Cyber Security

INDIA’S HUAWEI 5G DILEMMA

By Prasad Nallapati

SUMMARY

Pressure is mounting on India from both the US and China on use of the Huawei Corp equipment in its 5thGeneration (5G) telecom operations.  The US maintains that Huawei’s technology is a serious security risk and hence will not share intelligence with those who opt for the Chinese company.  Beijing, on the other hand, threatened of `reverse sanctions’ on Indian companies working in China.

This paper analyzes the American allegations against the Huawei using various reports of legal filings against the company in US and foreign courts and independent forensic reports on vulnerabilities in its technology. These studies support the apprehensions of technical and security risks of using the Huawei communication systems.  The Chinese government has weaponized their private companies and academic researchers to not only steal American technologies but also carry out widespread espionage activities around the world.

But the problem is that the same is true with US technical corporations and their security agencies. All American telecom equipment makers cooperate with their national intelligence services like the National Security Agency (NSA) as the Cisco did.  Recent Pentagon whistleblowers like Edward Snowden had revealed the extent of penetration that the NSA had worldwide, including among allies such as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

The US ban on the Huawei is not an isolated case but part of a larger American trade war against China for technical superiority.  Australian Professor Clinton Fernandes said that what at stake in Trump’s war on Huawei is control of the global computer-chip (semiconductor) industry. This component power everything from mobile phones to military systems. David Goldman @ Spengler, an American expert on China, says that the US intelligence community’s alarm at Chinese 5G mobile broadband has less to do with a threat of Chinese eavesdropping than the likelihood that electronic eavesdropping will become next to impossible, thanks to quantum cryptography that the Chinese have mastered.

What options are available for India?

The Huawei is undoubtedly the `technology’ leader that could quickly roll out the 5thGeneration communications and they are relatively cheaper.  None of the western companies is anywhere closer to the Huawei’s timeline and even when they are ready, they will be very expensive.  In terms of technical security, there is very little to choose between Chinese and Western telecom companies as both pose similar risk.  The question is who would you be more comfortable with being “compromised,” the Chinese or Americans?

The Chinese are obviously our adversaries, while the US is a friendly country whose actions are sometimes ambivalent and not helpful.  There are doubts of the Trump administration maintaining the ban on the Huawei as there are enough indications that it may be let off as part of a trade agreement with China.

The US lobbying to cut out the Huawei has questionable success so far even among its staunch allies.  The UK, Germany, Italy etc. have declared their intentions against barring the company from their 5G roll out.  So are many other countries in Africa and Asia.  With such support, the pressure on the Huawei may fizzle out sooner or later.

So, any decision by India either way at this stage will leave a bad taste with the other country when they patch up later. India may be better served to wait and watch to see how the US-China trade war plays out and the outcome of American presidential elections next year.  A little delay in the 5G roll out would not do much harm to India’s economic progress.

In the meantime, India may use the Huawei as a bargain chip in negotiations to resolve its disputes with the US and China. Indian disputes with the US range from trade issues to strategic interests abroad, while New Delhi and Beijing are wrestling with more complicated issues of border demarcation, relations with Pakistan, etc.  If India persists with tough bargaining, it might be able to get some favourable returns.

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INDIA’S HUAWEI 5G DILEMMA

Pressure is mounting on India from both the US and China on use of the Huawei Corp equipment in its 5thGeneration (5G) telecom operations.  The Trump administration has launched a worldwide campaign to keep the company out of 5G operations as trails are under way for rolling out the next generation of digital communications. They accused the company of stealing technology and giving access to Chinese security agencies to spy on its customers using backdoors left in their equipment. The Chinese company was also alleged to have business contacts with Iran in violation of sanctions.  The founder of the company, Ren Zhengfei, was a former engineer in the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) and also a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was the latest to convey the American warningto India during his visit to New Delhi in the first week of October. Robert Strayer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Cyber and International Communications and Information Policy, who headed a delegation to India, conveyed a similar message to his counterparts. Earlier, Secretary of State Michael Pompeithreatened that the US would not share information with allies, including NATO states, if they incorporate Chinese technology in their networks.

The Chinese are also equally menacing.  Their officials had warned of `reverse sanctions’ on Indian companies working in China if Huawei’s 5G rollout is blocked.  Huawei’s CEO in India Jay Chen threatened to shift its investments in India to another country.  The company has reported to have invested about $3.5 billion in India and operates a manufacturing unit in Chennai for production of equipment for 2G, 3G and 4G equipment. Chen also offered to sign a “no-back door” pact with the Indian government to assuage potential security concerns. He said many potential Chinese investors are watching the treatment being meted to the Huawei in India.

What options are available for India?  It is not going to be an easy decision for New Delhi. A thorough inter-departmental review is underway to carry out to study not only the technical aspects, but also economic, political and security implications in selecting right vendors for launch of its 5G networks.  The following is an attempt to analyze and assess the American allegations and independent forensic investigations into the Huawei technology.

US LEGAL ACTION AGAINST HUAWEI FOR ITS IRAN CONTACTS

The Trump administration banned Huawei Technologies Co Ltd in May this year from buying vital U.S. technology without special approval, effectively barring its equipment from U.S. telecom networks on national security grounds.  The US has added 46 affiliates and subsidiaries to the `entity list’, effectively restricting over 100 Huawei-related entities from purchasing American suppliers. Huawei was, however, given a reprieve initially for 90 days as part of a transition period, which was extended for a similar period in August that permits the company to buy components from U.S. companies to supply existing customers.

Legal proceedings have been launched against the company charging it of misleading Washington and international banks about its relationship with two subsidiaries, Huawei Device USA and Skycom Tech, to conduct business with Iran in violation of sanctions imposed on that country.  According to an indictment in the Eastern District court of New York in January this year, Huawei and its financial chief Ms. Meng Wanzhou, who is also daughter of Ren Zhengfei, were charged of misleading four unnamed financial institutions about their businesses in Iran. The Wall Street Journal has later reported that HSBC and Standard Chartered PLC were among the institutions told by Huawei that it was not doing business in Iran through Skycom.  Meng was arrested while on a visit to Canada in December last year at the behest of the US and is fighting an extradition case.

Court filingsreleased in Vancouver, Canada on August 21 named the other two banks as well, Citigroup and BNP Paribas and detailed discussions that Huawei had with them.  The court documents shed new light on the U.S. case against Huawei and its finance chief, Meng Wanzhou, suggesting that the company had close ties with Skycom Tech Co., a Hong Kong-based firm which had business activities in Iran. The U.S. has alleged that Skycom was under Huawei’s control for much longer than the company disclosed to its banks. The entity that bought Skycom from Huawei in 2007—a Mauritius-registered company called Canicula Holdings Ltd.—was operated by Huawei as “an unofficial subsidiary in Syria,” according to the filings.

Huawei lent Canicula $15.3 million to buy Skycom from Huawei in a series of transactions beginning in 2009. The documents also revealed a Huawei unit functioning in Sudan. They allege that Huawei representatives—including the company’s treasurer and Ms. Meng—told Citigroup that the company was in compliance with all sanctions, according to a 2017 email described in the filings. A 2014 BNP document showed Huawei describing Skycom as “one of the business partners of Huawei.” According to press reports published in 2012-13 by Reuters news agency, Huawei had allegedly sold US-made computer equipment in Iran through Skycom in violation of American sanctions.

Huawei had also been alleged of secretly working in North Koreaon various communication projects, including building and maintaining the country’s wireless network, according to a report in Washington Post on July 23. Huawei’s work was in direct violation of the sanctions imposed on North Korea because of its nuclear weapons activity.

HUAWEI AND OTHER CHINESSE COMPANIES ASSISTING PLA

Huawei and several other Chinese companies have faced a number of allegations in civil suits about intellectual property theft in the United States for more than a decade but were largely ignored by previous administrations.  The Justice Department, under the Trump administration, has now taken a serious view of them and is aggressively pursuing criminal charges against the Chinese companies and individuals.  Almost every month there is a case of arrest of people facing charges of technology thefts and spying activities. Following are some of the recent prominent cases relating to these charges in which the Chinese government has used academics and research institutions to steal technology.

A Texas jury in June found Huawei and Chinse professor Bo Maohad stolen solid-state drive computer technology of the Silicon Valley’s CNEX Labs Inc.  According to the criminal charges filed against them, the Huawei donated $ 100,000 to the computer science department of the University of Texas-Arlington.  The company has then arranged for Prof. Mao to seek to work on a research project relating to this technology at the department.   Mao was an associate professor at Xiamen University in Fujian, China. He obtained a computer board from CNEX that would enable him to test the firm’s unique solid-state drive (SSD) storage technology, according to the complaint.  The technology allows massive data centers to manage the ever-growing volume of information generated by artificial intelligence and other advanced applications.

The case seems to have larger implications as the prosecutors suspect wider conspiracy involving other executives of the Huawei. In the civil case in Texas, CNEX alleged Huawei Deputy Chairman Eric Xu participated in a conspiracy to steal its technology with the help of Mao and others. Mao was arrested on August 14 and the case has since been transferred to the federal court in Brroklyn, New York, where it has been assigned to the same prosecutor and federal judge handling the case against Huawei deputy chairwoman Meng Wanzhou for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.

In another case in Seattle in 2017, prosecutors accused Huawei of stealing information from T-Mobileabout a phone-testing robot, “Tappy.” The jury there found Huawei civilly liable for misappropriating the technology and awarded the T-Mobile $ 4.8 million for a breach of contract claim.

Huawei’s investigations prompted scrutiny of other Chinse companies

Huawei’s deep penetration into American industry and research institutions prompted serious security concerns forcing the Congress to demand an intensive review of other Chinse companiesworking in the US.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman, Ajit Pai, was asked (Sept 16, 2019) by Senators Charles Schumer (Dem) and Tom Cotton (Rep) to review approvals given to other Chinese companies, China Telecom and China Unicom, to operate in the United States. The FCC earlier in May decided to deny another state-owned Chinese telecommunications company, China Mobile Ltd, the right to provide services in the US, citing risks that the Chinese government could use the company to conduct espionage against the host government.  The FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr has actually recommended further action against the company rather than simply denying its application as there was evidence of “China Telecom has been hijacking US traffic and redirecting it through China.”

The FBI arrested last month (September 2019) Chinese government official Zhongsan Liu, who was allegedly directing a major Chinese government operation to obtain American technology by recruiting experts at high-technology universities. According to court filings, quoted by Bill Gertzin Asia Times, Lui headed a Beijing front group in New Jersey called the China Association for International Exchange of Personnel that is allegedly part of China’s Thousand Talents Program. The program, according to the FBI, aims to recruit Chinese Americans and others to support high tech research in China. The US Defense Department claims that the Thousand Talents Program is not limited to commercial efforts, but also supports the large-scale military built up by the PLA and, allegedly, also has links to the China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

The non-profit organization C4ADS recently published its new report (September 25, 2019) on how the Chinese government is increasingly tapping its private companies to acquire foreign technology for its military industry.  They are being pressed to bid for defense contracts as part of President Xi’s “military-civil fusion” drive to upgrade the country’s military industry long dominated by a handful of inefficient state-run contractors and research institutions.

In one example of military-civil fusion at work, detailed in the C4ADS report for the first time, privately held Beijing Highlander Digital Technology used a series of deals across Europe and Canada to build up China’s military, including by contributing technology to the country’s first aircraft carrier. The company touts its role in China’s defense industry on its Chinese-language website and in company filings, including a claim in its 2017 annual report that its products are featured on “all models” of Chinese warships, according to C4ADS.

Highlander has been doing deals with international technology firms that supply Western militaries since at least 2004, according to the report. It hit a snag after buying in 2016 a Canadian firm called Oceanworks International Corp., which had the U.S. Navy as a customer. Canadian officials ordered Highlander to divest in 2017 and stipulated it couldn’t access Oceanworks’ “know-how, trade secrets or confidential information,” according to a U.S. court filing that referred to the Chinese firm throughout as “Beijing Company.” Earlier this month, Oceanworks executive Glen Omer Viau and his firm pleaded guilty to charges related to improperly sharing with China technical information about a U.S. Navy submarine rescue system.

Another Chinese company, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology, was also placed (October 10, 2019) on the blacklist by the US Department of Commerce along with another 27 Chinese businesses, including cutting-edge companies in artificial intelligence research, Megvii Technology and SenseTime, which were also accused of human rights violations against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. According to Gordon Watts, Hikvision is now the largest surveillance company in the world and operates in more than 100 countries.  In the UK alone, it has an estimated 1.3 million security cameras.  British legislators have accused Hikvision of working with Chinese security forces in Tibet and Xinjiang to develop an intrusive police and security apparatus, where the system uses facial recognition technology which can distinguish minorities from `ethnic’ Han Chinese populations.

Notwithstanding such close scrutiny of the Chinese companies, its investors are quite resilient to find ways to maneuver through legal ambiguities to invest in Silicon Valley’s artificial intelligence startups and venture capital funds.  The 2018 US law intended to curb foreign access to sensible technologies are yet to be defined. American tech entrepreneurs, starved of funds, are only too happy to connect to these Chinese approaches. Wall Street Journal reported, “Last month, more than 10,000 people flocked to a technology conference in Santa Clara, Calif., an annual gathering of mostly Chinese and U.S. tech workers and investors known as the Silicon Valley Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum. Speakers included scientists affiliated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and U.S. national labs.”

INDEPENDENT FORENSIC INVESTIGATIONS INTO HUAWEI TECHNOLOGIES

While the Huawei executives deny any suggestions that its equipment could be used to tap and monitor communications of its consumers, Cybersecurity experts disagree, as discussed in a recent Lawfare article: “Whoever provides the technology for 5G networks will be sitting in a position of incredible access and, thus, power. All data sent and received from a mobile device, smart home or even a car will pass through a network built with Huawei devices. These devices will be remotely controlled and updated, leading to exponential vectors of attack.”

Columbus, Ohio-based Finite State cybersecurity firm has issued a detailed report on the state of security of Huawei’s gear and equipment.  The firm claimed that its automated system analyzed more than 1.5 million uniquefiles embedded within 9,936 firmware images supporting 558 different products within Huawei’s enterprise networking product lines — many of which could be used within the core of 5G networks.  They looked for risks including hard-coded backdoor credentials, unsafe use of cryptographic keys, indicators of insecure software development practices, and the presence of known and 0-day vulnerabilities.

The results of the analysis show that Huawei devices quantitatively pose a high risk to their users. In virtually all categories examined, Huawei devices were found to be less secure than those from other vendors making similar devices. Their investigations revealed that there were hundreds of cases of potential backdoor vulnerabilities – improper default configurations that could allow Huawei or a malicious attacker to covertly access a user’s device. These vulnerabilities manifested in the form of hard-coded, default user accounts and passwords, and several types of embedded cryptographic keys.

The study also found that each Huawei device had a large number of known vulnerabilities associated with the third-party and open-source libraries embedded within the firmware. On average, there were 102 known vulnerabilities (CVEs) associated with each firmware, a significant percentage of which were rated as high or critical in their severity. In some cases, engineers chose to use 20-year-old versions of software libraries rather than current, secure alternatives. Huawei engineers wrote insecure functions with misleading names indicating that the function was safe from conditions such as buffer overflows when in fact it was not.  By using advanced binary analysis, they found that these unsafely built software components have hundreds of potential 0-day vulnerabilities. Overall, despite Huawei’s claims about prioritizing security, the security of their devices appears to lag behind the rest of the industry.

Taiwanese researchers also sounded similar warnings relating to Huawei’s technical vulnerabilities.  Li Jung-Shian, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, who previously headed the cybersecurity wing at the National Centre of High-Performance Computing,  said (March 2019) that he found “mystery firmware – instructions to a device that are stored on chips rather than in programs – in Huawei’s smartphones sold in Taiwan, including what appeared to be hidden back doors in complex operating systems and subsystems.

HUAWEI ACTIVITIES IN OTHER COUNTRIES

Huawei was in the centre of a major controversy last year with explosive reports of the Chinese government spying on communications at the African Union for five years until it was finally discovered in 2017. Every night, huge data streamed out of the computers at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to unknown locations controlled by China. The breach represented “what appears to be one of the longest-running thefts of confidential government data that we know about,” according to Danielle Cave, a senior analyst at The Australian Strategic Policy Institute.  Huawei had supplied the equipment, configured the servers and trained the staff of the AU in 2012 as part of “desktop cloud” project to help facilitate communications at the organization and among member countries. The AU headquarters building itself was built by the Chinese government as part of its assistance program in the continent.

Huawei has an increasing footprint across Africa providing not only telecom services and products, but also helping several countries to spy on their political opponents, according to Wall Street Journal. Huawei engineers assisted Ugandan authorities to hack the WhatsApp and Skype accounts of the popular musician and opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, more popularly known as Bobi Wine. In Zambia, the WSJ reported, Huawei technicians helped the government crack the communications of a team of bloggers running a pro-opposition news site, enabling police to track and arrest them. The Ugandan police force recently confirmed that they were installing a $126 million facial recognition infrastructurefrom Huawei across the country. The system, which is part of Huawei’s Safe City initiative, is already in use in the capital Kampala and includes CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition software. Huawei has similar Safe Cities contracts in other African countries, including Kenya, Botswana, Mauritius and Zambia.

In Europe, Polish authorities have arrested(January 2019) Piotr Durbajlo and Weijing “Stanislaw” Wang on charges of espionage on behalf of the Chinese government. Wang, a Chinse national, was a sales director at Huawei, while Durbajlo is a former official of the Polish domestic counterintelligence agency and a former telecom advisor to Prime Minister Beata Szydlo.  The latter designed special smartphones for use of senior officials and leaders of Poland.

In a recent report released in March this year, British officials accused Huawei of repeatedly failing to address security flaws in its products.  They expressed concern that the company has not implemented companywide cybersecurity practices that it vowed to put in place in 2012.  While the report said that Huawei’s “poor software engineering” is the problem, it discounted a suggestion that the defects are a result of Chinese state interference.

The British Telecom group, Vodafone,had an issue of dealing with a security flaw with Huawei technology a decade ago, according to the Bloomberg(April 30, 2019). It identified hidden backdoors in software that could have handed Huawei unauthorized access to the carrier’s fixed-line network in Italy that was used to connect to the internet. The financial news wire cited Vodafone’s security briefing documents from 2009 and 2011. Vodafone confirmed that the issues were resolved but stressed it was incorrect to suggest that the flaw could have allowed unauthorized access to Italy’s fixed-line network.  “The ‘backdoor’ that Bloomberg refers to is Telnet, which is a protocol that is commonly used by many vendors in the industry for performing diagnostic functions. It would not have been accessible from the internet,” Vodafone said in an emailed statement. “The issues were identified by independent security testing, initiated by Vodafone as part of our routine security measures, and fixed at the time by Huawei,” it added.

US ALLIES ARE NOT CONVINCED YET

Many countries are not impressed by American arguments of security threats from Huawei’s technologies for 5G networks. The company’s Chief Marketing Officer stated that Huawei has already secured more than 50 commercial 5G contracts around the world.  Of these, 28 are in Europe, 11 in the Middle East, 6 in Asia-Pacific, 4 in South America and 1 in Africa.  Russianoperator MTS partnered with Huawei to roll out 5G in Moscow. It has also offered its Aurora operating system to the Chinese group, as the US has cut off access to its Android operating system that the company uses on its phones.

The EU is reviewing risk analysis of security threats posed by telecom-equipment suppliers, particularly from countries with “no democratic and legal restrictions in place.”  However, many of the member states are not inclined to completely bar the Chinese company from their next generation networks.

German government has come out on October 15 with a draftof new security requirements for 5G networks which do not preclude Huawei or other Chinese vendors from supplying equipment, despite the US and EU warnings of risks posed by these companies.  The new security standards, brought out by the German Federal Network Agency, require manufacturers and suppliers of network components to demonstrate their “trustworthiness” through various certification procedures. Germany may not want to alienate China and appears to be weighing more on immediate economic considerations.

Italy, Norway, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungaryare backing the Chinese company.

Latest indications show that Boris Johnson’s government in UK also appears to be moving toward allowing Huawei access to “non-contentious” parts of the new network.  A final decision is to be taken after further deliberations by the Cabinet before end of this year.  Former Prime Minister Theresa May had earlier supported Huawei which sparked a crisis in her cabinet.  One of the main considerations to swing toward Huawei, according to a senior official, was that there was no alternative source of supplier in the West for the technology developed by the Chinese company and without it, the UK could be left behind.  Huawei has a near monopoly in the area.

In the Middle East, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and UAE are going ahead to rollout next generation network this year with the help of the Huawei. In Southeast Asia, Huawei has been widely welcomed. The firm opened a 5G testing station in Thailand this year. Indonesia’s communications minister recently told Reuters that the government could not be “paranoid” about Huawei, while Malaysia’s prime minister has said his country will use the company’s technology “as much as possible.”

For Africa, Chinese-Built Internet is better than no internet at all.  Hence, despite the allegations of the Chinese government stealing data from computers of the Chinese-built AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, AU leaders have decided to solidify ties with Huawei.  The company signed a dealin June this year with the African Union to expand partnerships on a range of technologies, from broadband and “cloud” computing to 5G and artificial intelligence. In 2012, Huawei built a “desktop cloud” project for the African Union to help the organization communicate and conduct its business more effectively. Three years later, AU leaders and Huawei executives signed a memorandum of understanding to deepen and expand their partnership. This year’s renewal marks the most ambitious agreement to date.

Very few countries have so far committed to implement American ban on the Huawei.  Australia and Japan have barred the company in their 5G operations, while Canada and New Zealand are likely to follow suit. Vice President Mike Pence signed an agreement with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki pledging to cooperate on protecting the security of 5G networks against threats such as Huawei. He also urged Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to eschew Huawei technology. Lithuania’s “National Threat Assessment”identified China as a new threat to its security in addition to Russia, which is considered as its No.1 enemy. But they too are in dilemma to choose the right company for their 5G services.

US-CHINA WAR FOR TECHNICAL SUPERIORITY

The apprehensions of technical and security risks of using the Huawei communication systems are true and accurate.  They did have `back doors’ in their equipment and they do cooperate in allowing access to Chinse security agencies to spy on consuming countries using their systems and technology.  American legal proceedings against the company and its executives demonstrated how the Chinese government has weaponized their private companies and academic researchers to not only steal American technologies but also carry out espionage activities around the world.

But the problem is that the same is true with US technical corporations and their security agencies. All American telecom equipment makers cooperate with their national intelligence services like the National Security Agency (NSA) as the Cisco did.  Recent Pentagon whistleblowers like Edward Snowden had revealed the extent of penetration that the NSA had worldwide, including among allies such as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.  A recent BuzzFeed News report disclosed a joint letter to Mark Zuckerberg by the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, the US Attorney General William Barr; the US acting Secretary of Home land Security, Kevin McAleenan; and Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton not to “proceed with its plan to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services without ensuring that there is no reduction to user safety and without including a means for a lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens.”

Today, the Huawei is undoubtedly the technical leaderto roll out the next generation of communications.  It has the largest number of patents for these technologies.  British government officials admitted that the technology developed by the company is not available off the shelf anywhere and there is no good substitute for it.  They lamented that the Huawei has near monopoly in this area and if they do not use its technology they could be left behind.  Western technical companies like the Cisco, Ericsson etc., are yet to prove their readiness to roll out 5G communications and when they do, they would be damn expensive.

The US ban on the Huawei is not an isolated case but part of a larger American trade war against China for technical superiority.  Australian Professor Clinton Fernandessaid that what at stake in Trump’s war on Huawei is control of the global computer-chip (semiconductor) industry.  This component power everything from mobile phones to military systems. Trump’s executive order in May bans “any acquisition, importation, transfer, installation, dealing in, or use of any information and communications technology or service,” without special approval.  This chokes off the global supply of semiconductors, and technology to make semiconductors, to Huawei, thereby limiting China’s rate of technological progress, economic development and ability to compete with the US.

US China tech war on control of global networks extends even to submarine cable systemsthat carry about 95% of intercontinental voice and data traffic, making them critical to the economies and national security of most countries. Huawei Marine Networks Co, an ancillary of the parent company, has worked on some 90 projects to build or upgrade submarine cables around the world. It completed 3,750-mile cabling between Brazil and Cameroon last year and is current laying 7,500-mile cable connecting Europe, Asia and Africa. Undersea cables are owned mainly by telecom operators.

David Goldman@ Spengler, an American expert on China, says that the US intelligence community’s alarm at Chinese 5G mobile broadband has less to do with a threat of Chinese eavesdropping than the likelihood that electronic eavesdropping will become next to impossible, thanks to quantum cryptography that the Chinese have mastered.  Signal intelligence, mainly electronic eavesdropping, takes up the lion’s share of US intelligence budget of nearly $80 billion a year.

WHAT OPTIONS INDIA HAS

The Huawei is undoubtedly the `technology’ leader that could quickly roll out the 5thGeneration communications and they are relatively cheaper.  None of the western companies is anywhere closer to the Huawei’s timeline and even when they are ready, they will be very expensive.  American accusations of security risks of using Huawei equipment are proven to be accurate. But there are similar risks of using the technologies of American or European companies as exposed by several whistleblowers like Edward Snowden.  The question is who would you be more comfortable with being “compromised,” the Chinese or Americans?

The Chinese are obviously our adversaries, while the US is a friendly country whose actions are sometimes ambivalent and not helpful.  There are doubts of the Trump administration maintaining the ban on the Huawei as there are enough indications that it may be let off as part of a trade agreement with China. So, any decision by India either way at this stage will leave a bad taste with the other country.

The US lobbying to cut out the Huawei has questionable success so far even among its staunch allies.  The UK, Germany, Italy etc. have declared their intentions against barring the company from their 5G roll out.  So are many other countries in Africa and Asia.  With such support, the pressure on the Huawei may fizzle out sooner or later.  India may be better served to wait and watch to see how the US-China trade war plays out and the outcome of American presidential elections next year.  A little delay in the 5G roll out would not do much harm to India’s economic progress.

In the meantime, India may use the Huawei as a bargain chip in negotiations to resolve its disputes with the US and China. Indian disputes with the US range from trade issues to strategic interests abroad, while New Delhi and Beijing are wrestling with more complicated issues of border demarcation, relations with Pakistan, etc.  If India persists with tough bargaining, it might be able to get some favourable returns.

(Prasad Nallapati is President of the Hyderabad-based Think Tank, Centre for Asia-Africa Policy Research and former Additional Secretary to Govt of India)

 

 

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