Democracies must work to build a peaceful community of nations that work openly with each other.
It is their responsibility to safeguard the future of the world against countries that are resorting to illegal technology proliferation.
Recently we celebrated 70 years of our republic. It’s a day that’s truly worthy of celebration because of the progress we have made as a nation, from a fragile republic to one of the world’s most vibrant democracies and economies, with a Constitution that ensures diversity and unity of all our citizens.
These 70 years have not been without significant challenges to our republic – security threats from China and Pakistan, and terror supported by them have tried to trip up our republic for most of these seven decades. But in recent times, the leadership that voters of India have elected in the form of Narendra Modi and his team have demonstrated a strong resolve to defend and transform our country into a secure and assertive republic.
Recent military response like the surgical strike, and the handling of the Doklam stand-off are evidence of this resurgent and assertive spirit of our republic – demonstrating our gutsy political leadership and of capabilities of our men in uniform.
Despite the motivations of some in the opposition, the modernisation and upping of the capabilities of our army, navy and air force are truly and surely underway. This would create over the next few years a republic that can truly watch over and secure the Indian Ocean, borders, its skies and space.
But, the conflicts in the future will not just be limited to battlefields or terror attacks – but would also include cyber threats to our critical digital infrastructure and economy. While the Internet has so far remained outside the purview of governments, there is a real threat of China’s growing dominance in emerging areas of technology. This along with its growth in economy and trade also has far wider implications on geo-political and security issues, impacting almost all countries, including India.
Growing Threat Of China In This Digital Age
Post-Cold War world witnessed a change in global trade policies and a sudden push for global free trade, which was supposed to create an environment for open, transparent free trade and global competitiveness among economies, and to allow emerging nations to grow by accessing global markets and consumers. Instead, we have a system that has predominantly benefitted countries like China whose politics and business remain opaque, and who are moving real technology and manufacturing economies for the most part away from the open, democratic nations to others that are not.
That China has benefitted the most from global trade, but is also today aiding and abetting terror states and proliferators like Pakistan and North Korea against the very democracies and markets that propelled its growth, is one of the biggest ironies of our time. This cannot be by any stretch of imagination the objective of a free and open global trading system.
China has also taken advantage of the free trade environment to penetrate into global markets with their cheap phones, consumer electronics and, more recently, apps. There is ample evidence and suspicion now that these technology products and apps are dangerous and compromising the security of the nations that are using them – with recent evidence of Chinese mobile phones broadcasting sensitive and private information of users back to their servers.
This phenomenon has been taking place all across the democratic world, including India. Some western democracies have started waking up to this threat and danger including arresting employees of Chinese companies like Huawei for espionage and spying for Beijing.
Recently, Poland arrested two Chinese men, including an employee from Huawei. Many countries have moved to ban companies like Huawei for espionage on behalf of State governments. In 2012, the US Congress conducted investigations on the conduct of Huawei and ZTE Corp, another Chinese telecom company, and concluded that they did not fully cooperate with the investigation and Huawei was unwilling to explain its relationship with the Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party, while credible evidence exists that it fails to comply with US laws. Similarly, many countries like Great Britain, Canada and Japan have prohibitions on Huawei products.
It is in this backdrop that our republic is responding to this new kind of threat. Rapid digitisation through the Government of India’s flagship Digital India campaign seeks to connect as many Indians to the Internet and to infuse governance with technology. We have seen a sharp increase in the number of Internet users and by 2021, 59 per cent of our population will be connected to the Internet, a jump from 28 per cent in 2016.
The Indian government’s flagship BharatNet programme is connecting rural India to broadband but most of the country is dependent on mobile Internet, largely powered by cheap smart phones from China. Moreover, Chinese phone manufacturing companies like Huawei are also beginning to take more active roles in network management and operations. Huawei has proposed to conduct 5G trials in India in partnership with Vodafone Idea Limited. This would give Huawei, and invariably the Chinese government, access and control over sensitive and critical communications.
Combating China’s Growing Influence And Threats To Global Order
Much of the developed world share similar threats from China and have begun to take cognisance of this threat. Sadly, for many years, countries functioned without the support of allies in protecting their interests. But, now, there is a need for a partnership between the democratic nations of the world like India, the US and Japan to move beyond the conventional needs of security to what I believe is clearly visible dangers from aggressive totalitarian states.
Cyber threats are no longer from individual hackers in dark dingy basements, threats are real and backed by the state or state-backed enterprises as we have all seen. Governments in the US, Japan and India are not doing enough in the strategic direction of internet and technologies – and more often than not the agenda is being set by large players like Facebook, Google etc, who are mere puppets in the hands of countries like China. The flip side of this is that technology is also the biggest creator of economic activity and jobs and that’s another good reason for us to protect that.
There is rock solid justification for the need for technology and its control to vest largely with democracies and open societies. Democracies like the US, Japan and India must work together in shaping policy and regulatory approach that will decide the future of the Internet and make it a safe and productive platform. There are many issues around the Internet - issues like net neutrality, privacy, cyber security, cyber-crime etc, are issues that are screaming for a global co-ordinated policy response. (Eg: handsets with apps that are broadcasting data covertly back to vendors)
Democracies have had a classic way of approaching innovation. Allow the best of private talent to collaborate and build technologies and products in a free for all contest loosely referred to as free market. We must move beyond competition and work together to ensure a secure digital world.
Japan has its own legacy in technology. US has been at the forefront of technology and innovation. India has played a vital role in being a global back office and it has legitimate ambitions in innovation and technology. The best talent in strategic technology thinking and execution in the world are in these three countries.
We have a strategic common interest in ensuring that the future economic opportunities and standards in technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, future of the Internet – has to be open and inclusive and safe for all those who use it. And so, for each of our entrepreneurship in technology to be successful it needs a common strategy and goal to ensure the open, democratic ownership or influence on future of technology is not hijacked by China and other rogue states.
Therefore, the future of technology and where it resides will determine the geo-political picture of the world, just as much as access to trade lanes or trade agreements or security feet on the ground. The future should be one where our democracies inspire the growth of a peaceful community of nations that work openly and transparently with each other, and working together will ensure that. In a nutshell, the Internet and other technologies will rapidly evolve and disrupt.
However, it is for the democratic countries of the world to ensure their influence on the nature and direction of that disruption works to strengthen democracies and peoples and not the other way around. The proliferation and outright illegal technology proliferation is making some countries gain unfair advantages due to a lack of openness and weak legal systems. So, as we move forward – let’s vow to safeguard its future. Let’s wake up to these new challenges.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar is Member of Parliament.