Thursday, September 19, 2019
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China’s Cyber-Superpower Strategy: Can India And Australia Spoil The Party?

While India continues to blow-hot, blow-cold over allowing Chinese techno-giant Huawei to provide 5G networks in this country, other countries are becoming increasingly alarmed by what they see as Huawei and, by extension, Beijing’s growing cyber expansionism in the Indo-Pacific region. Key among these countries is Australia who believes that a ‘clear dialogue’ between member nations will be imperative on deterring this cyber-war in the 21st century.

‘It is important that we have as clear a conversation as possible in the Indo-Pacific on the development of offensive cyber capabilities and its parameters. We are in a strategically sensitive part of the world and we don’t want to get into a situation where miscalculation and misinterpretation can become a further issue,’ says Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs Dr Tobias Feakin in an email interview to SNI.

Dr Feakin was recently in Delhi as part of the India-Australia Cyber Dialogue. This has been the third cyber dialogue between the two nations.

Though Dr Feakin was careful to ensure that none of his remarks would point to any specific country there was little doubt that fingers were being pointed at Beijing. In February this year, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that major political parties in his country were being targeted by a ‘sophisticated state actor.’ This and the fact the country who recently snubbed Huawei for a critical project involving cyber connectivity in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands is now working at breakneck speed to provide undersea cables for the 4,700 kilometre-long project, raise suggestions that the ‘Xi’ and the ‘Huwai’ factor might have been at play here.

While Dr Feakin chose not to directly comment on this he did say, ‘Recent events suggest that malicious actors believe that their improper behaviour in cyberspace is immune to punishment. They are emboldened by the misperception that attribution is too difficult and too slow to enable useful responses and that international law will constrain strong responses by states.’

‘International cooperation to respond to malicious cyber behaviour will be key to deterring unacceptable behaviour in cyberspace and such a strategy outlines the need to establish an ‘architecture of cooperation’ among states.’

The ‘architecture of cooperation’ is being manifested through the cyber dialogue between India and Australia where Feakin admitted that cybersecurity was one of the key areas that was discussed. But this cyber dialogue is just part of a larger dialogue between India and western nations to contain China. From increased defence co-operation with France, India has recently begun the India-France-Australia Track 1.5 talks.

The trilateral is especially significant as all three nations have converging strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific. France has island territories in both the Indian and Pacific Ocean while both Australia and New Zealand have voiced concerns about China’s growing international ‘aid programme’ to island nations such as Fiji. For India, retaining influence in the Indo-Pacific is key, if it is to fulfil its ambition of being a global power and so greater proximity to these nations makes sense.

But while all this sounds good on the strategic front, India also has economic concerns to bear in mind. The move to 5G in this country will depend on Huawei and a pullout could mean a delay of as much as three years which India cannot afford. Second, Huawei is already a key component of 2G, 3G, 4G networks among key telco-operators in India and to remove it from the 5G ambit may be difficult to work around. Third, Chinese media reports state that Beijing has threatened ‘retaliatory action’ should Delhi attempt to block Huawei from the 5G trials scheduled later this year. Such a move will only escalate tensions between the two nations.

India has preferred to adopt a ‘wait and watch’ policy when it comes to 5G, studying Europe’s approach which involves freezing Huawei out of the ‘core 5G’ network. Whether this is possible given that 5G is a very dense network is not clear. This is largely the Australian position. Delhi’s decision is expected in the next few weeks.

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