India is phasing out equipment from Huawei and other Chinese companies from its telecoms networks over an escalating border dispute, striking a fresh blow to the beleaguered technology giant in one of its most important markets.
New Delhi has not issued any formal written ban on Chinese equipment suppliers like Huawei and ZTE, nor has prime minister Narendra Modi’s government made any such public pronouncements.
However, industry executives and government officials say key ministries have clearly indicated that local telecom service providers should avoid using Chinese equipment in future investments, including in 5G networks.
“It’s open now that the government is not going to allow Chinese equipment,” a top telecom industry executive told the FT. “There is now clarity . . . It’s really game over.”
India’s telecoms department, the executive added, “has already disallowed 5G testing with Chinese vendors”.
Huawei has been one of the three biggest telecom equipment suppliers in India, which is the world’s second biggest mobile market, with more than 850m users. It has had significant contracts with Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and state-owned BSNL.
New Delhi is unlikely to ever formally ban Huawei or other Chinese equipment companies, lest it provoke a tough response from Beijing, a senior government official told the FT.
But the official said Mr Modi’s administration is highly wary about Chinese investment in sensitive infrastructure. The two nuclear-armed neighbours currently have tens of thousands of soldiers massed along their disputed border high on the Tibetan plateau, after a deadly brawl that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead.
Indian Border Security Force soldiers guard a highway leading towards the Himalayan town of Leh along the border with China, © Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty
“The thinking is: ‘Let’s do tough rather than talk tough,’” the official told the FT. “We don’t want to make life miserable for consumers. But when it comes to big public contracts and critical infrastructure, we would prefer non-Chinese companies. That message has gotten through to Indian business.”
New Delhi’s informal boycott comes as Huawei is under growing political pressure in western countries from the UK to Australia, where it has been banned from providing 5G kit amid concerns it could allow Beijing to hack into countries’ power grids and other critical infrastructure.
Anti-China sentiment in India has grown since June’s border dispute, after which New Delhi banned TikTok along with 58 other apps, citing national security concerns.
“India’s government is yet to issue an official diktat against Huawei and is playing wait and watch,” said Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst of Greyhound Research. “Irrespective, the intent is evident — that of not being welcoming to Huawei.”
Mr Gogia said Huawei’s exclusion from upcoming 5G trials would be a blow to both Bharti Airtel and Vodafone’s struggling Indian arm as it would lead to their incurring higher costs. It would, however, open opportunities for Huawei’s rivals Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung, he said.
A Jio store in Kolkata, India © Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto/Getty
India’s largest telecom operator Reliance Jio, owned by Asia’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, does not have Chinese equipment in its networks, and has pledged to develop its own 5G equipment, though analysts are sceptical.
It has also sold stakes to a raft of high-profile US companies including Google and Facebook.
Jio’s main rival Bharti Airtel — which traditionally relied heavily on Huawei — announced a new tie up with US-based Verizon in August.
Bharti Airtel “will try to be in the government’s good books with this anti-China sentiment”, said Neil Shah, a telecom industry analyst at consultancy Counterpoint Research. “BSNL — India’s state-owned telecoms company — is shutting out Chinese vendors, definitely Huawei is in limbo. At Airtel they are almost shut out.”
Vodafone, India’s third-largest telecoms player, is the most dependent on Chinese equipment but its survival is in doubt as a result of a long-running dispute over retrospective levies and penalties worth billions of dollars.
Huawei refused to comment on its India business, but said in a recent statement that “reports suggesting lay-offs of more than half of Huawei staff in India are untrue”.