Despite a flaring up in a decades-old border dispute in April, relations between China and India have improved in recent months.
In May, Premier Li Keqiang made Delhi the first stop on his maiden foreign tour and in the last two weeks India’s National Security Advisor Shiv Shanker Menon and Defence Minister AK Antony have both visited Beijing. Antony’s trip was the first to China by an Indian Defence Minister for seven years.
Yet none of this seems to have helped the cause of Chinese tech companies in India, which have come under increasing suspicion since the beginning of the year.
The latest example is Tencent’s popular messaging service WeChat which Indian intelligence agencies have labelled a potential “cyber threat”. The country’s National Security Council has now ordered an investigation into WeChat’s operations and is mulling a outright ban, the Delhi-based Economic Times has reported.
“Deputy National Security Advisor Nehchal Sandhu asked the intelligence bureau to discuss the matter with the home ministry and the telecom department to devise a methodology to block access to such sites,” it said, citing minutes of a National Security Council meeting in June.
The move comes a few weeks after the council also recommended banning private companies from buying certain items of telecoms equipment from foreign companies such as Huawei and ZTE, both of which have invested in Indian R&D facilities in hope of gaining the trust of local politicians.
Those overseeing public contracts already face limitations on the equipment that they can buy from foreign telecoms firms – partly to stimulate domestic supply and partly for security reasons.
“Malicious hardware or software implants could be a potent espionage tool for penetrating sensitive and strategic Indian national security sectors which could be exploited in any future conflict with India,” the NSC warned in its report.
Huawei and ZTE were of particular concern, it said. Why? Because they were part of a “Chinese Army project called PLA-863” aimed at “dominating the world telecom scene and strengthening its electronic warfare capabilities”.
Huawei and ZTE have repeatedly denied these allegations, saying they are purely commercial entities that abide by the law of the countries in which they operate.
Tencent’s WeChat has also issued a statement largely to the same effect.
WeChat first launched in India in July last year. Since then it has added a Hindi language messaging function and hired two up-and-coming Bollywood stars Parineeti Chopra and Varun Dhawan as brand ambassadors. Although it refuses to give exact figures for its user base on the subcontinent, internet portal Sohu recently quoted Rahul Razdan, the president of Ibibo Games, WeChat’s partner in India, as saying India was WeChat’s largest market outside China.
Last week WeChat’s president Martin Lau announced that it now has more than 70 million overseas users.
India is particularly sensitive to Chinese companies building a presence domestically because China is perceived to be a close ally of India’s arch rival, Pakistan. Equally both Beijing and Delhi lay claim to chunks of territory controlled by the other – a situation that led to a brief war in 1962. Back then, Chinese troops overran their Indian opponents but then withdrew in hope of reaching a political settlement.
To this day that has not happened.
“It is true that owing to historical reasons and animosities in the 1960s, India and China have been suffering from a deep-rooted mistrust and security deficit,” BR Deepak, a professor of Chinese and China studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, wrote in the Global Times in June. Deepak added that instead of “demonising the dragon” India should “bring in drastic structural adjustments in its security apparatus and ensure that the systems and institutions are efficient and robust”. As he also pointed out, Edward Snowden’s revelations seem to highlight that technology platforms from a range of other companies and countries look no more secure.
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