India must remember PLA’s 5G leverage to intercept or deny the opponent’s military communications, in the backdrop of sharing an unresolved border with China

Expanding the base of national power in tandem with national security strategy has been fundamental to China’s rise under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This expansion is drawn on the laurels of the country’s economic growth, which is presented as a point of glory for the party and its leadership. Its forthcoming “China Standards 2035”, a 15-year blueprint that is supposed to be released at some point in 2020, as a concurrent plan to support the “Made in China 2025” global manufacturing plan, exhibits a fine reflection of its ambitions for next generation technologies. The aim is to wield global influence in areas ranging from Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data flow to telecommunication networks.

The yet to be released blueprint “China Standards 2035” seeks to overcome the perception often associated with Chinese technological and industrial products for being qualitatively inferior. While the goal is to outshine the rest of the world in high-technologies such as AI and 5G, the prime target is to set a technically high-standard with patents that will set the tone for next-gen technologies. “China Standards 2035” drives forward the CCP’s strategy to capture, create and ultimately define global networks, platforms and standards. Of this, redefining international standards are of utmost strategic importance to Beijing as it ensures a long-term command over global resources and information. This approach has been advocated by Beijing since its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, wherein it revealed its National Standardisation Strategy. Ultimately, “China Standards 2035” is a way to further “Made in China 2025” by not just managing where goods are made but also the international standards that control their production, consumption and exchange. In other words, China’s Techno-National 5G gambit involves a 3S—standards, security and strategy—approach to emerge as a power that could shape the global technological order.

Given such an ambition, how should the world, especially India, perceive this Chinese ambition vis-à-vis the role of the Huawei in influencing the 5G global auction? The merits of technology are double-edged: it enables, as the driver of globalisation, to forge closer connections, while on the other hand it poses national security concerns acting as a “back-door” malware having a nexus with the state’s national security apparatus. Huawei is a state-backed enterprise and has a close relationship with state security agencies of China such as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and major high-tech companies that act as spy agencies for the Chinese state apparatus. The technology will bolster China’s tactical and operational capabilities on the battlefield, help Beijing conduct conventional or counterinsurgency operations, and boost its goals to attain a “world class force”, which would have an upper hand at “winning informationised wars”. Hence, Beijing’s global 5G technological mart, led by Huawei, is more than just a technological enterprise. It brings enormous strategic underpinnings, with national power coupled with state and systemic practices that possess military-commercial surveillance together. China’s military association with 5G poses a great security threat for the US, its allies and partners. For India, it is imperative to consider PLA’s 5G leverage to intercept or deny the opponent’s military communications, in the backdrop of sharing an unresolved border with China.

The CCP plays a dominant role in shaping the country’s technological governance. The state-centric advance is replicated in the CCP’s approach to promoting 5G technology, where the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has been central to the scheme of technological advancement. Under Xi Jinping, the government’s sway over Chinese private companies has been enhanced through heavy regulations, blurring the lines between public and private. Like most business owners in China, Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei is also a member of the CCP. Further, China in 2017 declared its National Intelligence Law, where it stated that Chinese companies must “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence gathering work”, reiterating the possibility of national security information being passed through the CCP as a legal mandate. This leads to a sense of mistrust for many countries, including India, as not just Huawei, but Chinese companies in general are viewed as actors of an authoritarian state.

This practice of control and regulation led the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo to categorise China’s ruling party as the “central threat of our times”. Moreover, the Trump administration, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, moved to block shipments of semiconductors to Huawei from global chip makers, enhancing the battle of global technological dominance. China too retaliated with a warning to put US companies on an “unreliable entity list”. This includes measures to launch investigations and impose restrictions on US companies such as Apple Inc, Cisco Systems Inc and Qualcomm Inc, as well as suspending purchases of Boeing Co air-planes. In 2019, China ordered its public offices to refrain from using computers and software made in foreign nations; the move was aimed mainly at US companies in retaliation to Washington’s anti-Huawei crusade.

To put it directly, it is not the 5G technology being rolled out by a Chinese company which is the problem, but it is the underlying values of unilateralism, lack of openness and the revisionist desires to change the liberal international order which remain the challenge. While standards, security and strategy have hence served as major drivers of China’s 5G ambition, techno-nationalism has remained pivotal to CCP’s planning.

For India, its inclusion of Huawei in its 5G trials stemmed from multiple factors. The telecom giant has a huge digital footprint in India through close cooperation with Airtel and Vodafone in the 4G sector. Barring Huawei participation would have led to a strong reaction from China, which India wanted to avoid. Also, Huawei offered strategically lower prices than all its competitors. Nonetheless, the security ramifications of Huawei’s inclusion have puzzled India’s decisions and choices. China’s recent claim on the entire Mount Everest echoes its 5G goals, replicating a case how Huawei along with China Telecom set up the world’s highest 5G base station on the Chinese side of Mount Everest.

For India, Chinese digital assertiveness is as alarming as China’s adventurism in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing is fast emerging as a technological power with innovation as a hub, posing a technological and infrastructure challenge to the American predominance in world affairs, even though the US enjoys a huge strategic edge on technological competency vis-à-vis China currently. It is hence important for New Delhi to take a judicious call on Huawei’s 5G inclusions and not overlook American concerns. While cost considerations are essential, it must not come at the expense of national security interests. India inking the COMCASA with the US shows its own techno-nationalist aims; however, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s technological vision is one that is, much like India’s Indo-Pacific construct, inclusive and rules-based. Unlike China, where nationalism impulses overshadow international digital rights and norms, Modi stated at the inauguration of the Wadhwani Institute of Artificial Intelligence, that India’s technological growth must follow the ethos of “Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas”.

India’s struggle with China primarily draws on geo-political rivalry. If economic and trade contact emerged as the most stabilising factor in India-China relations over the last one and half-decade or so, then the economic grievances of Indian companies pertaining to non-access to the Chinese markets and Beijing’s failure to address the bilateral trade imbalance have emerged as points of contravention between the two sides. More recently, reliance on virtual connections, work-from-home norms as well as online meetings and payment dependencies have increased multi-fold during the battle with COVID-19. To China, this offers opportunities to further its techno-nationalist ambitions and give a stronger thrust to its 5G goals.

The increased reliance on the virtual world can prove to be a major boost to China’s digital “Silk Road” ambitions. As India deals with the pandemic, it along with the world must synergise a way to resist Chinese exploitation of the “new normal”. Prime Minister Modi’s “Skill India”, “Make in India” and self-reliance aims must be given added momentum to compete and create alternatives to Beijing’s technological influence to ensure a continued implementation of international standards, security walls and strategic advantages in the increasingly tech-reliant world order.

Dr Jagannath Panda is Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi