Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | Security | South Asia

Trump and Modi Embrace, But Remain Digitally Divided

Continued contention over Huawei and 5G highlights structural gaps between India and the United States in the digital sphere.

By Justin Sherman and Arindrajit Basu for
Trump and Modi Embrace, But Remain Digitally Divided
Credit: Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks

U.S. President Donald Trump traveled to India last week for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Modi and his administration. The populist strongmen embraced — literally — with Trump attending a campaign-style rally of cheering fans at the largest cricket stadium in the world. On the core issues that are sowing democratic discord, the two strongmen seemed united. Trump insidiously praised Modi’s religious tolerance despite Modi’s recent track record clearly indicating otherwise.

However, for all the bonhomie, the two countries remain divided on a core national security and digital question — whether to allow Chinese telecommunications company Huawei to supply 5G infrastructure. Last week, the sustained U.S. efforts in this regard (advocating a total ban on Huawei equipment) continued to fall visibly flat. This underscores not only the structural weaknesses in the U.S. diplomatic campaign around 5G, but also the potential for discord in the digital relationship between India and the United States going forward.

Running Into Roadblocks on 5G

On December 31, 2019, the Indian government allowed Huawei to participate in 5G trials.  Mobile phone companies that would be allotted 5G spectrum assumed that this would mark a green light to work in partnership with Huawei, although a government official cautioned that this green light applied only to the test phase. Facing diplomatic coercion and threats of retaliatory economic action from both the United States and China, it appears that India  prioritized economic interests and its relationship with Beijing over pandering to the Trump administration’s inconsistent diplomatic messaging.

In doing so, New Delhi followed in the strategic footsteps of several countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe, and, critically, the United Kingdom — which is traditionally allied with the U.S. on most geopolitical issues — by developing its own answer to the Huawei 5G question. Domestic political factors played a role; but there is also the reality that the Trump administration’s diplomatic outreach on 5G has been marred by a self-defeating concoction of unsubstantiated claims around Chinese backdooring of Huawei technology and discussion of economic risks posed by Huawei’s potential market dominance.

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Last week’s dialogues weren’t exactly a change of pace. At one business roundtable, there was brief discussion of Huawei in a U.S.-agreeable context: Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries and the richest man in India, discussed the group’s work on 5G, absent Huawei components. “Well, that’s good,” Trump replied. “Good.”

But when it came to meetings with the Indian government, the Trump administration wasn’t getting the same consensus. At the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, Trump announced, “During our visit we discussed the importance of a secure 5G network and the need for this to be a tool for freedom, progress, prosperity, not to do anything with where it could be even conceived as a conduit for suppression and censorship.” However, the Modi administration made no indications of changing its policy on Huawei or finding sudden alignment with Washington on this issue. The Indian government only made clear that this outcome was not final, and that the decision about Huawei’s participation in the 5G roll-out would only be made after the 5G trials — mere lip service to Trump’s endeavors but nothing more.

The Not-So-Huge Impact of the Huawei Indictment

On February 11, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Huawei and its subsidiaries — following two other indictments that had been filed by the U.S. Justice Department in January 2019. The recent indictment, like the two that preceded it, had multiple charges. Three of them are new: conspiracy to steal trade secrets, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and racketeering.

The indictment contained factually based charges around various economic activities of Huawei and its subsidiaries. Nonetheless, given that it comes in the wake of a faltering U.S. diplomatic campaign, it’s likely many countries would view it as only the latest effort on the part of the U.S. government to take down Huawei — in other words, as “lawfare,” the strategic use of legal processes and institutions by nations.

Even if they do not succeed legally, indictments could, in this vein of lawfare, serve as a useful means of drumming up public support. After all, they enable the public positioning of evidence, in conformity with the legal evidentiary thresholds of that country. But even so, the evidence on offer in the indictment is potentially not enough for the Indian government to backtrack on a key policy decision, given that no existing evidence points to similar Chinese activity in India.

The ongoing contention over 5G further highlights the extent to which the U.S. ought to rethink its global supply chain security strategy when it comes to questions of backdoors and foreign influence over infrastructure. If the goal is to convince other countries that a certain supplier poses a security risk, is the best way to go about that end to keep talking about the risk of backdoors and spying — an activity of which many countries view the U.S. as just as guilty, and a claim for which the U.S. government has yet to publicly produce vulnerability evidence? And when speaking to countries with their own unique sets of digital priorities, is it really best for the U.S. to keep discussing Huawei in terms of security and not potential economic risks?

Australia, which has banned Huawei from providing 5G equipment, has adopted a far more measured approach on this front. It based its justification and messaging around the risks that a company linked so closely to Beijing poses to the security and independence of the country’s sovereign infrastructure, and has not sought to impose its views on other countries in a fashion akin to the United States’ diplomatic campaign.

Structural Digital Gaps

This contention over Huawei and 5G highlights structural gaps between India and the U.S. in the digital sphere. These concerns link to the broader reality that agreement on the presence of various risks doesn’t necessitate agreement on the likelihood or severity of those risks, or about how to respond to them. Brookings’ Tanvi Madan substantiates this point by drawing on historical lessons from the U.S.-India partnership in the 1960s. A mere mistrust of China and an acknowledgement of the potential risks it poses, Madan argues, is not enough in and of itself to keep the two democracies aligned.

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Here, misalignment is pronounced on some of these digital issues; data governance (i.e., encompassing issues like data localization and data privacy) is but one other example where priorities of and policy proposals from the two countries look quite different. As last week showed, the Huawei question highlights this divergence starkly.

For New Delhi and Washington to better cooperate on issues in the digital sphere, therefore, it may be less about convincing one country or the other to pick a side — though that’s certainly not off the table — and more about maximizing policy overlap and minimizing the costs of likely policy divergence. It is about prioritizing shared values that created the world’s largest democracies, values that should not diminish with a change in government. In the context of 5G, it is about embracing strategic dialogue without disrespecting Indian sovereignty through protracted arm-twisting or unsubstantiated preaching.

An indictment isn’t going to resurrect the failed diplomatic campaign. Sound statecraft might.

Justin Sherman (@jshermcyber) is a Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, a Fellow at the Duke Center on Law & Technology at Duke University School of Law, and a student at Duke University. Arindrajit Basu is a Research Manager at the Centre for Internet & Society, India. He can be reached via email.