July 14, 2020 | Washington Examiner

Five reasons it’s smart to ban Chinese apps

July 14, 2020 | Washington Examiner

Five reasons it’s smart to ban Chinese apps

Both President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are openly talking about emulating India’s ban on some Chinese mobile phone apps. While this may seem trivial, it is actually a surprisingly effective way to hit back at, and protect from, Chinese economic and strategic aggression.

India banned 59 Chinese apps after repeated Chinese aggression, including a border clash that left 20 Indian soldiers dead. What India realized was that apps play an important role in China’s espionage and development of weaponized advanced artificial intelligence technology. It was also something that could be done quickly, inflicting major losses on Chinese firms that invested billions in the Indian market, while creating opportunities for local firms to fill the gap.

Prior to New Delhi’s ban, Beijing had prioritized achieving dominance in India’s massive tech ecosystem. An estimated 70% of Indian start-ups involve Chinese investment, with a strong concentration on apps. One of the blocked apps — TikTok, a video sharing platform — had approximately 200 million Indian users, around a quarter of TikTok’s global market.

Indian policymakers understood the implications of China’s focus on apps and banned them for five main reasons.

The first was espionage. Some of the Chinese apps have the ability to surveil users’ activity, communications, location, and more. From a security perspective, this can mean monitoring troop movement, identifying key political influencers, finding leverage for blackmail, stealing intellectual property, etc. This becomes even more of an issue when the apps are linked to the Internet of Things, enabling them to siphon and control data from, for example, home appliances, vehicles, and security systems. Also of concern was access to infrastructure such as electrical grids, water treatment systems, and power plants.

A second reason was that Beijing has prioritized gaining advantage in the field of AI, which sees as essential to achieving strategic and economic dominance, especially in the development of advanced weapons systems. Development of AI is heavily reliant on processing vast amounts of metadata, which app users can supply. Before the ban, India was supplying Chinese apps with hundreds of millions of users. For those using China-accessible payment systems, a single click could supply approximately 200 data points. Starve China of such data, and that slows down its AI development.

A third reason was that the blocking of Chinese apps could be done quickly. Unlike the extraction of Chinese technology from hardware supply lines, which can take months or years, this could be done in weeks.

Fourth, the move had an immediate economic effect on the many Chinese companies invested heavily in Indian rollouts, with TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, investing around $1 billion to penetrate the large Indian market. Now, with the ban, China’s Global Times is estimating that ByteDance could lose up to $6 billion in valuation. This will have a serious effect on the viability of these companies and their stock valuations.

Finally, the act of banning predatory Chinese competition from the market gives room for Indian companies to grow and take over the space while providing more secure data storage and a source of ample metadata to help feed Indian AI development.

China knows the value of protecting one’s own market to allow for indigenous development. That’s one of the reasons why major global brands such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Wikipedia are blocked in China, ensuring that Chinese data, information flow, and profits remain under Beijing’s purview.

India’s decision to block Chinese apps is more important and effective than it might seem at first glance. It cuts off Beijing from valuable intelligence sources, slows down China’s military development, knocks billions out of its economy, and promotes local Indian economic development, all in a matter of weeks.

Pompeo said that the United States is considering a ban on TikTok. When asked if people in the U.S. should have TikTok or other Chinese social media apps on their phone, Pompeo replied, “Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Cleo Paskal is nonresident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Cleo on Twitter @CleoPaskal.

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Issues:

China Cyber India Indo-Pacific