In an extremely unusual move, the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei recently announced that it is suing the Trump administration and, at the same time, challenging a section of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, a U.S. law that prohibits federal agencies from buying telecommunications equipment from Huawei. Why is a Chinese firm suing Uncle Sam? To comprehend this, it is essential to understand the role that Huawei plays in telecommunications and whether this role constitutes a threat to the national security interests of the U.S. and its allies.
The acronym 5G refers to 5th generation wireless systems that promise to augment the capabilities of the existing 4G systems significantly. 5G is important to the future technological landscape because it promises to improve upon existing 4G networks in three key ways. First, the use of 5G will result in improved precision because it will get more data without interfering with other wireless signals. Second, because the use of 5G will involve more bandwidth, there will be low latency or a reduction in network communication delays. Finally, with 5G one can expect to download 10 times and possibly even 20 times faster.
However, before consumers can experience the many benefits of 5G networks, telecommunications companies have to spend a significant amount of money upgrading their existing equipment and buying new equipment. As a leading producer of such material, Huawei expects to become not only one of the world’s principal suppliers but also a force to reckon with in the global 5G market.
Concerns About Huawei
The uneasiness with Huawei playing such a dominant role in 5G wireless systems stems from the belief that it cooperates too closely with the Chinese government. In fact, Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei used to be a member of the People’s Liberation Army.
Donald J. Trump’s administration has publicly stated that there is a clear national security risk from allowing Huawei to get access to wireless networks in the U.S. and allied nations. The White House’s central concern is that purchasing Huawei’s equipment might permit the company to siphon valuable data back to Beijing, or that the use of Huawei equipment comes with “back doors” that will permit Chinese government-sponsored hackers to either eavesdrop on or disrupt communications in the U.S or in one of its allies.
There are two issues to resolve here. First, even if we believe Huawei founder Zhengfei’s many assertions that Huawei does not spy on behalf of the Chinese government, it is important to determine whether it can be compelled to do so in the future by the Chinese government. Second, if Huawei can be forced to do so, we need to figure out whether the U.S. and its allies can buy Huawei equipment while also managing the resulting national security threat.
Spying for Chinese Government
To answer the first question, it is important to be aware of and comprehend China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law (NIL). To the best of my knowledge, this document is not available in English, and hence I have relied on translations by Japanese University Professor Yi-Zheng Lian and the Canadian government.
The NIL says that “All organizations and citizens shall support, assist and cooperate with national intelligence efforts according to the Law.” In addition, Chinese government institutions that are responsible for enforcing the NIL may “request relevant organs, organizations, and citizens [to] provide necessary support, assistance, and cooperation.”
— AFP news agency (@AFP) March 7, 2019
Huawei President Zhengfei has said that he will not assist China in spying on the U.S., even if required to do so by law. But given the unambiguous language in the NIL quoted above, it is hard to see how such a statement is credible. Would Zhengfei really not cooperate with the Chinese authorities when faced with the prospect of going to jail or worse?
Huawei has already been accused of stealing intellectual property from American technology company Cisco and other firms and also of violating international sanctions. Putting this information together, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Huawei is a national security threat to the U.S. and its allies.
Managing Huawei’s Threat
Can this threat be managed? Despite the Trump administration’s vigorous campaign to get allies to forbid the use of Huawei equipment in their 5G networks, a ban on Huawei is in effect only in Australia, Japan, and Taiwan. Canada and New Zealand are likely to forbid Huawei but, importantly, many European allies such as Germany and the U.K. have decided not to ban Huawei even though they have security concerns.
Consider the case of the United Kingdom. Ciaran Martin, the Chief Executive of the governmental National Cyber Security Centre, has stated that U.S. concerns about espionage and communications disruptions are overblown and that the potential risks from Huawei playing a bigger role in the U.K.’s 5G infrastructure can be managed. However, Martin’s position has been challenged by former British diplomat and Beijing watcher Charles Parton, who has argued that Huawei’s participation in the U.K.’s 5G networks would be “at best naïve, at worst irresponsible.”
This kind of story has been playing out in other European nations like Germany, and hence with the current level of knowledge, it is impossible to definitively say whether any threat posed by Huawei’s participation in future 5G networks can or cannot be managed.
The U.S. and China are now competing across multiple domains for global supremacy. The Huawei affair is a noteworthy example of this competition that has clear national security implications for the United States.
Unfortunately, this clear conclusion has been rendered translucent by some of President Trump’s recent actions. While welcoming Chinese trade negotiators to the Oval Office on February 22, he unwisely attempted to link issues that should not have been linked. Specifically, Trump pointed out that a proposed executive order banning all Chinese telecoms technology from U.S. networks may or may not be on the table during trade negotiations.
The regrettable impact of this clumsy attempt at issue linkage is that many now think that perhaps there really are no core principles that govern U.S. criticisms about Huawei. Instead, what we have is a maladroit U.S. attempt to contain China as a technological rival.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.