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A truly globalised world of the 21st century rests on the diffusion of the Internet and technology. What is also a fact of the 21st century that a country like China, which still is labelled as a developing country, has aced artificial intelligence (AI) and various forms of cyber warfare. In this context, for the other countries of the multipolar, 21st century international system, suspicions regarding usage of readily available and affordable Chinese technology is a constant. India is no different, and as the country inches towards its 5G trials, the question of how to assess security threats from China’s Huawei looms large.


Huawei, founded in China in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, formerly an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China is a private company like Alibaba, Haier and Tencent, which unlike state owned enterprises (SOEs) such as China Mobile and China Railway Corporation claims to operate independently of the government. The CEOs of SOEs are appointed by the Chinese government, while that of private enterprises are private individuals who establish the companies themselves. As of December 2019, Huawei products were completely banned from mobile networks in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., while there were partial bans in Japan, Taiwan and Canada. Belgium, Denmark and Sweden too have adopted a wait-and-watch policy. The U.S. has been applying pressure on countries, including India to reject network equipment from Huawei. India has allowed the Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer to participate in the 5G trials. In July 2019, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had stated that India has its own security issues over allowing Huawei to participate in the 5G trials. Huawei had urged India to make an “informed and independent” decision on permitting its 5G trials in the country.


As facts stand, Huawei has invested USD 2.5 billion in India and has been in India for two decades. It employs around 6000 people in India – the most outside of China. Telecom companies like Vodafone Idea and Airtel have already been using Huawei gear and such companies could face challenges in the face of an outright ban on Huawei. Additionally, consumers could also face disruptions in services if companies are asked to remove equipment. Nevertheless, the fact also remains that vendors such as Huawei have to share information with the Chinese government. China’s national intelligence law passed in 2017 states that organisations should “support, cooperate with and collaborate” in national intelligence work. Chinese authorities can use the information collected to facilitate espionage or cyber attacks over Huawei communication technology and consumer tech devices like phones. Huawei definitely has been producing some innovative phones and has worked on network equipment for years. It has also debunked such concerns stating that if the company is ever forced to “maliciously violate” the trust of consumers, it would rather shut the company down. However, this statement also is indicative of the fact that the possibility of malicious violations do exist.


The company has been caught previously conducting corporate espionage in the U.S., attempting to steal the intellectual property of T-Mobiles phones testing robot. Nevertheless, it has not been identified facilitating Chinese government spying. This year in January (2020), two men working in the Polish telecommunications industry were detained on suspicions of spying – a Chinese man employed by Huawei, who was formerly an attaché at the Chinese Consulate in Gdansk; and a Polish national who was formerly a counter intelligence officer. The Huawei employee has since then been sacked for bringing the company into disrepute.


The prevalent fear in most countries taking an adverse stance towards Huawei and its products is that its networking equipment could potentially facilitate espionage, even though it has not been detected doing so thus far. The difficulty lies in the fact that it is impossible to audit a chip with millions of embedded transistors of software with millions of lines of code, which consumers cannot make full sense of and blindly consent to accepting terms that pop up on their equipment screens. Huawei’s size and its ties to the PLA make it additionally come under the scanner. According to Nicholas Weaver, a staff researcher at the International Computer Science Institute, University of California, sabotage in telecom systems is undetectable as those systems are specifically designed to be wiretapped. So a little bit of sabotage in the specific wiretap, enabling routines would be extremely hard to detect. The insertion of a small sabotage chip means the end of cyber security. Thus, even though Huawei has never been caught so far in assisting espionage for the Chinese government, the fact remains that it is next to impossible to even detect any such attempt.


The novelty of cyber warfare that rests on cyber technology, telecommunications and the Internet is that it allows for perfect anonymity. This in itself has changed the way conflict and warfare in the international system works. As far as India is concerned, a 2018 report of India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) showed that an unprecedented 35 percent of cyber-attacks against India were attributed to China. During 2010-18, China’s main goal in targeting India was to gain access to sensitive information from the government and the private sector, which totalled a 55 percent of cases; followed by a disruption of daily activities, an example of which was witnessed in 2020 when China’s use of Stuxnet worm compromised India’s communication satellite and led to a loss of television signal for many. The usage of malicious software such as Trojans to enter target networks has been the most common method in this particular period. Such intrusions can remain dormant for a long time, only to emerge at a later date.


For India, which has the 5G trials soon, cutting-edge technology like driverless vehicles and the delivery of healthcare and education rest on critical technology and 5G. Any action that threatens such industries is problematic. The association of Huawei with state-sponsored technology theft and grave risks to critical supply chains is here to remain. In India’s case, wherein 90 percent of its telecom equipment is imported, concerns over foreign surveillance always loom large, be it Huawei or Ericsson. India needs to step up the creation of its indigenous technology, while carrying out strict security reviews of Huawei’s equipment. Currently more or less every network provider in India lacks the pace with which Chinese companies like Huawei are deploying the 5G technology. Huawei is at least a year ahead, if not more than all the other players in the 5G technology space. If India has to secure its economic and national interests, urgent development of indigenous technology is a necessity.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.