Home / Opinion / Views /  Why we should nuance our approach to China

Even as Indian and Chinese forces stay eyeball-to-eyeball across the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas, a reassuring development in our relations is hard to miss. This week, India’s department of telecom announced the constitution of working groups to lay out roadmaps for the use of 5G technology in eight key sectors. For healthcare and fintech, the panels are reported to include representatives of Huawei, the Chinese telecom equipment maker that has been in the eye of a global storm—whipped up chiefly by the US—over its alleged use of mechanisms that could compromise a country’s security. America not only banned Huawei’s telecom gear in its own market, it has been pressuring other countries to do likewise, in spite of the company’s seemingly attractive 5G deals on offer for network operators. By inviting Huawei to join official discussions of India’s 5G plans, the government appears to have signalled that our economic emergence need not be held hostage by friction at the border. Unless a nasty surprise is sprung upon us even in the business arena, this pragmatic disposition could be widened to all sectors where the gains of Chinese participation are judged to outweigh the dangers.

In Huawei’s case, India had not barred it from joining 5G trials here, though our telecom firms displayed an understandable reluctance to engage it after this year’s military standoff. The government, after all, had responded to Beijing’s territorial misadventure by tightening curbs on inward investments from China, banning a wide swathe of Chinese apps (over 200 at last count), and directing several state-run entities to exclude suppliers from that country in their solicitation of tenders. In some import-heavy fields, the Centre also raised tariff barriers in moves that went against Chinese exporters, though the primary aim of this was to shield our manufacturers from global competition. On many of those measures, a marked shift in New Delhi’s stance seems unlikely. In the trade arena, India has opted to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership on apprehensions that Beijing would dominate this pact, and there is no sign yet of a rethink on this decision. But still, there seems enough scope for enhancing bilateral ties in our self interest.

Globalization may have slowed over the past decade or so, but supply chains still straddle borders and Indian producers remain dependent on Chinese inputs in various sectors. Apart from telecom gear and active pharmaceutical ingredients for drugs, a large chunk of electronic parts used here are shipped in from China. Automobiles on Indian streets also have Chinese components, while numerous other items of daily utility are imported from there. Given their cost effectiveness, clamps on these imports tend to push up our expenses and work against the Indian economy. Also, while our security concerns deserve investigation, Chinese apps that pose no threat should be allowed. Vibrant rivalry could catalyse domestic innovation. As for Huawei, if it can serve our development goals without causing harm, then we should let it. Evidence of injury rather than the place of origin ought to determine our posture. We must also bear in mind that many Indian firms have business interests in China, some of which seem well placed to profit off its growth. In time, it could yet turn out that Indian openness to commercial engagements and a reciprocal Chinese policy combine to dial down geopolitical tensions. As the government assures us, Indian armed forces are well equipped to defend the country. But we must also guard all that’s good for our economy.

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