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How fears of Chinese digital espionage ‘got RAW involved in Mauritius, led to snooping scandal’

Allegations that Mauritius PM Pravind Jugnauth allowed Indian tech team to install equipment for intercepting internet traffic have snowballed into growing political scandal.

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New Delhi: Technical experts from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) issued multiple warnings, beginning early last year, about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) using internet infrastructure built by controversial Chinese firm Huawei in Mauritius to conduct digital espionage against India and Western targets across the Indian Ocean, intelligence sources have told ThePrint.

India’s concerns, which centred on a submarine landing station at Baie-du-Jacotet in Mauritius, were conveyed to the country through its National Security Advisor (NSA) Kumaresan Ilango, a former RAW officer, added the sources.

Just last month, Mauritius Telecom (MT) chief executive Sherry Singh stepped down, claiming in an interview after the resignation that he received instructions from Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth to allow the installation of internet monitoring equipment at the Baie-du-Jacotet submarine-cable station.

Singh’s allegations have snowballed into a growing political scandal, with opposition parties accusing him of treason.

The equipment RAW sought to install is alleged to have consisted of digital sniffers — tools which allow internet traffic to be intercepted and stored for later analysis. 

India, sources said, has already deployed similar equipment at Kochi, one of the landing points for the South Africa-Far East (SAFE) optical fibre submarine cable linking South Africa, Mauritius, the French territory of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, India, and Malaysia.

Espionage targets on the PLA’s radar in the region include an Indian-built facility at Agaléga island, 1,120 kilometres from the Mauritian capital, Port Louis. The island is being developed into a staging post for Indian maritime intelligence gathering on Chinese shipping. 

France, which operates naval and air assets out of the island of La Réunion, is increasingly worried about digital espionage by the PLA, sources added.

“There was a security issue, and it was necessary to do this survey in Mauritius,” Jugnauth admitted earlier this month, adding that he “personally approached” PM Narendra Modi, requesting him to “send a competent team for this survey”.

The Indian government has offered no official comment on the issue.


Also Read: Mauritius ‘snooping’ scandal — the ‘moustache man’ from India in the centre of the storm


Eyeballing Mauritius

China began embedding itself in Mauritius’s internet infrastructure in 2015, which is the year then-trusted Jugnauth aide Sherry Singh took charge of Mauritius Telecom.

That same year, Huawei made an unsolicited offer to set up the Mauritius Safe City Project, a dense network of over 4,000 closed-circuit television cameras (CCTVs) linked to cloud-based analytics which power a range of functions, from facial recognition to monitoring traffic and crowd movement.

Even though the Mauritius government claimed the system was necessary to fight narcotics and organised crime, World Bank data shows that the country’s crime rates — never significant to begin with — were at record lows at the time this project was initiated.

The push to install Huawei surveillance equipment in Mauritius was part of a larger effort that saw similar systems being set up by China in 73 cities across 52 countries, including France, Germany, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Mexico.

Funded with a $350 million loan from China’s Export-Import Bank to Mauritius Telecom, the Safe City Project was implemented without competitive bidding, using exemptions which permit procurements “undertaken to protect national security or defence”.

The National Audit Office (NAO) of Mauritius, scholar Roukaya Kasenally recorded, pointed to serious flaws in the Safe City project’s contract and expenditure management. Among other issues, auditors noted that $25 million made in payments was unsupported by vouchers or other documentation.

Fishing for data?

While working on the Safe City Project, Huawei also bagged the contract to build a 700-kilometre submarine cable providing high-speed data to the country’s second-largest island, Rodrigues. 

The MARS undersea cable, one of more than a dozen laid by Huawei in Africa, also lands at Baie-du-Jacotet. Beijing’s digital push in Africa includes the 15,000-kilometre, $425 million PEACE cable, which connects China with the continent via Europe.

The British communications-intelligence service GCHQ, as well as the United States National Security Agency (NSA), are known to have tapped submarine-cable landing points to collect vast amounts of data for analysis.

Experts have warned that China has been seeking similar capabilities. 

Ever since it announced the Digital Silk Road in 2015, Beijing has steadily grown its global internet infrastructure with help from equipment from firms like Huawei. The equipment, experts say, includes digital back doors which allow its intelligence services to gather data.

In 2018, Australia barred Huawei from participating in a project that would have linked its networks to the Solomon Islands via a submarine cable.

Last year, a World Bank-funded project to link the Pacific nations of Nauru, Kiribati and Federated States of Micronesia to Guam — home to significant US military assets — was scrapped after Washington raised security concerns.

The contract for this project, many believe, was on the verge of going to HMN Technologies, earlier Huawei Marine Networks, a company in which the majority stake is owned by Shanghai-listed Hengtong Optic-Electric Co Ltd.

HMN Technologies’ bid for the $72.5 million project was over 20 per cent lower than bids by rivals Nokia-owned Alcatel Submarine Networks (ASN) and Japan’s NEC Corporation.

A geopolitical game

The growing influence of China in Mauritius is also linked to its legal disputes with the United Kingdom — Beijing has been demanding recognition of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean as its territory. 

Despite an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice and demands from the United Nations General Assembly, the United Kingdom has continued to assert sovereignty over the Chagos with quiet support from the USA.

The group of islands include Diego Garcia, the largest island in the archipelago, which has been leased to the United States as a military base.

Though India remains Mauritius’s principal strategic partner, 2016 saw the opening of a branch of the Bank of China in Port Louis, followed by the two countries signing a free trade agreement five years later.

Moreover, Washington believes the inclusion of Mauritius in the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty would prevent aircraft and submarines with strategic weapons from using Diego Garcia.

But like other strategically-located nations, Mauritius believes it should earn revenues from global powers seeking to maintain a military presence on Mauritian land.

For instance, Djibouti — in the Horn of Africa — receives $70 million from the United States, $36 million from France, $20 million from China, $2.6 million from Italy, and undisclosed amounts from Japan and Saudi Arabia for allowing their troops to be stationed on its territory.

Mauritius also loses potential revenues from fishing in Chagos waters, where the United Kingdom has imposed an exclusion zone.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)


Also Read: Chinese response to border stand-off with India is to construct more highways along LAC


 

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