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Posted at: Jun 13, 2019, 6:29 AM; last updated: Jun 13, 2019, 9:16 AM (IST)

Battle of cyberspace

G Parthasarathy

G Parthasarathy
America wants the world to support it to elbow out China from the race
Battle of cyberspace
COMES TO BITE: China’s Huawei is a formidable giant internationally. Thanks to technology transfers from the US, it now leads the world in 5G technology.

G Parthasarathy
Former Diplomat 

THE G20 Summit, to be held in Japan on June 28-29, brings together leaders from developed and rising economies. The summit will be an important occasion for PM Modi to meet Presidents Trump, Xi Jinping and Putin after his decisive electoral victory. President Trump has shaken up the world order and given new shape to power equations. The US now has a leader who is determined to change the strategic, political, economic, cultural and sociological norms, which have shaped international relations in the post World War II era. 

It may be simplistic to characterise Trump as a bigoted racist, because he called for a ban on visas for immigrants from some Muslim countries. He enjoys a personal rapport with rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner evidently shapes his views of the Islamic world. Kushner has strong emotional ties with Israel. He moulds Trump’s hard line towards Iran. Trump’s economic policies have led to serious erosion of US commitment to globalisation. They have been marked by unilateral trade sanctions on China and even friends and allies. Interestingly, European countries also appear to be moving towards an era of increasing religious, cultural and ethnic conservatism, especially on issues of immigration.

Modi will move deftly in pursuing India’s strategic interests. He will, however, find that while Trump may wish to work harmoniously with Putin’s Russia, his efforts to do so are becoming increasingly difficult. There are strong, bipartisan, anti-Russian sentiments in both Houses of the US Congress. US Congressional legislation mandates the imposition of financial/banking sanctions on countries buying new weapons systems from Russia. The former Defence Secretary, General Mattis, had assured India that Congressional sanctions would be waived for its purchase of S-400 Air Defence Missiles from Russia. The Trump administration, however, now maintains that sanctions on purchases of all Russian weapons systems will remain. 

This US policy has serious implications for our national security. New Delhi has plans envisaging major purchases and manufacture of defence equipment from Russia, including missiles, frigates, submarines, fighter aircraft, helicopters, automatic rifles and tanks. The US cannot, on the one hand, categorise us as ‘strategic partner’ in the Indo-Pacific and undermine our defence preparedness, on the other. We are widening our options by increasing defence cooperation with France and Israel. But, we would have to devise carefully crafted financial and other measures, so that unilateral American sanctions do not compromise either our defence preparedness, or our long-standing defence partnership with Russia. 

The Americans have realised the serious damage that they have inflicted on themselves, because of the liberal transfer of technology to China for the past three decades. Trump is determined to ensure that China will not secure a lead over the US in cyberspace and communications. The most serious differences are now arising from competition over which country dominates cyberspace worldwide, on 5G networks. The US will lose the battle for dominance of cyberspace if China’s Huawei wins the battle against Apple and Chinese technology giants like Alibaba, Bytedance, Baidu and Didi prevail over American counterparts like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Uber. 

Thanks to technology transfers from the US, Huawei is a formidable organisation internationally. It leads the world in 5G technology. Its revenues reached $107 billion last year. The US has banned Huawei and cautioned the world about the hazards of technological, industrial and data thefts, which Huawei poses. Trump has to prevail upon the world to back the US in this battle. He has called on its friends, allies and partners across the globe to reject Huawei’s offers and even ban, or drastically restrict, its activities. Given Trump’s propensity for unilateral actions, these countries will have to carefully consider his proposals.

The EU is keeping an open mind on American calls. Canada has an open mind while Australia and New Zealand, heavily dependent on US intelligence inputs, have rejected Huawei’s offers. The UK would appear to be leaning on the side of rejecting Huawei, but Germany and other European powers like Italy still appear to have an open mind. Developing countries, including those in our neighbourhood, will find it difficult to overlook the cost advantages that turning to Huawei provide. India would have to assess the implications of its South Asian neighbours like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka turning to China for 5G.  Interestingly, Vietnam rejected Huawei’s 4G services; it has successfully completed trial of a 5G broadcast station. Hanoi reportedly prefers to operate, if possible, its 5G networks by its own Viettel mobile carrier. 

Jinping signed an agreement with Putin on June 5 for ‘the development of 5G technologies and the pilot launch of fifth-generation networks in 2019-2020’. Given this development, it is possible that Huawei will be the preferred choice for 5G networks across Central Asia, together with Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad recently announced that 5G trials would commence in India ‘within the next 100 days’. The next spectrum auctions, which will include 5G airwaves, would also be held this year. He indicated that security concerns would be kept in mind while arriving at any decision on 5G networks. New Delhi will have to weigh the pros and cons of this crucial, but highly complex issue. Many could, however, ask that given US efforts to limit our options on national security interest like weapons acquisitions, should we allow the US to believe that it can also exercise coercive vetoes on issues involving the future of our vital communications systems?

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