Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

India Inches Forward to Block Chinese Telecom Equipment

A new directive to issue “trust source” certification for telecom equipment paves the way for a ban on Chinese 5G solutions.

Abhijnan Rej
India Inches Forward to Block Chinese Telecom Equipment
Credit: Flickr/Ervins Strauhmanis

Indian media reported on December 16 that the Narendra Modi government has decided to issue certification for equipment used by telecom companies in the country based on their perceived security risk. Such certification could pave the way for an effective ban on the acquisition of Chinese telecom equipment in the future, including those related to 5G internet solutions. The decision follows a meeting of the Indian Cabinet on Wednesday, leading to a new National Security Directive on the Telecommunication Sector.

According to the Hindustan Times, the certification would be issued by a new National Security Committee on Telecom headed by Deputy National Security Advisor Rajinder Khanna, a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s lead external intelligence agency. The newspaper quotes Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister of telecommunications, as saying after the cabinet meeting: “This is a very important decision with respect to national security.” It also notes that India’s National Cyber Security Coordinator will issue the list of equipment that will fall under the ambit of the new directive.

While India in the recent past has periodically hinted that it is ready to ban Chinese firms from 5G trials in the country, officially such a decision is yet to be taken. On November 6, India’s Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla, speaking at the National Defense College, noted: “On 5G the government has not taken any call. Discussions are still on… when it (the trials) will be allowed and who will be allowed to participate. The penetration of (Chinese firms’) telecom hardware and software is extensive.”

But at the same time, India has cracked down on Chinese apps, banning the popular TikTok, WeChat, and scores of others, along with demanding government clearance for foreign direct investment from China. The latter decision, however, has impacted funding for Indian startups, mostly in the tech sector.

India’s posture on Chinese technology has been largely shaped by the ongoing military standoff between the two countries in Ladakh. A working assumption that both China and India have held for almost four decades is that the issue of the disputed 3,488-kilometer-long boundary between the two should be set aside and dealt with in isolation as the two countries engage each other commercially as well as on global governance issues. This “issue delinkage” – and consequent deprioritization of political-military issues – has now been soundly rejected by India following the Ladakh crisis. One way through which India has been demonstrating it is through pressure on Chinese firms and holding out the promise to technologically decouple itself – relatively speaking, of course – from China. As Rudra Chaudhuri, director of Carnegie India – which cohosts a major technology conference with the Indian foreign ministry – recently wrote, “…there is little or no chance of Chinese firms investing in India’s 5G or 6G future — the border conflict has closed this road.”

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Instead, India seeks to enthusiastically partner with Western democracies as they all collectively confront the issue of whether to continue allowing Chinese tech solutions within their borders. But whether this normative bonhomie translates to deeper commercial collaboration that fits India’s pockets and needs remains to be seen.