Even before the war with COVID-19 comes to an end, the world may be fighting a new war — the 5G War. Nations ready with 5G technology are on the threshold of beginning an invasion into markets of those who have no clue as to what it is all about. The 5G technology is set to not only bring unimaginable benefits to mankind, but also many hidden hazards to privacy. It may act as a honey pot, difficult to resist. Information and data, as we all know, are the prime movers of the IOT (Internet of Things) and 5G as its most efficient enabler, may have an ability to access and control the data of individuals, groups or even nations.
The recent news of China and Nepal agreeing to increase the height of Mount Everest by three metres may look insignificant. But a deeper analysis reveals that it could lead to an invasion by Chinese 5G technology. Such capability has the ability to control Nepal’s mountaineering and tourism industry. The launch of 5G in Nepal would mean that Nepal’s business interests could pass into Chinese control. Real-time information on weather, routes, map/terrain details, logistics and rescue programmes, etc, could be based on Chinese 5G, thus making locals or visitors to Nepal dependent on it. China is also a major stakeholder in Mount Everest since it lies on their common border. A related development of infrastructure along the borders, where most mountaineering sites are, could make Nepal’s borders vulnerable and damage its tourism industry. With lower incomes, the tourism industry might get lured into Chinese cheap loans, leading to a strategic debt trap. The ramifications of such developments for India can only be imagined.
Chinese companies have made huge investments across the world to spread a 5G network that will encompass the planet — a “digital encirclement of the world”. Combined with the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), this encirclement would be complete. Intrinsic to the BRI is the fact that Chinese companies will build the digital infrastructure. Militaries who do not have indigenous 5G capabilities for IOT platforms and who allow Chinese 5G, could then become hostage to Chinese technology, as seen during the pandemic. The CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) is a clear example of how easy it is to encircle a country. Pakistan is today a virtual vassal state of China.
2020 has been no ordinary year — the Chinese have ensured that the world transits from the physical to a digital domain. The novel coronavirus has pushed people and businesses to “work from home”. Internet providers are the busiest — connecting people. Militaries have been pushed to the borders, treaties and agreements are being signed, and a record number of military deals have happened. This year has witnessed the most unprecedented intensification of global military conflicts since the Gulf War. Nations are showing their military intent. AI applications have been at display in warfare, with drone killing machines being advertised. There is no option left but to get the 5G technology now. The Chinese seem to have cast a die to capture the world virtually.
The good news is that India is likely to survive the onslaught of the Chinese 5G invasion if it accelerates the launch of Indian 5G. India is working on technologies that would enable it to launch Indigenous 5G that would run IOT platforms for civilian as well as military applications. The banning of Chinese apps and blocking of hardware supply chains would be the correct counteroffensive to protect the business and security interests of the country. The problem is India being poor in “implementation”.
Our scientists and industry can bring technology at a winning speed, but where India starts losing out is in slow adoption, getting entangled in policy processes and the crosshairs of the bureaucracy. The current dispensation in Delhi realises the importance of winning this war. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pushing for aatamnirbharta (self-reliance), with the success of Digital India being a priority.
India must get its timing right. The implementation of 5G, though a bit delayed, can make India a good alternative to China. But agreements like RCEP and China’s other debt strategies will remain a larger threat to the world.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 29, 2020, under the title “The 5G great game”. The writer is a former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff and a distinguished fellow of USI. Views are personal