Huawei is a security threat to the west, says the U.S., because it might be instructed to collect intelligence at Beijing’s behest or shutdown swathes of critical infrastructure in the event of any political or military conflict. Meanwhile, most of the west finds itself hooked on Huawei’s low prices and nifty innovation and doesn’t want the commercial catastrophe of a rip and replace within its strategically critical wireless networks.
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This is the crux of the battle between Huawei on one side and Washington on the other, and while there are detailed arguments buried within—such as China’s national intelligence laws that compel businesses to act in the state’s interest and Huawei’s ownership structure, the core argument itself is that simple.
But there’s also a critical irony in this standoff. The U.S. is concerned that Huawei might compromise the intelligence networks that, in no small part, are in place to keep tabs on China—alongside Russia, North Korea and Iran, of course. But the U.S. can’t produce a smoking gun and so is failing to sway its allies. As a consequence, the very intelligence-sharing networks it wants to protect, it appears, are now at risk.
None of this is lost on Beijing. You don’t have to be overly cynical to assume that anything China can do to stoke these fires it will. Commercial threats against Germany’s auto industry. Newspaper columns penned by its ambassador to London, warning of a damaged relationship with China if the country decides the wrong way on 5G. Connecting new inward investments to 5G build-outs. Yes, China wants to support its national tech champion. But it is also well aware that the U.S. is backed into a geopolitical corner on this issue, with serious implications.
All of which will come to a head when the U.K. makes its 5G decision on Huawei, widely expected to come at some point later this month. It is now looking ever more likely that London will ignore U.S. lobbying for a blanket Huawei ban. As I reported on January 15, despite Washington ramping up the pressure, the U.K. looks set to be swayed by the commercial realities of ripping and replacing Huawei kit from its networks, backing its ability to mitigate any resulting security risks.
And so to those dangerous consequences. The U.S. has made public its threats to restrict intelligence-sharing with nations that persist with Huawei. The U.K., it says, will be no exception, despite being its closest defence ally. A week ago, U.K. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed in the Sunday Times that “direct” threats had been made by U.S. President Trump and his officials to senior British politicians.
Proposed U.S. legislation to ban intelligence-sharing in such circumstances warns that governments should not “allow an intelligence-gathering arm of the Chinese Communist Party to operate freely within their borders,” adding that “allies around the world [should] carefully consider the consequences of dealing with Huawei.” That bill will almost certainly not become law, but the political intent is important. The administration can’t beat a drum this loudly and then quietly shut it down.
Part reality, part rhetoric, but the fact that the deployment of commercial 5G networking kit has opened a divide in the world’s most powerful intelligence-sharing alliance is significant. Speak to U.K. officials and they will play down the threat. Speak to U.S. officials and, while they may acknowledge some of this is hyperbole, they remain adamant that the threat has some basis, that arrangements will change.
In the Daily Telegraph on January 18, the former senior director for strategy at the U.S. National Security Council, Robert Spalding, warned of the national security risk that Huawei “clearly poses” to the U.K. His point is that putting aside espionage or data compromise concerns, the threat of “a rift in the U.K.-U.S. alliance that has sustained in peace since the end of World War II” should worry us all.
In the U.K., Prime Minister Johnson is caught in an unwelcome bind. His intelligence officials are assuring that risk can be contained. His commercial advisers warn that delays to 5G deployments will carry a huge financial cost and loss of public confidence. The U.S. warns of a security risk, but has failed to produce a smoking gun.
On Saturday (January 18), the Guardian reported that the decision to fudge the issue and allow Huawei some form of involvement and then manage the consequences now seems inevitable. Theresa May’s national security adviser, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, told the Observer that the issue has “been gone into now by three different administrations—I think the outcome is quite likely to be the same… the government has developed an oversight mechanism which they are confident will work.”
“Combine that with the fact that Huawei has more advanced technology than the alternatives,” Lyall Grant said, “I think it is relatively likely that Boris Johnson will come to the same conclusion.” It certainly seems so. Last week, Johnson told the BBC that the U.K. population “deserves to have access to the best possible technology,” suggesting that those suggesting otherwise should proffer a viable alternative.
And so, for those watching from Wahsington or London or Beijing, or indeed Moscow, how serious a threat to intelligence-sharing is this really? Last week, MI5 head Andrew Parker assured that Huawei risks could be contained, that the decision was political and not security related, that the U.S. benefits as well as the U.K. from the status quo, it will not be damaged in any meaningful way. Not so, according to unnamed officials at sister agency GCHQ, who told the Times that to offer Huawei a limited role in the U.K. might be a “foregone conclusion,” but doing so is like “letting a fox loose in a chicken coop”, that Chinese-built tech carries inherent risks, mitigation or not.
The fudge will be restricting Huawei to the edges of the U.K.’s 5G network, not the core data carrying backbone, and keeping it away from sensitive locations—military sites and London’s political and security hubs. The U.S. maintains there is no edge and core distinction with 5G—there’s too much data, moving too quickly between too many endpoints. But the U.K. leads the world in holding Huawei to account technically—there is a dedicated Huawei cybersecurity evaluation unit under GCHQ’s purview.
A U.K. government official told the Times that “GCHQ is entirely comfortable with the way the government is approaching this decision. The government is looking carefully at expert technical evidence from GCHQ, and the tight controls needed to make this work. This fox in the hen house stuff is nonsense.” The head of MI6, the third of the U.K.’s senior agencies, remains cautious, having questioning whether the U.K. should allow China’s ownership of core technologies deployed in the country.
All of which overlooks that key point. Whether reality or rhetoric, the U.S. has threatened to curtail intelligence-sharing arrangements with the U.K., its most significant ally, if Huawei makes the cut. Reading between the lines, the U.K.’s intel officials are taking the rhetoric non-literally. “Our closest ally, the U.S., has made its view clear,” warned a Daily Telegraph column on January 18. “Huawei should not be allowed anywhere near 5G and, if we ignore this advice, the U.S. will have to protect itself by restricting intelligence-sharing with us.”
Collection and dissemination are highly integrated and intertwined between the U.S. and U.K. Tasks are split and shared. Changing the basis on which the Five Eyes (U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand) operates is no small feat and would disadvantage all, including the U.S. But, the Trump administration maintains that next-generation Chinese equipment within a close ally changes the status of that ally. “If the U.K. still disagrees that Huawei fits the definition of a national security risk,” Spalding wrote, “then at least I have fulfilled my duty as a friend to convey the threat.”
In short, while we debate the merits of Huawei’s equipment, its security holes, the “will they or won’t they” theoretical security issues of the future, we are focusing on that debate and not the very real, very now cybersecurity and hybrid warfare dangers emanating from China and Russia in the main. This is a distraction playing out on the front pages of western newspapers day after day. It’s a distraction that has introduced more tension into certain working-level alliances than we have seen before, whether or not you believe those implications are structural and long-lasting.
While the U.S. lobbying of the U.K. and other allies has focused on core intelligence, if you believe the allegations then the actual threat relates more to critical infrastructure and commercial IP theft. But there are two even more potent arguments against Huawei. First, that it is involved in the surveillance state deployments in Xinjiang—the argument runs that no western government should contract with the company until that ends. And, second, that China and Russia collectively represent the most potent cyber and hybrid warfare threat against the west. No country within the western alliance would buy Russian 5G equipment—if there was any such thing. Why is this any different?