This is intended to be a sequel to my last week’s blog– Return of the Dragon. If you haven’t read it, please read here.
The military standoff between India and China at the border is slowly turning into a diplomatic one with both sides waiting for other side to blink first. Marathon disengagement talks are going in parallel with coercive military build-up on both sides. And in India, we have set in motion a slew of things in an effort to “tame the Dragon”. But what real options do we have to tame the Dragon?
I remember vividly that whenever we used to have these military tensions with Pakistan triggered by some terrorist attack, though we are a militarily and economically stronger nation, experts would say that a full blown war with Pakistan is not an option between two nuclear powered countries. At the same time, we were told that we must raise the cost for Pakistan to carry out terrorist activities, whatever that means. Since there is little economic activity going on between India and Pakistan, it doesn’t really make any difference to Pakistan even if we sever all economic ties.
Between India and China too, a full blown war is out of question considering the fact that we are both nuclear powers. The issue of longstanding boundary dispute can be resolved through talks and diplomatic efforts. But, since both countries cannot give up even a square inch of land, a solution to the boundary dispute is not coming any soon. Under these circumstances, the best option which is face saving for both is achieving Status Quo Ante!
At the same time, while pursuing diplomatic engagement to get the troops back to where we were before this round of escalation, it is necessary for India to raise the costs for China to deter it from indulging in border escalations. This, I believe can happen only on the trade front. On the trade front, I believe that China has more to lose than India if relations are spoilt. And this is opposite to what the commentariat in the India media feel. That being the case, what are some of the options?
- China is an exporting economy. For the past few years (coincidentally since Xi took over in 2012), the Chinese economy has been floundering, after years of high growth. Under the circumstances, it cannot shut business with a country like India which is poised to be the most populous country in the world soon. In 2019, we imported US$75 billion worth of goods from China. Those who say that this is miniscule compared to the total exports of US$2.5 Trillion China does, are missing the larger point. As globalisation weakens and Nationalism grows and in particular when large economies like the US, Japan and Germany are talking of de-risking from China in the wake of Covid-19, spoiling trade relations with India and denting the prospects for trade growth is the last thing China can afford. So, leverage on this aspect.
- A quick look at the last quarter’s import data shows that Electronic Components, Telecom Instruments, Industrial Machinery, Computer Hardware and Peripherals are the top 5 categories of imports from China and take up almost 33% of total imports. As a country, we must roll out a solid, strategic plan for developing the domestic Electronic Hardware manufacturing industry. This cannot happen overnight. But can happen with a vision and a roll out plan in the next ten years. Considering the fact that the role of electronics, is on the continuous rise in every aspect of our life and every aspect of engineering, the scope for just catering to the domestic market and then emerge as a competitive, key part of global supply chains is huge. There has been talks in the past to build a globally competitive electronic manufacturing industry in India but this is the right time to translate those talks into actions on the ground.
- Ever since, we lost lives of our soldiers in the border standoff, the cries of “Boycott China goods” have become louder and more visible. A total and real boycott of these is not neither feasible nor advisable under the current circumstances. Chinese components are a key cog in the Indian manufacturing wheel today. Instead, whatever government does needs to be only “covert” and not overt. In short, kick off “Salaami slicing” in aspects of trade and commerce.
- For example, for all government purchases, government cannot openly declare that it will not buy “Made in China” products. However, it can signal a preference to “Made in India” products.
- Just last week, government made it mandatory for sellers to indicate the “Country of Origin” for their products offered on the GEM (Government E Marketplace) portal. While this was touted as a move to promote the Prime Minister’s Atma Nirbhar Bharat vision, that it was a move to identify products coming from China was not lost on trade observers. Government can do more covert actions like this.
- For big infrastructure projects, go slow on Chinese companies. (There are many ways of doing this)
- In the private consumption space, there is a groundswell of opinion among the common public against Chinese products. Usually this sentiment is very temporary. But now, as the government cannot take part directly in festering any Anti-China emotion, it can use the party, its loyal trade bodies and Non-profit bodies to do the job in keeping the sentiment alive for a long time. Though in terms of dollar terms, the reduction in imports in the consumer goods space may not be significant for China as a country, any reduction in demand and orders particularly with the weakening demand due to Covid-19, will affect the Chinese sellers. For example, for the upcoming festival season in India, even if the orders are reduced by half than usual for the many consumer items including domestic appliances, garments, plastics, gift items, decorative items etc. it will be significant blow. And if that demand turns into orders for Indian manufacturers, it will also aid the economy here.
- Creating stumbling blocks for Chinese origin businesses like more scrutiny of compliance matters is another way of covert signalling. For example, just last week, without citing any reason, India customs officials said that there could be delays in clearance of goods imported from China. Moves like these will raise the costs for those importing Chinese goods in India and indirectly act as a deterrent for promoting those products in India in the long run. Here, I would like to add that these moves cannot be sustainable in the long run. But, in the short term helps in messaging. And the Indian government doing this now is a smart thing to do. Manufacturing activity and demand in India is any way weak and tepid at this point in time. So, any delay of a few days here and there is not going the move the dial significantly. I am sure that this will be a short term prick rather than a long term change in process.
Now, there is a distinct possibility that China does retaliatory moves (we hear, it is already acting on delaying customs clearance of goods from India). But as I mentioned, today, India imports 5 times more than it exports. So, as of today, it hurts China more than it hurts India. Of course the imported goods are a part of the Indian economic activity and hence any delay or disruption affects those who are in that sector. It is a small cost to pay compared to the cost our defence forces pay with their lives at the border securing our sovereignty.
In conclusion, to tame the Dragon, we must first believe we can, punch above our weight and play to our strengths as a large consuming and growing economy. “Challenge is a dragon with a gift in its mouth. Tame the dragon and the gift is yours” goes a saying. Time to replace the word Challenge with China?