Trump keeps India on tenterhooks

G Parthsarathy | Updated on: Jun 12, 2019

File photo of US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi | Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst

The US’ efforts to limit our options on weapons purchases could now extend to the choice of 5G technology partner

The G20 Summit, to be held in Osaka, Japan on June 28-29, brings together leaders from the world’s developed and rising economies. The Summit will be an important occasion for Prime Minister 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 global power equations. The US now has a leader, who is determined to significantly 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 President 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. His son-in-law, Jarred 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 plans 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, while undermining our defence preparedness, by sanctions against our preferred defence purchases, on the other.

We are widening our options, by increasing defence cooperation with countries like 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, which has stood by us, in difficult times.

The China factor

The Americans have belatedly realised the serious damage that they have inflicted on themselves, because of overly liberal transfers of technology, for the past three decades, to China. Trump is now determined to ensure that China will not secure a lead over the US, in cyberspace and communications.

The most serious differences between the US and China are now arising from competition, over which country dominates cyberspace worldwide, on 5G networks. The US realises that it would lose the battle for global dominance of cyberspace if China’s Huawei wins the battle against Apple, while ensuring that Chinese technology giants like Alibaba, Bytedance, Baidu and Didi, prevail over their American counterparts, like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Uber.

Thanks to liberal transfers of technology from the US, Huawei is a formidable organisation internationally. It leads the world in 5G-technology today. Its revenues reached $107 billion last year. The US Government has banned Huawei and cautioned the world about the hazards of technological, industrial and data thefts, which Huawei poses.

Trump has to now prevail upon the world, to back the US, in this battle. He has called on US friends, allies and partners across the globe, to reject the offers of Huawei and even ban, or drastically restrict, Huawei’s activities. Given Trump’s propensity for unconventional and unilateral actions, these countries will have to carefully consider the proposals he makes.

Members of the European Union are presently keeping an open mind on American calls to reject Huawei sponsored 5G technology. Canada has an open mind, while Australia and New Zealand, heavily dependent on American intelligence inputs, have rejected Huawei’s 5G offers. While the UK would appear to be leaning on the side of rejecting Huawei, 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 provides. 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 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, and not Huawei.

Chinese President Xi Jinping signed an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 5, in Moscow, for “the development of 5G technologies and the pilot launch of fifth generation networks in 2019-2020”. Huawei’s current chairman, Guo Ping, added that he was “very happy” with the agreement, “in an area of strategic importance like 5G”.

Given this development, it is entirely possible and indeed likely, that Huawei will be the preferred choice for 5G networks across Central Asia, together with Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Tread carefully

The Telecom Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, recently announced that 5G trials would commence in India, “within the next 100 days”. He said that the next spectrum auctions, which will include 5G airwaves, would also be held this year. He indicated that security concerns would naturally be kept in mind, while arriving at any decision on the future 5G networks.

New Delhi will have to carefully weigh the pros and cons of any decisions it takes on this crucial, but highly complex, issue. We will have to move very carefully on any decision on this issue. Many could, however, well ask that given US efforts to limit our options on issues of vital national security interest like weapons acquisitions, should we allow the Trump Administration and US Congress to believe that they can also exercise coercive vetoes, on issues involving the future of our vital communications systems?

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on June 12, 2019
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