Cyberattacks from South Asian regions, mainly India, target China's key industries. Graphic: Feng Qingyin/G
Which country in the South Asian subcontinent has launched most cyberattacks against China? The answer is India. And the attacks have largely been on the rise this year.
The attack targets were clear and specified, including the Chinese governmental sectors, institutions of aerospace, national defense and higher education. Besides, many Chinese scholars who are doing Indian studies and international relations have received phishing emails. Their personal electronic devices were embedded with Trojan viruses. In December 2020, EU DisinfoLab, an independent NGO focused on researching and tackling sophisticated disinformation campaigns, uncovered a massive 15-year operation of the Indian Chronicles whose mission "is to discredit nations in conflict with India in Asia, in particular Pakistan but also China."
The long-term objectives of the operation are: "In India, to reinforce pro-Indian and anti-Pakistan (and anti-Chinese) feelings. Internationally, to consolidate the power and improve the perception of India, to damage the reputation of other countries and ultimately benefit from more support from international institutions such as the EU and the UN."
These series of India originated cyberattacks are not only a big threat to the Chinese information security, but also an alert to the two countries that the China-India relation is facing new challenges with complicated factors besides border frictions. It is apparent that India's attitude and action toward information security has been a new variant.
It is noticed that India has taken actions to improve the governance of information security in recent years. However, the real purpose is under question. In 2020, more than 60 Chinese apps, including the popular TikTok and WeChat, were banned by the Indian government for the excuse of "stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users' data in an unauthorized manner." After the Chinese app companies submitted report of information security to New Delhi, they were requested to build data reservation stations within India. Although these companies have followed the new rules and requirements, they have never won the market back.
The international society has noticed that the ban of Chinese apps with the excuse of information security was not coincidental, but rather a response to the events at the China-India border. But it has been proved this action did no good to solve any problem. It has instead damaged business ties and mutual trust of the people between the two countries.
It was not the first time that the Chinese apps have been banned in India. In 2017, the Chinese developed UC Browser came under scrutiny for allegedly leaking mobile data of Indian users. It was finally proved to be untrue. At the same year, India's Defense Ministry asked all its armed personnel and officers to uninstall 42 Chinese apps that were classified as "spyware," according to open reports. It should be pointed out that India was in a standoff with China in the Donglong area, which is known as Doklam in India.
These series of actions broke the order of market competition environment and damaged the legal rights of enterprises and consumers. More importantly, these moves claim that India's purpose of defending the country's information security is not that simple. It is aimed to manipulate the politics of the two countries' relations.
On one hand, New Delhi has taken the excuse of defending information security to ban Chinese apps. It has been proved to a sort of revenge and pressure to Beijing or gesture politics to the border frictions. On the other hand, the continuing cyberattacks targeted at China have threatened the information security and make the two countries' relations more complicated and unpredictable.
In other words, New Delhi clearly shows double standards in dealing with information security. This is definitely not a smart choice. It is widely believed that the policy of Digital India is to develop a high-tech nation, not a hack nation. Besides, it should be reaffirmed that building healthy China-India relations benefit the two sides.
If India is truly interested in taking a ride with China's development in science, technology and academic research, there are many constructive ways, such as open communication and win-win cooperation. Under-table tricks or illegal actions will definitely damage India' image as a "major country" it has been seeking. So will it further sour China-India relations.
The trust between the two countries has been in turbulent since 2017 and it will not be rebuilt over night. India must abandon "persecutory delusion" when facing China. It's better to take sincere attitudes and make pragmatic choices in dealing with the matter. Defending information security means developing the capacity of digital governance in India domestically, not threatening or damaging its neighbor's interests.
The author is an expert in South Asian Studies, Communication University of China and a visiting research fellow at Chengdu Institute World Affairs.