When it comes to high-stakes national security brinksmanship, it’s clear that attack is the best form of defense. At the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona this week, Huawei’s rotating chairman Guo Ping used his keynote speech on Tuesday to remind the world about the U.S.’s own cybersecurity controversies, referencing the U.S. National Security Agency’s internet collection program exposed in 2013.
This has all the hallmarks of a carefully orchestrated line of defense that has been in the works for some time – and it’s a very good one.
The World Of Glass Houses
The PRISM program was initiated under the Patriot Act in 2001 and expanded under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2006 and 2007. The program enabled NSA to collect data from U.S. internet companies including Microsoft, Google and Apple, when permitted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
“PRISM, PRISM, on the wall, who is the most trustworthy of them all?” Guo asked his MWC audience. “If you don’t understand that, you can go ask Edward Snowden.”
And so onto stage two. In an article written for Wednesday’s Financial Times, Guo suggested that the reason the U.S. is so determined to cast national security aspersions on Huawei and encourage its international allies to follow suit has nothing to do with expanding Beijing’s intelligence collection reach and everything to do with limiting Washington’s.
“The Snowden leaks,” Guo wrote, “shone a light on how the NSA’s leaders were seeking to ‘collect it all’ – every electronic communication sent, or phone call made, by everyone in the world, every day.”
Taking The Fight To Europe
That Huawei chose MWC to launch this line of attack on Washington is not a surprise. There was significant unease around the world when the extent of U.S. electronic eavesdropping was exposed and this plays directly to that, as a very brazen ‘look who’s talking’.
“Clearly the more Huawei gear is installed in the world’s telecommunications networks,” wrote Gou, “the harder it becomes for NSA to ‘collect it all’.”
The statements coming from Huawei and its leadership have reassured that the company will never “assist other countries in gathering intelligence.” In other words: we won’t do as we’re asked by Beijing, just as we won’t do as we’re asked by Washington or anyone else either; we’re not the threat, we’re the defense, and that’s the real truth behind Washington’s lobbying against us.
“Huawei,” Guo Ping wrote, “hampers U.S. efforts to spy on whomever it wants.”
China Accuses The U.S. Of Protectionism
“This is the first reason for the campaign against us,” according to Guo. “The second reason has to do with 5G.” And here Huawei has found an unlikely ally – President Donald Trump.
“I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible,” the President tweeted last week. “It is far more powerful, faster, and smarter than the current standard. American companies must step up their efforts, or get left behind. There is no reason that we should be lagging behind on something that is so obviously the future. I want the United States to win through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies. We must always be the leader in everything we do, especially when it comes to the very exciting world of technology!”
Immediately afterward, Guo responded enthusiastically: “I have noticed the President’s Twitter, he said that the U.S. needs faster and smarter 5G, or even 6G in the future, and he has realized that the U.S. is lagging behind in this respect, and I think his message is clear and correct.”
Guo has progressed this argument in his FT article: “America also directly benefits if it can quash a company that curtails its digital dominance. Hobbling a leader in 5G technology would erode the economic and social benefits that would otherwise accrue the countries that roll it out early.”
The battleground between Washington and Huawei had already shifted to Europe ahead of MWC. Despite the European Union citing caution and the U.K. publicly questioning the level of security within Huawei equipment, there remains no tangible evidence of compromises and accusations are limited to forward-looking threat mitigation. The European carriers fear that a prohibition on Huawei will set their 5G rollouts back several years and will result in them not having access to the market’s best-performing networking equipment.
“The fusillade being directed at Huawei,” Guo has now written, “is the direct result of Washington’s realization that the U.S. has fallen behind in developing a strategically important technology.”
Trump On The Fence?
This has raised the question as to what extent Trump truly ascribes to the hawkish views of Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence, per their recent thinly veiled threats to European allies that U.S. collaboration will be switched off if they include Huawei in their networks. The much talked about executive order banning Huawei from the U.S. was not signed in time for MWC, despite reports. Are there cracks not yet publicly visible in the U.S. stance against Huawei? Is this now a card to be played in the high-stakes trade game playing out with Beijing? And will Huawei’s return to the U.S., under stringent security controls, be a card that Beijing plays to give the President the China trade win he so badly wants?
Trump has said a deal is “very close”, and some analysts are now expressing serious fears that the agreement will be too weak, highlighted by an apparent disagreement between the President and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. If the stance on Huawei is softened to secure a deal, that will inevitably be portrayed as a major volte-face.
The reality is that 5G and the IoT built on its exponential increase in networking capacity will be a major economic driver for a generation or more. Accenture estimates that IoT could add $14 trillion to the global economy by 2030 through “the biggest driver of productivity and growth in the next decade, accelerating the reinvention of sectors that account for almost two-thirds of world output.” Speak to telecoms industry insiders, especially the networks, and they will wax lyrical about Huawei’s innovation and technical lead. The industry – excepting Huawei’s competitors – do not want to see the company excluded.
Nick Read, CEO of Vodafone, the U.K.’s leading carrier, told reporters at MWC on Monday that “we need to have a fact-based risk-assessed review. People are saying things at the moment that are not grounded, I’m not saying that is the case for the U.S. because I have not met them directly myself, so I have not seen what evidence they have, but they clearly need to present that evidence to the right bodies throughout Europe.”
The longer this war of rhetoric and lobbying has continued, the more it has started to shift in Huawei’s favor, even setting the U.S. against the rest of the Five Eyes. Australia and New Zealand had been relatively forthright in excluding Huawei but may soften their stance if they’re seen to be out of step internationally. The U.K. will be a major litmus test when its security report is published in a few weeks’ time.
“The global campaign against Huawei has little to do with security,” according to Guo, “and everything to do with America’s desire to suppress a rising technological competitor.”
MWC was always going to be a heightened battleground between Huawei and Washington. The U.S. sent representatives from the Departments of Defense, State and Commerce to lobby against the company. But for Huawei, MWC is home turf. Their brand dominates. U.S. officials and lobbyists were always going to struggle to take their battle to the industry on foreign soil, especially without the unveiling of any concrete evidence against the company.
In parallel with MWC this week, eleven U.S. senators wrote to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, noting that “Congress recently acted to block Huawei from our telecommunications equipment market due to concerns with the company’s links to China’s intelligence services,” and urged “similar action to protect critical U.S. electrical systems and infrastructure.”
This again relates to IoT and the race to deliver connectivity across a wide range of industries. The U.S. doesn’t want Chinese networking equipment driving its industrial infrastructure for many reasons, and security is just one of them.
Your Move, Washington
For all the rhetoric, the challenge for the U.S. is the lack of tangible evidence of Huawei collecting intelligence for Beijing, despite their alleged conflict of interest. There has now been so much Huawei-related news that it is losing its impact. The world is starting to view the accusations more cynically. Germany and Italy appear to be wavering, and even the U.K is equivocating.
“It’s a hugely complex strategic challenge which will span the next few decades, probably our whole professional lives,” Jeremy Fleming, the head of U.K. intelligence agency GCHQ said this week. “How we deal with it will be crucial for prosperity and security way beyond 5G contracts.” The U.K.’s Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), which has said that cyber threats from the equipment manufacturer can be “mitigated”, sits within GCHQ.
For Huawei, this latest move is its best, turning defense into attack, hitting the U.S. where it is most vulnerable with the combined accusations of offensive cyber and protectionism. Huawei CEO and Founder Ren Zhengfei told the BBC last week that “there’s no way the U.S. can crush us. If the lights go out in the West, the East will still shine. And if the North goes dark, there is still the South… America doesn’t represent the world.”
And now Guo has raised the stakes much further, signing off his FT article by saying that “if the US can keep Huawei out of the world’s 5G networks by portraying us as a security threat, it can retain its ability to spy on whomever it wants.”
This gets more interesting by the day.