US President Donald Trump issued two executive orders on Thursday restricting Chinese social media networks TikTok and WeChat, on the grounds that they pose significant national security threats to the United States. These executive actions set a 45-day deadline to ByteDance, which owns TikTok, and Tencent, owner of WeChat, to sell the two platforms to American companies, or face a complete ban in the US.
ByteDance has already been in talks with Microsoft to sell the US operations of TikTok, an enormously popular video-sharing platform. Now by issuing the executive order, Trump has virtually ensured the certainty of that sale. WeChat, which is mainly used by the Chinese diaspora to communicate with their family members and friends in the mainland and make mobile payments, now faces a more uncertain future in the US.
Trump’s crackdown on TikTok and WeChat, and by extension, Chinese technology and business interests, opens up another front in the President’s on-going confrontation with China, which started with a trade war involving farming, dairy products and other American goods. More recently, the Trump administration has taken actions to restrict Huawei access in the US and the use of government funds to purchase Huawei products and services.
Does this latest phase in the Sino-American confrontation, which began on June 21 with the US ordering the closure of the Chinese consulate general in Houston, and China, in retaliation, closing the US consulate in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, benefit or provide an opportunity for India?
Several analysts in both Washington and New Delhi have observed that it does. It is easy to see the logic behind that argument. In restricting TikTok and WeChat, the US has merely followed India’s footsteps in banning these two and 57 Chinese apps in late June, in response to encroachments by People’s Liberation Army soldiers into Indian territory.
From a geopolitical standpoint, there is no doubt that the current US-China conflict has come at an opportune time for India, which has been engaged in multiple standoffs with China along the border in Ladakh since the beginning of this summer. It once again reinforces the convergence of security interests of India and the US on the China front.
There may be a temptation because of this to escalate the tension with China and in attempt to get concessions in Ladakh. Many armchair warriors have urged Prime Minister Modi to ally with the US and force China to the back foot, to use a cricketing term. Even though New Delhi and Washington have become closer strategic partners, especially in the past two decades, India has never openly aligned with the US on China, despite US pressure to do so.
The historic US-India civil nuclear deal, signed in 2008, was widely seen in Washington as a move to empower India as a bulwark against China. But, much to the frustration of the anti-China hawks in Washington, India has never been comfortable playing that role. This hesitancy continues till today. Notwithstanding calls by many in India and the US to do so, New Delhi has not rushed into Washington’s arms in the wake of the Galwan attack. This appears to be a quite prudent decision.
In any scenario, it is highly unlikely that the US will engage in a full-scale cold war similar to the one it waged with the erstwhile Soviet Union for much of the last half of the 20th century. China doesn’t pose any physical threat to the US, or its European allies, unlike the Soviet Union back then. Economically, the US and China are more integrated than perhaps any two large sovereign nations ever have. Besides being the source of many American goods, China also holds more than $1 trillion worth of US securities.
There is every possibility for a reset in Sino-US relations if Trump loses to Democrat Joe Biden in November. Even if Trump is re-elected, it is unlikely that he will pursue an all-out economic war with China during his second term.
Knowledgeable observers suggest that the immediate provocation for Trump’s TikTok and WeChat restrictions are not geopolitical, but domestic politics. With Covid-19 continuing to ravage the American heartland and the much anticipated US economic recovery not materializing, the President’s re-election prospects have dimmed considerably.
Having spent considerable efforts on boosting the stock market throughout his term, the economy was the primary issue Trump was planning to run on in his re-election bid. But, the impact of Covid-19 has cratered the American economy.
Indeed, the latest job report, released on Friday, revealed that more than 15 million Americans are still unemployed. And, over 30 million are receiving some type of unemployment assistance. These conditions dash any hopes for a meaningful and major economic turnaround before the November election.
In addition, Trump’s failure to develop a national plan and process to contain the spread of Coronavirus has raised serious questions among many voters about his competency. According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, nearly three-fifths of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and less than two-fifths approve.
Trump can never take the blame or assume responsibility for his own poor performance. In his mind, if he loses the presidency it will be solely because of China and its failure to contain the virus from spreading outside its borders. He began calling Covid-19 the “China virus” in an attempt to deflect attention from himself regarding his failed leadership in managing the response to the pandemic. This deflect and diversion tactic is classic Trump. It explains why the President has chosen the path of escalation with Beijing. It is not a deep-seated ideological or policy-based aversion to the Chinese. It is primarily a personal and politically motivated action taken as part of a re-election gambit.
Given this, India should engage in watchful waiting to see what the next move from Washington and Beijing will be and who will be elected President in the US in November. It should then determine how to proceed. And, do so with caution.
(Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed are personal)