Indian Sports And Chinese Games

The Indian athletes at the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics will be seen wearing ‘unbranded’ sports apparel. No more Chinese designs, logos and sponsorship. With this symbolic, globally visible (since it will be visuals-only games) parting of ways with the hostile neighbour, India has also joined the global China-versus-the United States game, on the latter’s side.

The change has come after last year’s military skirmishes on the disputed border. The Indian Olympic Association has suspended its collaboration with Chinese giant Li Ning that kitted the Indian athletes and sponsored their travel. This was being done, the IOA said, to respect “sentiments of the people of the country.”

Prior to the border incidents, then sports minister Kiren Rijiju, incidentally a Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh that China claims as its territory, had said: “Li Ning designed the official sports kit inspired by India’s national colours and integrated unique graphics to emote the energy and pride of the Indian Olympic Team.”

The deal was reported to be worth INR 50 million. Li Ning was the Indian team’s apparel sponsor at the Rio Olympics five years ago and had also provided uniforms for the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games.

Tokyo Games big medal hopeful, shuttler PV Sindhu, was also sponsored by Li Ning. All that is over, at least for now. Last year, till the border incidents, Vivo, the telecom giant had sponsored India Premier League, the multi-million cricketing tournament. It returned briefly this year, apparently due to some contract obligations.

India relies heavily on products and raw materials from China in nearly every sport. According to the Department of Commerce’s data for 2018-2019, over half of India’s sports equipment was imported from China. This includes ­footballs to table tennis balls and shuttlecocks, tennis and badminton racquets and their stringing machines, mountain climbing and adventure sports gear, gym apparatus and athletics gear including javelins and high jump bars.

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Forget the no-politics-in-sports idea. Popular sentiments over the ‘betrayal’ on the border should have triggered a “boycott Chinese goods” campaign. But Prime Minister Modi’s government, keen on taking political credit, does not wish to stir the economic and trade cauldron.

This is not child’s play. The global toy market is about $100 billion, but as Modi lamented at the recent “Toycathon”, urging Indian toymakers to be ‘atmanirbhar’ (self-reliant) in making toys for children, that India’s share is only around $1.5 billion. Worse, “we import about 80 percent of our toys,” and worse still (which he didn’t say), 70 percent of this 80 percent come from China.

India is ‘critically dependent’ on China in imports across 86 tariff lines, a Group of Ministers (GoM) reported last December. Line items include consumer electronics, computer hardware, telephone equipment, electronic items, and air conditioners and refrigerators. Also, China has the largest share in India’s imports — more than 18 per cent in April-September 2020. This share has risen since, despite the border incidents and despite the pandemic, as China, unlike India, has managed to curb the spread of Covid-19 and kept its factories running.

The Indian authorities have banned a hundred Chinese apps and more are in the pipeline.  Only, the Chinese presence in India’s market – name any product – remains heavy, a fact of everyday life. Two-way trade in 2020 reached $87.6 billion, down by 5.6 percent, the trade deficit declined to a five year-low of $45.8 billion. “The trade deficit is not in dollars, it is in overdependence,” Sanjay Chadha, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry said in January.

Cell-phone has fully integrated into an Indian’s life. Visit any home or market place and see how Chinese brands dominate. They commanded 75 percent of India’s smartphone market in 2020, up from 71 percent in 2019. Given their spread, pushing Germans, French, South Koreans among others to the margins of a growing market, it is doubtful if India’s online education of millions of students, compelled by Covid-19, would have been possible.

Cell-phone is just one example. Computers and other communications gadgets and apps are hugely Chinese. Fear of a possible suspension of Chinese tech-support for their maintenance persists. Keen to avoid any such problem in future, this writer purchased a Taiwanese brand laptop last year, only to find that it was “Made in China” under Taiwanese licence.

It is no consolation that the US itself is having to urge its own basketball stars to shun Li Ning sports products because the Chinese giant is said to be using cotton sourced from its Xinjiang region where the authorities are accused of suppressing minority Muslims. Incidentally, in a tit-for-tat, Li Ning had itself suspended cooperation with the Americans earlier, “in national interests”, after American producers backed the anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong.

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The Indian story is similar to many countries. Only, not everyone has a disputed border with China. Neither is there nudging from a strategic partner like the United States to ‘balance’ the Asian scene. In a sense, India pays double price when it cannot deal with erstwhile ally Russia, Iran or anyone the US dislikes.

India’s case remains unique for several reasons. Besides a border that gets ‘live’ from time to time, and talks have made little headway in the last six decades, it has reasons to feel ‘surrounded.’ The Himalayan ranges became pregnable in the last century.  For long years, one debated on the “string of Pearls”, of China developing military bases on islands all around the Indian Ocean. The region was for long ‘Indian’ — its backyard, in broad maritime terms – no longer so.

This is old story. The Chinese deep pockets have won over just all of India’s neighbours after China formally launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). All South Asians have joined in, with varying outcome, but with bright hope of the Chinese money and technology being available — for a price. India is the sole ‘outsider’. Its pockets are not deep, nor has it established a good record of completing projects in its neighbourhood, yielding space to China.

For long years, there was a quiet pride that India and China managed well their economic and trade ties, despite an unsolved border dispute. It was called pragmatism and was contrasted with India-Pakistan, wherein the trade was restricted due to mistrust. India would show the Chinese example and accuse Pakistan of being cussed. While that remains, the China story has taken a beating. This is unlikely to normalise for long.  

The conflict-from-cradle rivalry with Pakistan has taken India miles ahead of the recalcitrant neighbour. But even that is now becoming thin. China has taken resolute striders in Pakistan in the shape of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), investing billions in building infrastructure that Pakistan could never dream of despite its decades of alliance with the West – the US in particular. Now, China, the “iron brother”, is helping out, in return for entry to the Indian Ocean. Now, the two are about to extend their collaboration, howsoever unequal and weighed in China’s favour, to a land-locked Afghanistan. Whether or not Pakistan gains “strategic depth” against India in future, a government in Kabul that may not be hospitable to India, with this extension of CPEC bears the potential of giving it “economic depth.”

Call it “Chinese East India Company”, or talk of the inevitable debt trap – who cares? In the next decade, China will have laid infrastructure that is as good, or even better than, India, across South Asia. And its CPEC will have created a significant class or rich politicians and civil and military officials in Pakistan who can, supported by military and economic heft from China, can afford to stare down at India.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Growing Chinese Footprint In Myanmar: Should India Be Worried?

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Myanmar (January 17-18) was closely watched by India. Xi reinforced his pet Belt and Road Initiative which had slagged, though Myanmar had signed in by 2018. President Xi’s personal push will give the much needed political impetus to bring fresh energy to the BRI projects in Myanmar.

Myanmar is in the doghouse at the moment with few Western corporates willing to invest in the country, since the 2017 military crackdown on Rohingya minorities, many of whom had to flee the assault of local Buddhists as well as the army. The UN had termed it a genocide against the country’s Muslim minorities. All through this period and even earlier when the military junta got no truck from the Western democracies for the house arrest of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, China had steadfastly stood with Myanmar.\

Once again when the government as well as democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi have been heavily criticised for not protecting the Rohingyas, China sided with the government in power. China’s stand was on expected lines as the Communist Party of China had never bothered much about human rights, leaving it to individual nations to deal with their problems. The one exception is Kashmir, where it has consistently supported ally Pakistan and raised the matter twice at the United Nations Security Council. Even that did not pay off as no resolution was passed against India, thanks mainly to other members of the UNSC.

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With Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the saddle, Rohingyas who would in normal circumstances thronged to India, were not welcome. So they fled to Bangladesh and few have the confidence to return home. New Delhi went out of its way to stand by Aung San Suu Kyi and her government. So while the rest of the international community, led by the US and Europe had turned against Myanmar, Asian giants India and China have continued their steadfast support to the government in Naypyitaw, Myanmar now has excellent political relations with both countries.

Despite the common approach to Myanmar, India is uneasy at China rapidly spreading its wings in a country on its backyard, bordering its sensitive north eastern states. For any country, its immediate neighbourhood is vital for its security and having China on its very door step is a matter of grave concern to strategic planners. Every neighbour of India and China like to play out the rivalry of the two Asian powers to their own advantage. It has happened in Nepal and in Sri Lanka under Mahinda Rajapakse. It can also happen in Myanmar.

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For now China is way ahead of India in Myanmar. As the world’s second largest economy, China has the economic clout to finance infrastructure projects across the world. Developing nations are desperate for money and one that comes with no strings attached on democracy and human rights is what these nations want. This is why Myanmar is so happy with President Xi Jinping’s visit. For Myanmar, largely isolated from the international community since the 2017 massacre of Rohingyas, China’s support is a boon. And it is reinforced by generous financial gains for Myanmar.

At the end of the visit the joint statement released by the two sides is an indication of the growing trust between leaders of both countries.  The statement read that China “firmly supports Myanmar’s efforts to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests and national dignity in the international arena”, an obvious reference to Western criticism of the country. China was also keen to advance “peace, stability and development in Rakhine State”. China is today Myanmar’s largest investor. Significantly, Xi and Suu Kyi talks yielded thirty three agreement, though as always these remain opaque.

One of the earlier schemes, was the Kyaukphyu deep sea port in Myanmar restive Rakhine state. This was signed by Xi when he visited Myanmar as vice president in 2009. The project is of vital geostrategic significance as it gives China access to the Indian Ocean. Chinese submarines and warships have in recent years extended its presence in the Indian Ocean, through which much of its oil is transported from the Gulf. India has been worried about China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean.

Kyaukphye is emerging as a vital cog in the BRI scheme. Kyaukphyu is the terminus of Chinese oil and gas pipelines. This area has oil and since May 2017, it has carried 22 million tons of crude oil from Kyaukphyu to Yunnan province of China The Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and economic zone calls for an investment of nearly $1.3 billion. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor was added when Aung San Suu Kyi visited China in 2017. The economic zone envisages a railway line between Kyaukphyu to Kunming the capital of Yunnan province, through Mandalay. Aung San Suu Kyi once a great friend of India, has played her cards right and hopes to benefit from friendship with both Asian rivals, now that the US and Western democracies have turned against her.

During a banquet for Xi, Aung San Suu Kyi assured China that her country always stand by its giant neighbour. “It goes without saying that a neighbouring country has no other choice, but to stand together till the end of the world,” reports quoted her as reassuring the visitor. Myanmar’s military are also on board. While on a visit to Beijing last April, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s army, senior General Min Aung Hlaing had assured his hosts that the armed forces backed China’s BRI and wanted it to be a success in Myanmar.

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Considering the current bonhomie between China and Myanmar, where does India stand? As pointed out earlier, political relations are excellent, with India going out of its way to extend support to Myanmar over the Rohingya issue. Concern about China’s growing footprints in Myanmar in 1992, when it was under military rule and Aung San Suu Kyi was backlisted by the junta, made Narasimha Rao change track. India had, like the Western world, refused to deal with the military rulers. But seeing Beijing fill in the vacuum, Rao decided to engage with Myanmar’s ruling regime. Now Myanmar is seen as a bridge between India and the ASEAN nations.

During the first NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, talk of connectivity projects took shape. The Kaladan Multi Modal Transport was conceived and begun around 2010. Yet even now the project is not complete, though India has completed the deep sea Sittwe project, again in Rakhine state and handed it over to the Myanmar government. The problem with Indian projects is that the time taken to complete a project takes too long. The government realises this and steps are now being taken to co ordinate work between different departments of the state and central governments and Myanmar authorities better.

To compete with China in the neighbourhood, India needs to be much more efficient in executing projects. Delhi needs to consider why it has done so well in Afghanistan and replicate that model. India is lagging far behind China and needs to be more focussed unless it wants to lose Myanmar to the Chinese dragon. Efficient execution of projects and abundant cash flow has made China a potent force in the region.

India has lost much valuable time but can catch up if it gets its act together. Instead of concentrating on massive projects, India’s strength is in institution building and working in fields of agriculture and small water projects which touch lives of ordinary people. Delhi has to play to its strengths and not imitate China. Perhaps that it the key to success against the rising Asian super power.