While several American allies such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Taiwan are not engaging with Huawei, countries such as France, Germany and even India are testing waters
By Anurag Vishwanath
Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant with the tagline ‘Powering Intelligent Connectivity with Global Collaboration’, finds that ‘global collaboration’ is easier said than done. Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou is in detention, in Canada. And the US has backed a global bid to keep Huawei off the telecommunication networks of the West on grounds of national security. Against all odds, Huawei has found an unlikely lifeline in the UK. On January 28, 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson backed Huawei’s participation in UK’s 5G high-speed wireless network.
Predictably, UK’s decision is at odds with the US’s, and threatens to derail UK-US ‘special relations’. So, what lies behind UK’s decision and what are the implications for the global community?
The UK decides to include Huawei
Following what the UK has said was a ‘rigorous review’, Huawei will be allowed to participate in the 5G network, but its role will be limited to the ‘non-core’ (non-sensitive) network, capped at 35%. Huawei will not be allowed into the ‘core’ national security networks (nuclear power and defence). The UK has indicated that, in the past, Huawei was not operational in sensitive networks, nor will be in the future. Moreover, Huawei will be monitored by a security evaluation centre, the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) monitored by UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) set up in 2010 at Banbury, Oxfordshire—a move that has been welcomed by Huawei.
It appears that UK’s decision is based on certain pragmatic considerations, including costs. Huawei is said to have made a sustained investment in the ecosystem, rolling out the 4G network in the UK (and France, Germany and Poland, too). UK’s need for 5G coverage by 2025 and Huawei’s expertise and lead as a leading telecommunications provider were some factors. Moreover, the exclusion of Huawei would have led to increased costs and delays. Lack of a viable alternative provider was also another factor.
For Johnson, who has presided over UK’s exit from the European Union (EU), there is no doubt that he is banking on a favourable US-UK trade deal. But UK’s decision on Huawei has come as a storm.
The Donald Trump administration has made its disappointment ‘very clear’ to the UK. Most newspapers, including the Financial Times (London), carried reports of President Trump’s ‘apoplectic’ (angry) disappointment over UK’s decision. In earlier references, President Trump had called Huawei ‘dangerous’. Huawei is a larger, bigger issue than President Trump—it’s an issue that the American establishment seems united on.
On Huawei, both sides, the Republicans and the Democrats, sail in the same boat. Republican Lindsey Graham had tweeted: “This decision has the potential to jeopardize US-UK intelligence sharing agreements and could greatly complicate a US-UK free trade agreement,” and hoped that Britain would “reconsider its decision.” In an interview, Democrat Ro Khanna said sanctions against Huawei are ‘reasonable’ given national security concerns and generous subsidies that Huawei garners. Cable News Network (CNN, Atlanta) chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto said that on Huawei both Democrats and the Republicans have a “rare point of agreement.”
The American establishment has long been sceptical of Huawei’s participation in the next-generation 5G network with potential for espionage. The US has been wary and critical of UK’s cost-cutting, which, in their eyes, undermines the Five Eyes partnership of intelligence-sharing between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Given the turn of events, there is an open call in the US for the review of US-UK intelligence sharing.
While several American allies such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Taiwan are not engaging with Huawei, many others in Europe, such as France and Germany, and India are testing waters.
Testing Huawei waters
The UK testing Huawei waters is caught in a furore. A letter signed by former ministers and senior Conservatives has sought a better solution to UK’s decision on Huawei going as far as to suggest ruling or phasing out ‘high-risk’ vendors.
Several countries are yet to clarify their stance on Huawei. For instance, the EU has not banned Huawei, but suggested members ‘limit and monitor’ ‘high-risk’ vendors. The EU also released a ‘5G toolbox’—measures such as stricter screening of foreign investment, penalties for companies benefiting from state subsidies—a circular route likely to impact Huawei.
Media reports in France suggest that the biggest French operator, Orange, has selected Nokia and Ericsson. Two other French carriers—Altice Europe’s SFR and Bouygues Telecom—are yet to say who their 5G partners will be, but are likely to look at directives from France’s National Agency for the Security of Information Systems (ANSSI).
India, caught between the largest trading partner China and democratic ally the US, has allowed Huawei to participate in 5G trials. China, which has captured India’s smartphone market, is upbeat about Huawei’s technology and high-quality networks in India.
China’s diplomatic offensive
Strangely, the Chinese state has gone on a diplomatic offensive for Huawei—a private company. In Paris, Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye has not minced words, lashing out at the “difference of treatment of companies according to their country of origin.” Calling for ‘transparent criteria’ and that ‘all companies (be treated) equally’, the embassy made a statement that “China has always given Nokia and Ericsson fair treatment in the deployment of 5G networks in China and has even allowed them to take part in the deployment of the core networks.”
In the UK, Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming said in the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that Huawei is a “privately-owned company, nothing to do with the Chinese government,” and that Tory politicians opposed to Huawei were conducting a “witch-hunt.” But not many will likely buy the argument.
Technology, the final frontier
In the US and elsewhere, the perspective on Huawei is coloured, no doubt, by politics, but so also by trade issues. And perhaps both. Huawei, despite being a private company, may have benefited from protectionism and subsidies that run contrary to the principles of free market. That Huawei has an unfair advantage is a moot point.
There is no doubt that 5G holds the key to the future—cloud computing, artificial intelligence, space technology, evolving still and potential game-changers, are the areas where China is making rapid strides and, while still behind the US, is catching up.
This explains why voices supportive of the US buying a controlling stake in Ericsson and Nokia have emerged. How London and Washington decide to collaborate on reducing the use of Huawei equipment or go about their intelligence-sharing agreement remains to be seen. But it is likely that UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with the US is in jeopardy. If the US does not enforce what it says, its message in Europe and amongst allies will run feeble.
The Huawei conundrum illustrates that modern-day battlefields are of a completely different order—not just limited to conventional military battlegrounds, but roll out as propaganda, media, trade and aid—where technology is the final frontier.
(The author is Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi)