. Further, the law provides for Chinese mainland authorities to have jurisdiction in cases involving foreign countries or involving national security.
This introduction of new crimes with severe penalties further increases Beijing’s extensive powers to shape life in the territory far beyond the legal system. Having remained studiously silent over Hong Kong protests over the years, India waded into the controversy over the new Chinese security law, stating at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that it hoped the ‘relevant parties would address the concerns ‘properly, seriously and objectively.’ By vocalising their disapproval, India can be seen to have aligned with the US, which ended its preferential trade treatment of Hong Kong.
Moreover, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson actively considering a new D10 group of ten leading democracies (the current G7 members, plus India, Australia and South Korea) to address both 5G mobile communications and vulnerable supply chains, India’s broader democratic alliance to overcome Chinese dependence is evident. Thus, as China have failed to prove itself as a responsible global stakeholder, and debates on the future of the global multilateral order escalate, the issue of democracy has become increasingly pivotal. The recent developments in Taiwan, with China increasingly relying on international isolation and military harassment, strongly reinforce this view. As a result, India should engage in further dialogue with regional powers such as Taiwan in order to establish a rules-based order that equitably and inclusively incorporates and benefits all.
In the final analysis, China presents one of the biggest strategic and security challenges that India has faced in decades. At the diplomatic and strategic level, there is bound to be a greater push towards counterbalancing China, and India’s democratic values will play a considerable role in this. India must speak up for Hong Kong and Taiwan, both of which are integral to economic activity and stability in the entire region, as a result. However, given India’s historical engagement with non-alignment, this might be more of a careful balancing act for India than for many other nations.
This article first appeared in ORF.