Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on May 05, 2021
No Huawei in 5G is a start, No China in critical infrastructure should be next

Missing from the list of five companies shortlisted for 5G trials in India is the most controversial and the most intrusive—China’s Huawei. After hemming and hawing for years, frustrating the national security fraternity of India and leading to several debates on whether Chinese companies should be allowed into India’s 5G, New Delhi has finally aligned itself with Washington, London, Rome, Canberra, and most of the EU to keep its networks safe and intrusion-free. In other words, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP that has deep links with Huawei, and for which it has been outed from several countries across the world, will not be allowed to snoop in India.

A 4 May 2021 release from the Ministry of Communications, mentioned five companies—Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia, South Korea’s Samsung, and India’s C-DOT and Reliance JioInfocomm—as original equipment manufacturers and technology providers on whose equipment India’s 5G will run. They will offer their equipment and solutions to four telecom service providers: Bharati Airtel, Reliance JioInfocomm, Vodafone and MTNL. The spectrum trials will cover both urban and rural areas over six months.

This possibly means a marginally higher cost of such equipment in the short run, as Huawei offers the world’s cheapest at the point of purchase, even though its costs rise over time. Excluding Huawei will keep India’s critical infrastructure, telecom, in trusted hands and in a safe zone. Given China’s hegemonic aspirations and its visible anti-India geopolitical stance, including but not restricted to supporting terrorists from Pakistan or its military actions in Galwan, handing over such critical infrastructure to Beijing would be suicidal.<1>

Although accentuated because of the 3,488 km long border, this danger is not restricted to India alone. Among several other things, and impacting every country that does business with China, is its June 2017 National Intelligence Law. Four Articles (7, 9, 12 and 14) ensure that Chinese firms and citizens are bound by law to support China’s intelligence agencies, with incentives for such contributions—to act as its agents, and support, assist and cooperate with them. Given that the 5G technology is hugely intrusive, this effectively hands over the heart of a nation—its communication infrastructure—to a ruthless Party that neither has any morals nor conforms to any rules-based order.

But India does. And under the rule of law, no country can be unilaterally excluded. India’s proposal last year to the World Trade Organisation — the Essential Requirements for Transmission Terminal Equipment — adopted in June 2020 and in force from October 2020, carries “safety of users and security of telecom network,” as well as “protection of human health or safety” as vital clauses. With this notification, New Delhi has made it mandatory for telecom equipment to be tested and certified by the Telecom Engineering Centre.

This regulatory infrastructure ensures that any chance of intrusions by Chinese vendors, notably the world leader Huawei and its poor cousin ZTE, both beholden to and aligned with the CCP, ends. This does not mean that the technologies of other vendors, say Nokia or Ericsson, are not intrusive. But there are other checks and balances such as an independent judiciary in place when democracies engage with democracies—not so with an aggressive authoritarian CCP. Now that the security regulatory requirements are in place, Huawei will not be—and as the release implies has not been—able to meet them.

In addition to 5G technologies, telecom service providers will be encouraged to use 5Gi, a technology advocated by India and developed by the IIT Madras Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology and IIT Hyderabad. This technology has been approved by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies that develops technical standards for telecom networks.

With this testing underway, India takes one more step towards a faster network that enables crucial applications such as tele-medicines, tele-education, augmented reality, drone-based agriculture, self-driven cars and suchlike. With speeds that are ten times those of 4G, three times greater spectrum efficiency and “ultra low latency” to enable Industry 4.0, a large number of sectors, from agriculture and smart cities to traffic management and internet of things, will become possible.

The risk of appointing a particular vendor carries the real possibility of getting locked into that technology for capacity expansion or upgrades. On its part, India is seeking, what Rajeev Chandrasekhar describes, as non-proprietary technology architecture. This requirement excludes Huawei: “The world has woken up to the importance of having trusted networks that their businesses and customers use to access the Internet. The DoT and MeiTY needs to work to expand the current programs and support/encourage/enable a comprehensive medium to long term Technology strategy — that encourages domestic Technologies, Open source, Inter-operable platforms like OpenRAN — all aimed at creating real Technology capabilities in India AND protect against dominance of proprietary Technologies/Platforms in Indian Internet access or core networks.”

This technical point feeds into and supports the geopolitical requirement. As Samir Saran and Akhil Deo argue, India must not contribute to the digital and economic rise of the same power that harms it: “China will continue to gather information on Indians. More worrisome is the insidious ability of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to interfere in or influence India’s political and social spheres. During the Doklam stand-off, the security establishment discovered that the Chinese-owned UC Browser was filtering certain news on Android handsets in India to shape perceptions and outcomes — classic information warfare in the digital age. Recently, we have seen content critical of China being taken down on one of the banned apps and moderation of other incidents and images as well.”

With this policy action of 5G testing, we hope, the CCP and all its commercial arms get no access to India’s critical infrastructure. Earlier, Nitin Gadkari had already banned Chinese firms from bidding for India’s highway projects. Other critical infrastructure sectors such as physical (ports, energy, railways); virtual (information technology, internet, broadband); systemic (banking, finance); and other areas (space, nuclear, public health) now need to follow through and ban the entry of Chinese firms.

While lauding the government, we retain our scepticism and hope that there are no U-turns in the future, no diplomatic give-and-take, no policy reversal through a second list… no negotiations on the No Huawei issue. The national security of India and the prevention of Beijing’s intrusion into India’s telecom, in particular, and critical infrastructure, in general, is paramount and something the government, irrespective of its texture, ideology or politics, must ensure. Huawei is out — and must stay out.

<1> (Read this paper for a deeper understanding of the risks and this blog for a focussed analysis on tech intrusions.)

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Gautam Chikermane

Gautam Chikermane

Gautam Chikermane is a Vice President at ORF. His areas of research are economics, politics and foreign policy. A Jefferson Fellow (Fall 2001) at the East-West ...

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