Security concerns

Security concerns

The national security council’s suggestion that the country should go in for increased indigenous manufacturing and use of  telecom equipment in this fast growing industry highlights a problem of security which has recently received some attention.

The NSC has endorsed the department of telecom’s policy of encouragement of indigenous production and has cited a report from the Intelligence Bureau which says that excessive dependence on Chinese telecom equipment might have adverse implications for national security. A good part of the telecom gear used in the country is supplied by two Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE.  Huawei is the world’s biggest manufacturer of telecom equipment. It has for long been suspected to have links with the Chinese military establishment, though the company has denied it. The difference between private and public companies is thin in the Chinese system and that has given rise to fears that Chinese suppliers may be vulnerable to  the government’s influence.

It is estimated that about 50 per cent of the telecom equipment requirement in the country is met by imports from China. Telecom is a strategic sector. What worries many is that the equipment may contain hidden electronic devices or codes which may make spying possible or even lead to a disruption or sabotage of the communication system in a situation of conflict. But efforts to discourage the use of Chinese equipment have not met with much success because they enjoy a huge price advantage over competitors.

Indian telecom service companies therefore favour them. The commerce ministry also has reservations about imposing trade restrictions on import of equipment from China because they might invite charges of protectionism and might be actionable under WTO provisions. Though the security-related fears are pervasive there is yet no hard evidence of the presence of any electronic Trojan horse in the Chinese equipment. This makes trade-related disincentive measures difficult to take.

The concern is not exclusively Indian. Other countries also have fears of Chinese intrusion into their telecom systems. Some, including the US and Australia, have taken steps to reduce or ban the supply of equipment by some Chinese companies. India also should take steps to ensure that its communications network does not become vulnerable. While local production should increase, there should also be effective tests on imported equipment to eliminate the possibility of built-in dangers to the system. Since the NSC itself, which is part of the Prime Minister’s Office, is worried about the matter, it should receive proper attention.

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