5G and the Contested China-India Border

China today is one of the biggest spenders on research and development (R&D) in the world. In 2020, China’s spending on R&D increased by 10.3 percent to 2.44 trillion renminbi ($378 billion), accounting for 2.4 percent of its GDP. In March 2021, during the annual session of the National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang announced that Beijing will aim to increase the nationwide R&D spending by more than 7 percent annually.

One focus of China’s R&D push is the latest fifth generation, or 5G, wireless technology. The advent of 5G is expected to boost wireless connectivity and communications, thus enabling a new wave of innovations and offering greater bandwidth network capacity. G technology is also expected to be a step-change in mobile networking, promising exponentially faster download speeds and data-sharing in real time and reduced network latency. Li set a goal for China to get 56 percent of the country on 5G networks this year, and China is aiming to complete the installation of 5G network infrastructure during the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) period.

According to public data from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), as of the end of 2020, China has built the largest 5G network in the world, with over 718,000 5G base stations throughout the country and 5G coverage for all prefecture-level cities, as well as over 200 million 5G terminal connections. This is at least 10 times the 5G network in the United States, and far outstrips 5G networks in other countries.

Analysts attribute China’s lead in the rollout and adoption of 5G in large part to the heavy hand of Beijing, which has set aggressive targets for 5G connectivity for the country’s state-run telecom operators.

Among its many other benefits, the Chinese government will likely take advantage of 5G to advance the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in centralized surveillance. In a future where a variety of activities will revolve around AI, analysts believe that 5G represents a huge opportunity for the government to collect ever-more data, allowing it to further monitor critics and stifle opposition.

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The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has invested billions of dollars in the upkeep and improvement of its surveillance grid, the world’s most sophisticated digital system of social control. Of course, the intensity of this mass surveillance system is far more intrusive in its ethnically diverse frontier regions, such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia, as compared to the rest of China.

In Tibet, China claims that more than 98 percent of villages have been linked with 4G networks, optical fibers, and broadband internet services since 2019. From 2020, China began strengthening the overall development of 5G network infrastructure in Tibet. At the third session of the Eleventh Tibetan People’s Congress, the chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Che Dalha, said that the region expects all seats in its cities and prefectures to be covered with 5G networks by the end of 2020.

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Meanwhile, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been working with private enterprises to build advanced high-speed network and connection infrastructure for its border troops.

Kampala (Ganbala in Mandarin) in Nagartse Country of Lhoka (Shannan) prefecture is known for having the highest manually operated radar station in the world, at an elevation of 5,374 meters above sea level. According to a military news portal sponsored by the PLA, the radar station is outfitted with a 5G base station and has already begun full-fledged operations. The radar station has reportedly given a significant boost to China’s surveillance and AI capabilities while bolstering its power projection in the region. The 5G station will enhance military communications and support a sprawling network for the rapid deployment of army and weapons. Unsurprisingly, the setup of the 5G base station at the radar station overlooking the sensitive border region has drawn considerable concern from neighboring countries.

This development has led to a more complicated and dynamic threat to the cyber landscape. With the advent of the 5G wireless networks, security threat vectors will be bigger than ever before, with greater concern for privacy. Therefore, it is crucial to highlight the security challenges due to the wireless nature of mobile networks, as well as the threat posed by the misuse of potential technologies developed and aided by 5G. It is expected to create an unprecedented opportunity for innovation and progress in data-hungry categories like artificial intelligence, advance manufacturing, and mass surveillance.

The PLA has tried to brush aside the furor over the 5G installations near the Tibetan border, saying that the operations will “bridge the communication gap between soldiers and their families and friends.” A PLA soldier can now “video chat and witness the growth of his child,” the official discourse pointed out.

However, experts argue that through such rhetoric the PLA is trying to trivialize the installation of the world’s top communications technology in a remote and sensitive border region. Communication technology serves a wide range of military purposes, including enhancing China’s ability to monitor the mountainous border regions and assisting the deployment of guided weapons. The 5G network and early warning capabilities are expected to be a game-changer in China’s favor, further raising tensions across the high Himalayas.

A week ago, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur visited the India-Tibet border area at Samdo in Lahaul-Spiti district. After surveying the area, Thakur came to the conclusion that China is strengthening its infrastructure along the border. It is clear that China’s military is bolstering its surveillance mechanisms along the borders by developing new types of equipment, like satellite early warning systems, that can be used to monitor the movement of Indian military activities.

In that context, the establishment and operations of 5G networks on the Tibetan plateau, poses a possible threat to the security environment along India’s borders.