India’s Telecom Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad in a recent statement announced that New Delhi will allow “all vendors” to participate in its 5G trials—crucial for developing the country’s 5G network architecture. The announcement brought relief to China’s Huawei, which has been at the centre of debates over national security implications of allowing Huawei’s entry into the country’s 5G grid.
In fact, security concerns related to 5G hinting at the Chinese company surfaced at key dialogues between India and its closest partners, the US and Japan. Chinese officials and party-run media celebrated India’s nod to Huawei as a move that could trigger “win-win cooperation” between the two Asian giants, and one that signified that India didn’t fall for the US’s “tar and feathering” of the controversial company.
5G will revolutionize the information space as it would go beyond connecting people to connecting critical national infrastructure and bringing a wide range of machines and objects to the network, massively expanding the scope of the Internet of Things (IoT). This would mean that those in control of this technology will also have unprecedented power over infrastructure which is indispensable to a country’s security, economy, and its peoples’ safety. This is why it is critical to consider the ample evidence there exists that substantiates Huawei’s links with the Chinese state and the People’s Liberation Army. In India’s case, the risk associated with outsourcing control over India’s critical national infrastructure to a foreign authoritarian regime only gets amplified considering the deep-seated trust deficit in their bilateral relationship anchored over their territorial disputes, China’s relationship with Pakistan, its lax attitude towards Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, and India’s growing proximity with the United States. Additionally, given that Chinese companies are mandated by China’s National Intelligence Law to “support, assist, and cooperate with national intelligence efforts”, Huawei presents a very real risk of collecting and relaying sensitive information from India to the PRC. In fact, espionage-related risks of Huawei’s presence in India could also potentially hurt other states with whom India has extensive economic and defence ties, including the United States.
These concerns have been widely raised by India’s strategic community. In fact, even political groups who form Modi’s core support base have protested the government’s decision to allow Huawei to participate in these 5G trials. Arguably, mindful of these concerns and yet worried about China’s threats of imposing “reverse sanctions” in case of Huawei’s blocking, the Indian government has continued the cautious approach towards China that defines their overall bilateral relationship, but it has still not removed all obstacles from Huawei’s path to dominance over India’s 5G space. With this recently announced decision, India’s Department of Telecom has essentially passed the baton on to the country’s telecom service providers to partner with a vendor of their choosing from a range of players including Huawei, Ericsson, Samsung, Nokia, and ZTE that build and provide 5G infrastructure such as base stations and antenna arrays. In fact, government officials have assured that every trial will be scrutinised, and security concerns related to individual vendors will be dealt with in a case-by-case fashion.
However, even if India were to explicitly ban Huawei from India, it would still not eliminate all risk associated with the remote handling of India’s 5G network by its adversarial northern neighbour. Components manufactured by Chinese companies including Huawei could be used in infrastructure such as radar sensors developed by other vendors operational in India.
Balancing its need to embrace powerful technological advancements with serious questions about national security, India will have to lay greater stress on the need to augment its indigenous 5G capabilities.