Indians call for boycott of Chinese goods after fatal border clashes

Hannah Ellis-Petersen South Asia correspondent
Photograph: Sanjeev Gupta/EPA

Indians have called for a boycott on Chinese goods and the Indian government has pledged to block investment and increase tariffs for China in the aftermath of the deadly border clash in the Himalayas that left 20 Indian soldiers dead and 76 injured.

The fighting on Monday night on a steep precipice along the disputed border in the mountainous region of Ladakh was the worst violence between Indian and Chinese forces in 45 years. China has still not disclosed if it suffered any casualties.

Indian government officials said they plan to impose higher trade barriers and raise import duties on around 300 products from China. India currently has a $59.3bn (£47.7nb) trade deficit with China, with 11% of India’s imports coming from China.

The Indian Telecom Ministry ordered government telecom providers and other private companies to ban all future Chinese deals and equipment upgrades. Chinese companies will also be banned from participating in tenders for future projects, which is likely to include plans to upgrade 4G services in India.

Calls for a boycott of Chinese goods, technology and investment have been growing in India since early May, when Chinese troops began to build up in disputed territory in Ladakh, and violent skirmishes and stand-offs occurred between troops on the ground. An Indian-built program that helps users identify and delete Chinese apps on their phones was downloaded more than 5m times in May before it was blocked by Google.

An Indian butter company briefly had its Twitter account blocked in early June after it posted adverts captioned with the thinly veiled anti-China message “exit the dragon?”.

However, the boycott campaign quickly gathered momentum on both local and government levels across India after news emerged of the violence in the Galwan Valley, where soldiers fought in hand-to-hand conflict, with stones and clubs wrapped in barbed wire used as weapons.

On Friday an Indian government official claimed that Chinese forces had dammed mountain streams near the site of the skirmish, waited for Indian troops to approach, then released torrents of water that knocked several of the soldiers off balance.

“The strong gush of water made the men lose balance. The Chinese charged, pushed the army personnel and many fell into the Galwan river,” the Hindu paper quoted the official saying. “The patrolling team walked into an ambush … The men were outnumbered by the Chinese.”

Sonam Wangchuk, a pioneering Indian engineer who lives and works in Ladakh, has been at the forefront of calls for a boycott on China, in response to what he described as China’s “bullying” behaviour over recent years, where land used by local herdsman to graze goats in Ladakh has slowly been encroached on by Chinese forces.

“If we just meet them with military force, that’s what China are looking for,” said Wangchuk. “We should do what they fear more, which is economic damage. India sends so much money … but we need to get ourselves out of this trap and call out China for what they are: a wolf, a rogue nation.”

Wangchuk said the campaign had already been more successful than he had ever anticipated. “Citizens can make a huge difference,” he said. “The same wallets that built China in the last 30 years can also bring them down.”

Since Monday, anti-China protests have broken out all over India, with effigies of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, set alight. In Gujarat there was footage of people throwing their Chinese-made televisions over their balconies.

In Delhi, the Residents Welfare Association of Defence Colony, an affluent neighbourhood of south Delhi, declared “war” on China through a boycott of goods.

Retired army major Ranjit Singh, who is president of the RWA, said in a video message to residents: “I declare Defence Colony is at war. Unfortunately we cannot take up guns and bullets but definitely there are other means. We can break China’s backbone economically.”

Both sides have blamed the other for the conflict, with India alleging that China carried out a “premeditated” attack on its forces, while China claims that Indian forces entered their territory on three occasions. Satellite footage confirms there had been a significant build up of Chinese troops in areas they were previously absent over the past month.

Satellite footage confirms build up of Chinese troops on disputed border. Photograph: Planet Labs/Reuters

The situation remains tense. While both India and China agreed to continue the process of de-escalation, discussions on Wednesday between Chinese and Indian army generals remained “inconclusive”.

The Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), which represents over 60 million Indian traders, stated it would be stepping up its anti-China boycott to include 450 broad categories of commodities, which cover over 3,000 Chinese products ranging from cosmetics to handbags and furniture.

Pressure was also building to cancel the lucrative contract recently given to a Chinese construction company to build an underground stretch of a new rapid rail project in Delhi. General secretary of the opposition Congress party, Priyanka Gandhi, accused the government of adopting a “a weak strategy of kneeling down” before China and handing them the project.

There is a sense that China is concerned about the Indian calls for a boycott. A piece in the Global Times, the newspaper which is a mouthpiece for the Communist party, called for India to curb “illogical boycott-China voices” after the border clash, adding: “It is unrealistic and self-destructive for Asia’s third-largest economy to launch frictions with the largest economy in the region.”