Huawei has denied having links to China's military. Photo: Weibo

Great wars were fought over physical boundaries in the past, and those who had an advantage over it won the game in a whisker. But with changing times and technological advancement, modern warfare is not limited to a boundary. Technology, in the 21st century, is a precursor for an evolving hegemony and equipping a nation to become a superpower. In this sense, China is already leading the world and making its mark in Nepal.

Nepal’s three major telecoms — Nepal Telecom, Ncell, Smartcell — use equipment manufactured by Huawei, ZTE, and Hong Kong’s China Securities (International) Finance Holding Co Ltd (CSCI). The telecom providers have already set-up plans to upgrade its existing 4G to 5G with the help of Huawei.  

Huawei took one step forward in creating a technological hegemony in Nepal after the nation’s only billionaire Binod Chaudhary signed a US$100 million deal to launch 4G networks with the option of an upgrade to 5G.

Meanwhile, 5G should not be taken lightly, especially at a time when the world is moving towards a complex digitalized system. The dystopian essence that Huawei’s 5G possesses simply stretches to the point where democracy is outlived by a much-feared futuristic Orwellian world.   

The reason the United States fears Huawei’s 5G goes beyond commerce, despite lacking concrete evidence. This fear is worrying, especially for Nepal, as when it comes to telecom operators, Huawei will make an easy game for China. Wiretapping in telecommunications systems is a part of the communication design so it would be difficult to detect any wire-enabling routes.

Moreover, the telecommunication equipment is easy to infiltrate by just an addition of a sabotage chip, which will make it easier for companies like Huawei to eavesdrop.

Similarly, companies like Samsung, which have already rolled out 5G services, pose the same threat due to the very essence of the next-generation 5G. But it cannot be ruled out that other companies like Ericsson, which earlier provided telecom equipment to Nepal, do not have the capability to do the same. It depends on the company’s ethics, affiliations, ideological pursuit and where it runs from.

Risks involved with 5G

Irrespective of which company manufactures the equipment, 5G possess the risk of a data leak, or an attack on individuals and of networks being infiltrated. Firstly, in 5G voice calls and texts are stored in the servers of a core network, which will be out of reach for base networks. However, some data goes through the 5G network unencrypted, and anyone who has control over the base network can easily track users and their activities, undermining the security of encrypted apps.

Secondly, base stations can target a specific individual and install malware on the user’s devices.  

Lastly, base stations often play the role of mediating between phones and the core network. This means base stations can be used to send malicious signals to the core part, and these could jam them or even bring down the Internet. They could also be used to infiltrate a neighboring country’s networks and the internet.

In the near future, through Huawei’s 5G, China could play key roles in leading Nepal’s healthcare system, launching Internet of Things (IoT) industries, improving the Nepal Army’s capabilities and profiling Nepalis and foreigners. It may also equip the country’s immigration and border guard agencies with advanced technologies, helping to tackle cybercrime, traffic jams, pollution, and even in fighting climate change.

There is no doubt that Nepal is going to benefit immensely from Huawei’s 5G, but at a risk of losing its sovereignty for good.

Mandy Sadowski, vice president of US cybersecurity firm Finite State, said: “We make no judgment as to whether the company or the Chinese government introduced these vulnerabilities intentionally or accidentally. Nothing in our analysis leads us to draw any conclusions relating to intent, but Huawei’s repeated assertions that it prioritizes cybersecurity and privacy protection do not hold up in the light of our scrutiny.”

Having a weak Information Technology infrastructure and low-skilled cybersecurity, Nepal is dependent on Huawei. If the company agrees to let China oversee the country’s activities for its own internal security and implements a pre-emptive measure to avert potential risks, then it will go to any length to do so.

Having modern 5G infrastructure in Nepal will give an extra advantage to Huawei, despite the company continuing to deny accusations that it works closely with the Communist regime. Several reports, however, continue to expose Huawei’s close ties with the Chinese government, and the risks it poses to the nations’ security.

This is making India wary of Huawei’s technology and Delhi is still considering the risks despite the company’s claims of not having any “backdoor” into its equipment that could compromise India’s national security. Delhi might limit Huawei’s role in its telecom operators or simply shut it out completely, but it cannot keep the company away from neighboring countries like Nepal.

We produced an exhaustive report on the overall security of Huawei devices — the kind that would be found in 5G networks — and we discovered significant vulnerabilities in Huawei firmware, which is the essentially the software and related files buried in the devices. The findings are highly concerning. For example, 55% of the products we analyzed have potential backdoors,” Sadowski said.

While the US does not have solid evidence as to why Huawei poses a security risk, it cannot be ignored that the state-sponsored company simply cooperates with Beijing. This is happening at a time when even US giants like Facebook and Google are being compelled to comply with American laws. However, China has always claimed that it adheres to a ‘no interference’ policy with Nepal and other countries.

A report by the Henry Jackson Society claimed that Huawei’s ownership structure is questionable and the “so-called multiple inputs, multiple output antennas used in 5G are vulnerable to a signal to block through software updates.” Huawei, in this sense, is susceptible to the Chinese government’s laws and measures, which might reflect in how it treats a smaller nation like Nepal.

Nepal’s future

Analysts like Arun Mohan Sukumar, cyber initiatives head of Observer Research Foundation, believe there is more to Huawei’s entry into Nepal. He said: “Huawei’s expansion in Nepal is certainly a matter of concern. Its ability to harvest data of individuals and businesses will give the company valuable insights and the tools to re-shape Nepal’s economic and even political choices. But the dilemma facing Kathmandu — or any emerging market, for that matter — is that Huawei supplies telecommunications infrastructure at affordable prices, and no elected government can ignore this reality”.

With Huawei’s 5G network set to roll out in Nepal within the next few years, China may be able to easily monitor anti-Tibet and espionage activities, expand its surveillance for overt and covert plans and win over the sensitive region that has separated the two Asian giants.

The geopolitical future of Nepal swinging China’s way for now, unless India and the US come up with its own version of advanced 5G technology, although that looks unlikely.

“China’s geopolitical advantage that accrues on account of Huawei’s or other Chinese companies’ market power can only be blunted if others step up to address those same infrastructural needs at competitive rates. Isolating Huawei can work up to a point, but is not sustainable in the long run,” Sukumar said.

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