Chinese 5G Telecommunications Equipment Rejected in India, South Korea

September 18, 2018 Updated: December 10, 2018

The next generation of wireless mobile communications technology—known as 5G—is considered key to revolutionizing many different industries: transportation, healthcare, and manufacturing, to name a few. Countries are currently vying for leadership in 5G because that is seen as critical to economic growth.

China’s ambition in the 5G race is stated clearly in its national policy. In May 2015, when Beijing first unveiled its “Made in China 2025” program, it called for “comprehensive breakthrough in 5G technology.” The regime’s 5G ambition was stressed again in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020), with a call for “actively pushing forward 5G technology and ultra-broadband technology, and to jump-start the commercialization of 5G.”

But in the past few days, India’s government and South Korea’s biggest mobile carrier have rejected the use of Chinese telecoms services for their 5G networks.

India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) announced that it has excluded China’s top two telecom firms—Huawei and ZTE—from its list of partners for the country’s development of a 5G network, according to a Sept. 17 article by Indian English-language newspaper The Economic Times (ET).

“We have written to Cisco, Samsung, Ericsson, and Nokia, and telecom-service providers to partner with us to start 5G technology-based trials, and have got [sic] positive response from them,” Aruna Sundararajan, India’s telecom secretary and chairman of the country’s telecom commission, said in an interview with ET.

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The ZTE logo is seen on a building in Beijing on May 2, 2018. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)

For 5G, India has chosen to work with practically every major telecoms firm in the world, except China’s: Cisco is a U.S.-based technology conglomerate, while Samsung is based in South Korea, Ericsson in Sweden, and Nokia in Finland.

“This appears more a move to restrict government ties with Chinese equipment makers given the sensitive nature of security issues, especially after what happened in some other countries,” an Indian industry executive, who asked not to be identified, told ET. The executive didn’t elaborate further.

Other countries have raised their concerns about the potential for China to conduct espionage via Huawei and ZTE equipment. In August, the Australian government blocked the companies from supplying equipment for the country’s planned 5G network, in order “safeguard the security of Australians’ information and communications at all times,” according to a statement issued on Aug. 23.

Meanwhile, the United States has prohibited Huawei from bidding on government contracts. In May, the Pentagon ordered all stores on U.S. military bases to remove smartphones made by either Huawei or ZTE, to avoid compromising the security of U.S. military service members.

Huawei has strong ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). One of its founders, Ren Zhengfei, was a former engineer with the Chinese military (known as the People’s Liberation Army), and a former representative to the National People’s Congress,  China’s rubber-stamp legislature.

ZTE also is considered by experts and U.S. lawmakers as too cozy with the Chinese regime. “Huawei and ZTE are cat’s paws for Chinese Communist Party domination, and we should treat them as such in every conceivable way,” according to Richard Fisher, senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a U.S. think tank.

A few days before India’s decision, a similar choice was made in South Korea.

SK Telecom, South Korea’s largest mobile carrier, selected Samsung Electronics, Ericsson, and Nokia to supply necessary equipment for its 5G network, according to a Sept. 14 article by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. The company said it ruled out Huawei in the final decision, without providing an explanation. Earlier in March, SK Telecom’s CEO Park Jung-ho had told The Korea Herald that he was unsure of using Huawei due to security concerns.

A South Korean newspaper, Korea Joongang Daily, said that it remains to be seen which companies will be picked by KT and LG Uplus, two other major South Korean mobile carriers, for their 5G equipment. Choosing Huawei would be a “thrifty decision” but would come with security concerns, Korea Joongang Daily concluded.   

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A South Korean walks past a SK Telecom shop in Seoul on Feb. 24, 2004. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

Bates Gill, professor of Asia-Pacific security studies at Sydney’s Macquarie University, explained that the 5G network is a critical infrastructure for any country. In a Sept. 3 article published in the South Korean English-language Korea Times, he fielded questions about whether South Koreans should be worried about Huawei’s presence.

“Insider knowledge of the 5G network—which its builders and operators would possess—could not only provide access to sensitive information within the system, such as transport and energy grids, water supplies, financial and banking services, but also allow those builders and operators to disrupt those systems if they chose to,” Gill said.

Huawei’s close association with the Chinese regime is also a point of concern, Gill added, saying that, “The Chinese Communist Party has enormous leverage over Chinese companies and citizens to oblige them to act on behalf of Party and government interests.”

“The key for the South Korean government is to determine whether Huawei’s involvement will open access to highly sensitive information and critical infrastructure in South Korea,” Gill said.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer