India is becoming an increasingly influential player in the ongoing technology conflict and competition between the U.S. and China -- from its border conflict with China (dating back to the 1960s), to the banning of all apps made by Chinese tech companies, to some Indian entrepreneurs promising to never take Chinese money as investments. Meanwhile, American tech companies and tech-focused investment firms (Amazon, Facebook, Silver Lake, Intel, Sequoia India, Walmart, Google) are pumping money into India’s tech sector at a rapid pace, though mostly concentrated in Jio.
While India’s recent actions certainly play into the larger narrative of decoupling, there is way more entanglement that meets the eye, especially when you look at the threads of money that interconnect the tech industries between these three countries.
To explore this tension between “decoupling” and “entanglement”, let’s look at the corporate strategic investments made by large American and Chinese tech companies in Indian “unicorns” (tech companies with a private market valuation of 1 billion USD or more). I choose to look at “corporate strategic investments” only, because these types of investments are typically only made if there is a tight long-term business alignment between the corporate investors and the invested companies, thus a strong signal of entanglement. That’s not to say there’s no alignment for a venture capital, private equity or sovereign wealth fund investment; the signal is just weaker.
Of course, India’s large and complex economy is more than just its tech unicorns. I’m focusing on them, because they do tend to be a leading indicator of where an economy’s tech sector is headed. There are also enough Indian unicorns now -- 21 total -- to actually analyze; this analysis would not have been possible five years ago.
Breaking Down the Entanglement
Before breaking down these corporate strategic investments in Indian unicorns, let’s spell out my sources of research first, so you know where these numbers came from. The Indian unicorns come from this continuously-maintained global unicorn list by CB Insights. The information on strategic investments come from CB Insights, Crunchbase, and various media reports about these companies. No proprietary information is disclosed in this post; you can reproduce everything by just Googling around.
Out of the 21 Indian tech unicorns, more than half have taken strategic investments from Chinese tech companies, about a third have taken similar investments from American companies, while a third have not taken money from either sources. What’s most interesting is that there are six unicorns who have attracted strategic investments from both American and Chinese companies, namely:
- One97 (owns Paytm) -- Investors: Alibaba/Ant Financials, Intel
- Oyo -- Investors: Didi Chuxing, Airbnb
- Snapdeal -- Investors: Alibaba, Intel, eBay
- Zomato -- Investors: Ant Financials, Apple
- PolicyBazaar -- Investors: Tencent, Intel
- Udaan -- Investors: Tencent, Microsoft
Since Chinese tech giants are invested in more than half of the Indian unicorns, I thought it’d be interesting to break down this group further. This chart breaks down the number of Indian unicorns each of these Chinese tech giants have made strategic investments in.
As any observer of the tech scene in China would know, the entire landscape is carved out into either Alibaba/Ant Financials territory or Tencent territory, manifested in aggressive strategic investments and proxy rivalries. The very existence of Didi Chuxing came out of a merger between Didi Dache (backed by Tencent) and Kuaidi Dache (backed by Alibaba) to mark a truce between the rivalry of these two giants in the ridesharing industry.
There is no evidence that India’s tech landscape is being carved out in quite the same way. And I’m sure the Indian tech community will resist that reality, especially given the current climate. But there is evidence that the proxy rivalry between Alibaba and Tencent is playing out in certain industries in India as well.
The best example is the fierce competition between Zomato (backed by Ant Financials, thus Alibaba) and Swiggy (backed by Tencent and Meituan-Dianping) in the food delivery business. The recent anti-China sentiment in India directly affected Zomato’s ability to access Ant’s investment, hurting its chances to compete with Swiggy. It’s worth noting that Uber sold its India food delivery service to Zomato in January for a 9.99% stake, so Uber also has skin in this rivalry. More broadly, Uber also sold its China operations to Didi Chuxing in 2016 for a 17.7% stake at that time, so it has vested interests in all of Didi’s investment activities in India as well. But Uber does not appear directly in the fundraising history of any of these Indian unicorns.
Much entanglement indeed.
Whose Money is “Smarter”?
There’s more to these investments than just the money wired from one account to another. It’s never just about the money, but more about the partnership and knowledge transfer from the successes and failures of the investors, which are arguably more valuable than the cash itself. It’s the so-called “smart” money, which becomes an especially important consideration when a company thinks about taking corporate strategic investments.
So is Chinese money “smarter” than American money when it comes to India? Looking at this breakdown by industry of the Indian unicorns, there is good reason to think that Indian entrepreneurs believe this is the case.
For several of the categories in this chart, Chinese tech companies are either the clear leaders in terms of innovation and technology (E-Commerce) or are operating in market conditions that are more analogous to India’s own situation (Logistics/Supply Chain and FinTech).
To double-click on FinTech for a moment, it’s not that there’s no innovation in the U.S.; in fact, plenty is happening in payment, loans, and insurance. But a lot of the innovation is built on the infrastructure and user behaviors around credit cards -- something that isn’t ingrained in either China or India. Thus, in China, the payment experience leapfrogged directly from dirty paper cash to digital cash, while other financial products are tied to the digital payment gateways, like AliPay and WeChat Pay, as well. It would make sense for India, whose Internet economy is roughly about where China’s was 10-15 years ago, to follow this path and add its own innovation to meet the needs and habits of Indian users. But it would not make sense for India to introduce a credit card system like America’s then innovate on top of that.
The “Others” catch-all category in the chart comprises a collection of industries: EdTech, AdTech, Gaming, Food Delivery, and Clean Energy. In all of these areas, it’s fair to say that the leading Chinese and American companies are competitively and comparably valuable to an Indian firm looking to grow and build in the same industries.
For the sake of focus and clarity, this post only looks at corporate strategic investors and purposely leaves out some of the other major investment players in India -- Softbank (Japan), Temasek (Singapore), Tiger Global, other private equity firms, and many many VC funds -- even though they are very much part of the entanglement. Even Berkshire Hathaway, famously allergic to investing in tech, is in the game with its $360 million USD investment in Paytm (India’s leading payment product), which entangles its interests and incentives with Alibaba/Ant Financials.
Personally, I support some level of “decoupling” for all countries. If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that when it comes to running a country, a certain level of self-sufficiency and resource independence is absolutely necessary, if only to fulfill the basic duty of taking care of one’s own citizens.
But too much of the discussion around “decoupling” is binary and somewhat devoid of the current technology and business realities. (I recently explored the technology reality of global cloud computing in “Southeast Asia and the Pacific Light Cable Network”.) When it comes to the India-China-US trifecta, there’s clearly a lot to untangle before you can decouple. So the realistic and pragmatic question is: how much untangling is worthwhile to achieve an equally worthwhile level of decoupling?
Chinese Version Below
在分析对印度独角兽的战略投资之前，让我先说明一下研究信息的来源，这样大家可以清楚的知道这些数字是从哪里来的。印度独角兽来自CB Insights持续维护的全球独角兽名单。有关战略投资的信息来自CB Insights、Crunchbase和与这些公司有关的各种媒体报道。这篇文章中没有披露任何保密信息；谁都可以通过谷歌来找到这些数字和信息。
- One97（拥有Paytm）-- 投资者：阿里巴巴/蚂蚁金服、英特尔
- Oyo -- 投资者：滴滴出行、Airbnb
- Snapdeal -- 投资者：阿里巴巴、英特尔、eBay
- Zomato -- 投资者：蚂蚁金服、苹果
- PolicyBazaar -- 投资者：腾讯、英特尔
- Udaan -- 投资者：腾讯、微软
为了专注和清晰起见，本文只分析了企业战略投资，有意没有看其他在印度很活跃的投资机构，比如软银（日本）、Temasek（新加坡）、Tiger Global、以及许多许多PE和风投基金，尽管它们都是“纠缠”其中的重要部分。就连巴菲特的Berkshire Hathaway也参与了这场游戏，在2018年投资3.6亿美元给印度最大的支付产品Paytm。因为这笔投资，Berkshire的利益也就与阿里/蚂蚁金服纠缠在一起。