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Three reasons why it’s not Huawei or the highway for India’s 5G future

India needs to assess Huawei based on technical requirements and security capabilities, rather than being drawn into a US-China tug of war.

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India has not yet decided whether to allow Chinese telecommunications companies, including Huawei, in its 5G trials. The United States has urged China to exclude Chinese vendors, while Chinese officials last week slammed the US for doing so and urged India to keep the door open for Chinese firms.

While the Narendra Modi government considers the issue, here are three factors it should weigh carefully.

1. It’s not about the politics

There is a temptation to view the 5G debate as an entirely political matter — and to locate it as a reflection of India’s broader attitude towards the US and China. The US has already warned the United Kingdom that including Chinese vendors in the UK’s 5G network could compromise future US-UK information sharing and cooperation, because of the security implications. Nevertheless, Huawei is already reportedly helping four of the UK’s mobile phone operators to build their networks, and the UK has appeared to take a call to allow Chinese equipment in what is being called “non-core” components of its5G infrastructure.

China, meanwhile, has urged India to include Huawei in its trials. During a visit to India this week, Yang Yanyi, a former Chinese envoy to the EU and currently a member of the foreign affairs committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political
advisory body, said India should not be “exclusive” in its choice.

Yang, leading a delegation on trade issues, was quoted in the Indian media as slamming Washington, saying it “should be ashamed for trying to exert state power to suppress a Chinese company and other companies from developing countries from excelling in [telecommunications].”

While both the US and China push their point of view, for India, politicising a technical and security issue would be counterproductive. Rather, focusing on its self-interest – from security to the interests of Indian consumers – would be a better path. Indeed, this was the message from India’s ambassador to China Vikram Misri, who said in a recent interview that while India was weighing its options, “whatever decision we take will be taken in our own national interest”. Misri pointed out that “Chinese telecoms firms are already supplying equipment to India [in 3G and 4G networks], so there is obviously interest on their part to continue this relationship, and
they have been talking to their partners in India about it.”

Government agencies are reportedly divided on the matter. K. Vijay Raghavan, who heads a committee on 5G, was reported as favouring excluding Huawei in the 5G trials on security grounds, while other ministries were in favour of allowing Chinese vendors while adopting

Also read: ‘Chinese spy’ charges not an issue, Huawei is in the thick of 5G events in India

2. Is a complete ban justified?

India should carefully consider the merits of a complete ban targeting one country, as advocated by some in the US and followed by Australia. The UK has, so far, appeared to see it as excessive, viewing only a limited security threat from using cost-effective Chinese equipment in non-core infrastructure. As James Andrew Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed out in a recent article, the United Kingdom “wants to take a middle position,
not a full ban but also not ceding control or critical networks to Huawei and China”, arguing it can “manage the risk created by Huawei by blocking the use of any Huawei equipment around sensitive facilities”.

This might also be a favourable outcome for India’s mobile phone companies, which have benefited massively from cheaper Chinese equipment in rolling out the rapid expansion of India’s 3G and 4G networks. A popular misconception is that India has to entirely choose one provider to build an entire network, which is not the case.

Excluding Chinese equipment for 5G for its entire network would come with costs for companies and consumers, particularly if, as the UK has argued, there is no merit in a complete exclusion. Can India afford the costs of a complete exclusion? That needs to be examined.

Also read: Can’t wait no more, says Huawei as India holds off decision on choosing firm for 5G trials

3. Should India risk giving Chinese companies a ‘core’ role?

India should, at the same time, be clear-eyed about the security implications of allowing a Chinese company a “core” role, regardless of how attractive an offer it may be commercially. If the UK believes it can “manage the risk” from Chinese vendors, the Indian government should ask if it has the capacities and structures in place to do so, which remains to be seen. What are India’s capabilities to do so?

India should be under no illusions about Huawei – or any Chinese company, private or state-owned – and their ties to the Chinese state. Claims from Chinese officials, including Yang Yanyi in India, that there is “no evidence” implicating Huawei are disingenuous, to say the least, with numerous documented cases of questionable practices within the company, whether it involves accusations of stealing foreign technology or according to the US Department of Justice, running internal programs to reward employees for theft of foreign commercial secrets.

Arguments that Huawei is no different from a Western company that works closely with its government hold little water for many reasons. For one, the legal restrictions in place in most countries, regulating what governments can do and protecting the interests of companies, are
absent entirely in China. Second, the relationship between the Chinese private sector and the party-state is unique, to the say the least. If Chinese companies prefer playing down their links to the state overseas, at home they make no bones about serving the party’s interests and goals. In Huawei’s case, the opacity of its ownership structure is another question-mark.

Also read: As US-China tech cold war on Huawei heats up, India is the ground zero

Moreover, attempting to draw an equivalence between Chinese telecommunications companies, which may or may not serve their state, and Western ones, that may or may not do likewise, is problematic as far as India is concerned considering its unique relations with China, a country with which it shares a complicated relationship and an unresolved border. Ignoring the political and security context, as long as India’s political and security problems with China remain unresolved, would be irresponsible. This should also send a message to China that if it wants to fully realise the potential of doing business with India, it should reconsider its approach on security issues, whether on the stalled boundary negotiations or its activities in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

It would also be irresponsible to take at face value any guarantees from a Chinese company, without the capability to enforce those guarantees. And only the government of India knows whether it is capable of doing so. As India weighs these three factors, it should be clear-eyed about the benefits and costs. Ultimately, it would be better served assessing these factors based on India’s technical requirements and capabilities to ensure security and manage risk, rather than be drawn into the distractions of a US-China tug of war.

The author is a Visiting Fellow at Brookings India and was previously China correspondent for India Today and The Hindu. Views are personal.

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  1. Use Huawei as a stick to beat down China at its own nosey policy. towards Kashmir. Yes we might face some cost escalation but we can get them from US (as it would also please them) as they also would be developing non-chinese dependent hardware. ‘Patli gully se nikalo’ attitude brought us to this stage in the world. It time to behave like one if we want to be a super power in next 25 years.

  2. China blatantly supports Pakistan, blocks India in UN for NSG or even Masood Azhar. Has bad human rights violations on own muslims but supports pakistan in arming taliban, jaish n god only knows what other organisations. Such acts if enemy country cannot be allowed. Why should India allow malware infected telecom gear, we should not allow Huawei even if offered free.

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