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ISRO's deals with Chinese companies are a security hazard

Security analysts are baffled how an agreement between ISRO and Oppo India has been signed as it greatly increases the security risk for India

Col Anil Bhat (retd) Jan 05, 2022
ISRO-Oppo India

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and India’s Department of Space signed an MOU with Oppo India -- the Indian subsidiary of the Chinese mobile communication company -- on December 10, 2022. This tie-up aims to strengthen the research and development of the NavIC messaging service to provide a convenient and user-friendly platform. 

Christened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as NavIC (acronym for Navigation with Indian Constellation), it is a constellation of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), an independent regional navigation satellite system being developed by India that generates accurate real-time positioning and timing services.  

According to an article “Security concerns over ISRO-Oppo tie-up” in the Sunday Guardian of December 11, the development of this system was approved by the Indian government in May 2013 to prevent the repeat of what the Indian military faced during the Kargil confrontation in 1999 when their request to access foreign government-controlled global navigation satellite systems were denied by the owner countries including the US. 

Security risks 

The article says that following this MoU, Oppo will build ready to use, end-to-end application-specific solutions by integrating NavIC messaging service with its mobile handset platform. 

The NavIC system provides regional navigation services covering the Indian mainland and also covers an area of up to 1,500 km beyond the Indian mainland. Other than location services, the NavIC technology is also capable of broadcasting short messages, or popularly known as SOS. Oppo phones currently rely on GPS and the Chinese owned Beidou global positioning services. 

Oppo India’s press note stated: “Under our latest MoU, we will support ISRO with our industry-leading R&D capabilities to provide a seamless experience to the users of the NavIC application. In line with our vision towards Make in India, Oppo will invest in further scaling the product with its competitive and experienced R&D team to benefit our users and the government.” 

The MoU will enable ISRO and Oppo India to exchange technical information on the NavIC messaging services. This will enable the building of rapid, ready-to-use, end-to-end application-specific solutions that integrate the NavIC messaging service with Oppo’s mobile handset platform, with Indian end-users in mind.  

Also mentioned in the Sunday Guardian article is that while the details of the MoU were not shared by the ISRO or Oppo, experts believe that the research and development team of Oppo, which is headquartered in China, will be able to access the data generated by NavIC and that another mobile company. Xiaomi, headquartered in China, had announced a similar tie-up with ISRO in February 2020. 

Indian worries about China 

After much that happened between the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during 2020 and 2021, the latest Defence Ministry’s annual report of 2022, which covers events of 2021, states: “There has been provocative and one-sided action to change the status quo on China’s use of force in more than one area at the LAC (Line of Actual Control).”  

While the armies of both countries have held talks on different levels to resolve the conflict, there has been very little or no implementation of tension-reducing postures or measures by the PLA. Considering the circumstances, the Indian Army’s deployment has been adequately increased in the regions where disengagement has not happened yet. 

The Defence Ministry has also stated that India is working to improve infrastructures like roads, bridges and other basic necessities. Having suffered great reverses at Galway and Kailash Range in 2020, the PLA has been relentlessly extending its deployment along the LAC till Arunachal Pradesh. 

Security analysts are baffled how an agreement between ISRO and Oppo India has been signed as it greatly increases the security risk for India. 

In an article published in The Citizen on December 27, 2021, Indian Army veteran Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (Retd) wrote: “Why have we permitted trade to prevail over China’s blatant aggression violating India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty? Among all the calls and hype to ‘shun Chinese products’, why has the India-China bilateral trade crossed the figure of $100 billion in the first 11 months of 2021 (up 46.4 percent year-on-year) with a $61.5 billion surplus in China’s favour?  We are ‘rewarding’ Beijing for the aggression in Eastern Ladakh with a surplus of $61.5 billion in 11 months… How does one explain ISRO signing a deal with the Chinese firm OPPO for providing NavIC (Navigation with Indian Constellation) messaging services on mobile platforms?”  

Why ISRO pact? 

“Wonder if our policymakers are even aware that under China’s National Intelligence Law and Data Security Law, OPPO is duty bound to assist the Communist Party of China in furthering Beijing’s national security interests – be it OPPO India or in any other country. It is intriguing why ISRO had to ink a deal with a Chinese company. Prudence demands that the ISRO-OPPO deal be cancelled and another alternative sought.” 

Another Indian Army veteran, Lt Gen P G Kamath (Retd), who this writer spoke to, said: “Considering the fact that so many traders/shopkeepers all over India swore not to trade with the Chinese or buy their goods, I am appalled to hear about ISRO signing an agreement with Oppo and that too one which can compromise our military systems.”   

A recent programme on News X had China expert Prof Kondapalli Srikanth, Lt Gen PJS Pannu (Retd), Prof Madhav Das Nalapat and retired Ambassador Deepak Vohra holding forth on PLA’s monkey tricks on the LAC with apprehensions expressed about the ISRO-Oppo tie-up. 

A number of other senior Indian armed forces officers this writer spoke to have expressed surprise and alarm at this development.   

There should be no doubt about the fact that following the Indian Army’s fierce bullet-less response against PLA on June 15-16, 2020 at Galwan and its occupation of Kailash Range on August 2­9-30, 2020, the Chinese Communist Party-PLA combo is waging war against India in all modes possible other than conventional combat with firearms.  

Won’t agreements of ISRO with Xiaomi and Oppo be a potential bonanza for the Chinese?        

(The author, a strategic analyst, is a former spokesperson, Ministry of Defence and Indian Army. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at wordsword02@gmail.com) 


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