Solving the Huawei Conundrum, the Middle Path
Rajesh Soami

Officials in the Indian government have stated that the Chinese overbearing on the Huawei issue could go against the company. Earlier, China had warned India that any move to block or ban Huawei from participating in the 5G trials would lead to reciprocal sanctions on the country’s firms. Huawei’s participation in developing India’s 5G infrastructure has been flagged as a security threat by the domestic security establishment. The warning from Beijing, unfortunately, came in the backdrop of improving trade relations between the two countries. At the same time, the United States (US) has also put pressure on New Delhi to shun Huawei. As a result, India is finding itself sandwiched between the two competing powers on the Huawei issue.

In May earlier this year, Dr S Jaishankar, the former foreign secretary, had said that Indian policy would be guided by the engagement between major powers of the world. Dr. Jaishankar stated that the objective of the Indian foreign policy is to “cultivate the US, steady ties with Russia, manage China, enthuse Japan and engage Europe”. This statement of intent is commensurate with the rising stature of India as a global power, size of the Indian economy and growing geostrategic confidence in the country. Since then, Dr. Jaishankar has been elevated to the position of the Foreign Minister of India, indicating the confidence that the Prime Ministers’ Office (PMO) has in his abilities.

In pursuance of the stated policy, India has indeed grown closer to the US. This is evident in the frequency of high level bilateral visits, coherence in positions and signing of the foundational military cooperation agreements between the two states. However, the country’s leadership has also managed to engage other larger powers viz. China and Russia at the same time. Last year, Prime Minister Modi surprised everyone by holding informal summits with the Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Russian President Putin in Wuhan and Sochi respectively, within the span of a month. The country has reaped benefits from this more active Indian foreign policy. The recent example is that of most powers ignoring the Pakistani anger-circus after the Indian decision to scrap Article 370.

New Delhi’s relations with Beijing in particular have been on a stable footing since the Wuhan summit. Both the countries are striving hard to manage their differences while pursuing their development goals. China has taken cognisance of the Indian concerns on the large trade deficit between the two states. It has agreed to open up its market for Indian imports. In fact, within days of the summit, in May 2018, Beijing agreed to withdraw import tariffs on 28 Indian drugs including all cancer drugs. It has also allowed imports of all varieties of rice, spices and milk products since. Presently, India is pushing for greater access to its pharmaceutical and IT exports.

India would not want to change a policy that is working well for it at the moment. The Huawei issue has the potential to upset the apple cart though. New Delhi’s decision, whichever way it goes, will upset either Beijing or Washington and may lead to souring of ties. How then should India proceed to ensure that its interests are protected? The answer probably lies in the way other US allies are handling the American pressure on the Huawei issue.

In the Pacific Ocean, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have effectively banned Huawei from rolling out its 5G products in their territory. However, in Europe, America’s NATO allies have pursued a different course. Although, all the larger states in Europe have admitted that, the involvement of Chinese firms in building up their 5G infrastructure is risky, they have resisted outright bans. French President Macron has said that his country won't block Huawei from bidding for projects in the country. “Our perspective is not to block Huawei or any company,” Macron said, “France and Europe are pragmatic and realistic. We do believe in cooperation and multilateralism. At the same time, we are extremely careful about access to good technology and to preserve our national security and all the safety rules.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed similar sentiments. “There are two things I don’t believe in,” Merkel said in March, “First, to discuss these very sensitive security questions publicly, and second, to exclude a company simply because it’s from a certain country.”

Other countries, viz. the United Kingdom and Italy have pursued similar strategies. It is quite clear that unlike the Pacific Ocean states, Europe will not ban Huawei outright. That doesn’t mean though that Huawei will be allowed to function just like other entities either. The French have introduced a bill in the National Assembly, which would force the companies competing for the 5G contracts to subject their equipment to stringent tests by the state. The tests themselves are designed in a way that the participating companies would have to part with industrial secrets to be eligible. Few companies outside the European Union (EU) would be willing to do that.

Germany seems to be following a similar strategy. Despite severe pressure from Washington, Berlin has asserted its independence on the issue. German leaders have stressed that they are competent to handle their own security vulnerabilities with respect to the 5G rollout in their country. The new guidelines enacted by Germany on the issue will nevertheless cause problems for Huawei. For example, the new rules stipulate that the core components must pass security tests conducted by German agencies. What components will be considered “core” remains to be decided. Moreover, the rules say that these core components must only be procured from “trustworthy sources”. This term has not been defined either.

India could learn from the European states on the matter. Having said that, India and Europe are at different stages of developments and may have different requirements. Also, European states have the advantage of hosting companies which could provide alternative to Huawei. Siemens, Nokia and Ericsson are Europe based telecommunications companies which have similar or better capabilities than Huawei. Europe can therefore afford to create legislations which discriminate between these and Chinese companies. India, on the other hand, does not have this luxury.

Nevertheless, European states have shown that there are more ways to skin a cat than bludgeon it to death. Banning Huawei may not be in the best interest of India. Allowing it a free hand would not be appropriate either. Even if we discount the US pressure, including Huawei for the development of 5G infrastructure poses serious security challenges to the country. Till such a time that China stops providing unflinching support to Pakistan, sorts out its border issues with India and starts developing relations with India on an equal footing, Delhi would do well to stay on the cautious side.

If France and Germany are attempting to create national institutions which would test 5G equipment for security vulnerabilities, India could do the same. Cooperating with European states will help all sides learn the best practices for securing networks and infrastructure from future challenges. The fact that India and Europe do not have adversarial relations should facilitate this without hiccups. The added advantage of following Europe’s model is that it will secure India’s networks not only against the Chinese vendors but all. We should remain conscious that the US gathers technical intelligence on many countries through its own underhanded means too.

In the age of artificial intelligence, internet of things, dark web and cyber crimes, New Delhi should take its time, learning and deciding on the course to follow. Formulation of wise policies today will go a long way in securing the future of the state in decades to come.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source:

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
4 + 13 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us