Axing the axis

Last April, during a four-day official visit to India, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao sent shivers through many IT pros in the West. He proclaimed that a combination of Indian software skills and Chinese hardware expertise will propel the two countries to a leadership position in global IT.

"When that particular day comes," Wen trumpeted, "it will signify the coming of the Asian century of the IT industry."

It was a disturbing vision for many people who had already been fretting over the loss of jobs to those countries. The thought of an Asian IT axis that would present an even more formidable threat didn't sit well at all.

I could have told them then that they had nothing to worry about, but I would have been deluged with more irate mail from readers scoffing at my rose-colored glasses. And our IT guys were already mad at me for hogging space on the e-mail server.

But I bring it up now because there was a good example last week of why all the hand-wringing was unnecessary, and it's worth recounting.

Just four months after Wen's visit to India, during which he toured the massive Bangalore R&D operations of China's Huawei Technologies (think of Huawei as China's Cisco Systems), the Indian government made it clear that it has no intention of getting too chummy. The Times of India reported last week that Huawei, which has more than 900 engineers in Bangalore and has announced plans to invest US$100 million in its Indian operations, is being kept at a safe distance from India's core telecommunications infrastructure for security reasons.

According to the article, several Indian government agencies, including the RAW (the Research and Analysis Wing, India's CIA) have concluded that Huawei poses a specific threat. The RAW stated that Huawei "has been responsible for sweeping and debugging operations in the Chinese embassy. In view of China's focus on cyber warfare, there is a risk of exposing our strategic telecom network to the Chinese."

Moreover, India's Ministry of External Affairs cited concerns over Huawei's "links with the Chinese military and intelligence establishment, their clandestine operations in Iraq and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and their close ties with the Pakistan army."

None of that means Huawei shouldn't be engaged by India and the rest of the international community. History has demonstrated that engagement yields a lot more positive change than the alternative does. There's no question, for example, that Huawei's 2-year-old joint venture with 3Com helped the Chinese firm recognize the essential nature of honoring other companies' intellectual property. An isolated Huawei would have been far less likely to end its violation of Cisco's intellectual property rights, as it did last year.

But last week's development does demonstrate why Wen's vision of a two-country IT powerhouse is untenable. Name any two or three countries, and try to imagine them forming a successful union if their purpose is to lead or dominate. There will always be political and economic reasons why it will never happen. The union will succeed only if it obviates domination by becoming global.

There will be no Asian century of the IT industry, just as there will be no African or European or North American or South American century of the IT industry. The day we can all look forward to is the one when the IT industry, along with every other economic and professional sector, is truly global.

The axis-of-power idea has been tried. Thankfully for all of us, it didn't work.

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