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.

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Return To Status Quo Ante On Tibet Govt In Exile

A few weeks ago, in a sober and low-key ceremony on account of the pervasive and raging Wuhan Virus, Penpa Tsering was sworn in as the democratically elected Sikyong or the President of the Dharamshala based Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government in exile.

From the time results of the elections were declared in mid-April 2021 to the swearing-in ceremony on May 27 and even thereafter, messages of felicitations have poured in from parliamentarians across the world, Tibet support groups, international bodies and institutions. Notably, the US State Department, parliamentarians from EU countries, Canada and from Japan and Australia – 3 of the 4 Quad member countries- and Taiwan’s Foreign Minister sent congratulatory messages to the new Sikyong.

However, there was no official media reportage on the election, the swearing-in ceremony, or message of felicitation to the new democratically elected Sikyong from political leaders, officials or organizations affiliated to the Indian government.

The conspicuous silence is evidently in line with the classified directive issued by GOI in a letter dated Feb 22, 2018 that was circulated to all offices in the Central and State governments. The letter imposed restrictions in the form of an “advisory” to all Ministries/Departments of the Government of India as well as State Governments not to accept any invitation or participate in any function organized or hosted by the CTA. It was issued on the eve of the then Foreign Secretary’s visit to China citing the reason to be a “very sensitive time in India-China relations”.

Speculations on the underlying reasons for the issue of the referred letter made by a stunned CTA, Tibetan community in exile and many China/Tibet experts varied.

Some believed that it was a condition to pave the way for Prime Minister Narendra Modi – President Xi Summit in Wuhan that followed in April 2018.

Some said that it was to persuade the Chinese to change their position on Masood Azhar being listed as a terrorist by the UN.

A few opined that it was to get China’s nod on India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

One assessment suggested that it could have been a mere pique at the undisclosed visit of a senior representative from the Dalai Lama set up to China ostensibly as part of their back-channel negotiations for the resumption of dialogue between the two sides.

Whatever the considerations at that time were, the revised policy guidelines were in line with India’s genuine desire to continue to build on the goodwill generated during Xi’s parleys with PM Modi in Ahmedabad. It was a significant step taken by India to bridge the “trust deficit” coming in the way of improvement in bilateral relations.

However, India’s efforts to build mutual trust were brutally undermined in May 2020 by the pre-meditated and brazen display of deceit and deception when an aggressive and expansionist China diverted troops to occupy territory previously not under its control in Eastern Ladakh.

It blatantly violated painstakingly negotiated bilateral agreements, confidence-building measures, protocols and understandings. The “trust deficit” which India sought to bridge actually widened due to Chinese duplicity.

Meanwhile, the international situation has also undergone significant changes. The Biden Administration has signalled its inclination to abide by the Tibet Policy and Support Act.

It made an unprecedented gesture in publicly extending greetings to the CTA on the occasion of the Tibetan New Year. It has indicated a steady and firm resolve to reconfigure its relations with China to one of “strategic competition”.

China is viewed as being bent on disrupting and defying the rules-based international order and threatening peace and stability. The Quad has galvanized. The EU has frozen a massive investment agreement with China.

Internal repression in China is getting more focus than ever in the recent past. Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong and Taiwan are gradually gaining renewed global attention for a variety of political and strategic reasons.

Under these circumstances, an urgent need is felt for a substantive reappraisal of India’s relations with China across the board and with Tibet in particular.

Many ideas have been mooted in the strategic community as a befitting political riposte. These range from India abandoning the One China policy, to awarding the Dalai Lama with the highest civilian honour, to the Indian government expressing support for all the decisions taken by the Dalai Lama in the matter of his reincarnation, to welcoming the 15th Dalai Lama as an honoured guest of India.

While all such suggestions can be discussed on their merit and efficacy, the lowest hanging fruit is the quiet unpublicized burial of the February 22, 2018 directive and return to status quo ante in relation to interaction with the CTA as it prevailed since 2011.

At that time, in an astute and far-sighted move, the Dalai Lama approved the devolution of all the administrative and political powers vested in him to democratically elected Tibetan leaders.

The Government of India viewed this in a positive light. The former Sikyong, Lobsang Sangay, was invited to attend PM Modi’s oath-taking ceremony in May 2014 along with other Heads of Government.

Contacts and interaction with the Dalai Lama and Sikyong at the highest political levels, albeit unofficial, continued. This was despite China conveying her objections to India for permitting the CTA to carry out their legitimate functions and pursuit of religious activities.

A return to the pre-February 22, 2018 policy will send the right signal about India’s determination to shun any notion of appeasement in its relations with China as the latter continues to play hardball on border negotiations.

It will be a small but significant step to bring the Tibet issue back on the table. It will have the desired effect in the Tibetan community in exile and within Tibet in the form of tacit support to the CTA’s international advocacy efforts to resume Sino-Tibet negotiations. It will also indicate India’s willingness to join the call from the wider comity of democratic countries in this respect.

The time to shed any perceived ambivalence on the Tibet issue is now. The time to restore the status quo ante on India’s policy towards the CTA, and the Tibetan community is here.

(The author is former Special Secretary, Government of India, Cabinet Secretariat – ANI)