Last month’s terror strike on an Indian military base by militants from the Pakistani side of the disputed border between the two feuding South Asian nations has caused some unlikely collateral damage: Chinese goods.
Indian social media has been buzzing with calls to boycott Chinese products, a movement that has snowballed in recent days. #BoycottChinaProduct and has attracted thousands of angry tweeple, all vowing to avenge China’s unrelenting support of its “all-weather” friend Pakistan, which Indians blame for repeated attacks in the country.
“By buying Chinese products you’re funding terrorists. #BoycottChinaProducts. Save our soldiers,” says a tweet from Lilly Mary Pinto, with an accompanying cartoon on how Chinese money ends up funding Pakistani attacks on India.
India and Pakistan have fought four wars, most recently in 1999, and share a disputed border. China, with which India fought one war in 1962 and also shares a disputed border, has been a steadfast ally of Pakistan. India blames Pakistan for sponsoring cross-border terror by running of a proxy war. Indians thus automatically associate terrorism with Pakistan but this time, China has found itself in the cross-hairs of popular rage after siding with Pakistan to prevent terror kingpin Masood Azhar from being listed as a terrorist by the United Nations.
Azhar, one of the most wanted terrorists in India, is the leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammed that has been blamed for an attack on an Indian air force base in January and last month’s terror strike on an Indian army base in Kashmir that killed 18 soldiers. Currently in Pakistan, Azhar was imprisoned in India in 1994 but was released in December 1999 in a hostage swap after an Indian plane was hijacked in Afghanistan.
China has twice thwarted India’s move for Azhar to be added by the UN Security Council to the blacklisted groups linked to al-Qaeda or Islamic State. In April, China was the only Security Council member country to veto a ban on Azhar. Soon after the latest terror strike, China last month again put a “technical hold” days before that veto was to expire – effectively allowing Azhar to get off the hook – and drawing widespread condemnation in India.
At least three top leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tweeted in favour of the campaign to boycott Chinese goods but retracted their endorsements later on, most likely under party pressure. Last week, a small village in the eastern state of Bihar became the first place to “ban” the sale of Chinese-made goods. Its local council swore to punish those who flouted the ban, though no law in India allows such penalties.
The same day, Sarabananda Sonowal, the BJP chief minister of the eastern state of Assam, said: “The entire market has been flooded with Chinese goods and toys. There are enough locally made substitutes for the (festive) season,” referring to the coming Diwali festival, when people exchange gifts. In recent years, cheap Chinese-made gift items have become wildly popular in India.
“People should not buy Chinese goods. Instead, Indian goods should be used. Trade with China is affecting our country. China is not our friend nation. China can buy weapons with whatever money it earns. There is a possibility that the weapons are given to enemy countries...We should focus on Make in India,” Anil Vij, a BJP minister in the northern state of Haryana, was quoted by the Indian Express as saying.
Despite the ongoing campaign, blocking Chinese products today is easier said than done given the level of interdependence between the two Asian giants. Vij may be railing against Chinese products, but his cabinet colleagues have been visiting Beijing and other Chinese cities scouting for investment. Haryana is where Chinese real estate giant Dalian Wanda, owned by China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, is to build a US$10 billion industrial complex with an investment of US$10 billion. It will be the single-largest Chinese investment in India.
China is India’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade last year reaching US$73 billion. Apart from a whole range of industrial goods, advanced technological products such as telecom equipment come from Chinese makers like Huawei. Much of the electricity in India also comes from power plants built by Chinese companies. “Indian competitors simply can’t match Chinese prices for the same quality of turbines,” said an executive of a private energy utility who did not want to be named.
Chinese imports have curbed prices of manufactured goods and boosted export competitiveness. Much of India’s exports contain ingredients imported from China. Generic drugs is a case in point. A report by the Boston Consulting Group and industry lobby Confederation of Indian industry (CII) found that more than 90 per cent of essential medicines made in India depended on intermediates and pharmaceutical ingredients from China.
“Any deterioration in the relationship with China could result in severe shortages in the supply of essential drugs to the country. Additionally, China could easily increase prices of some of these drugs where it enjoys a virtual monopoly,” Bart Janssens, a partner at BCG, told The Economic Times.
Abheek Barman is a journalist based in New Delhi