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Huawei and the West

Huawei and the West

Timothy Ogden

Cyber attacks and espionage officially sanctioned by the Chinese government have become a matter of national security for a number of Western nations in recent years, but issues with Huawei’s expansion – particularly its 5G mobile networks – have shown that Beijing’s private sector is also potentially a risk factor.

This is not simply due to the fact that Huawei products are being used by large Western corporations, as well as governments; using technology provided by a company headquartered in a nation which is (at a conservative estimate) an economically aggressive rival, may not seem at all prudent, but it is deeply concerning when its dealings are (by necessity) tied to that nation’s government. In 2017, Beijing passed its National Intelligence Law, which dictates that Chinese organizations “must cooperate with and collaborate in national intelligence efforts”.

This has already led to a number of Western bodies reviewing their use of Huawei equipment, with some withdrawing it from use completely: the American government, concerned that Huawei could use its extensive access for espionage purposes, has banned the company’s products in federal agencies, which has led to a lawsuit launched by Huawei on the grounds that the move is unconstitutional. In support of their claim, the Americans have also highlighted founder Ren Zhengfei’s military background; before founding Huwai in 1987, he served as an officer in the People’s Liberation Army.

This worry, however, has been dismissed by some, including Professor Qing Wang of Warwick University. “Yes, Huawei founder Mr. Ren Zhengfei once served in the People’s Liberation Army,” Professor Qing told The Verge. “As we know, serving in the army was one way of getting out of poverty for people in the countryside, which is where Mr. Ren is from. His time in the army was a short one and he was not in any important position.”

Professor Wang went on to dismiss any concern over Huawei constituting any form of security threat. “Is Huawei a security threat? There is no hard evidence to support this notion, and some of the reasons put forward for this notion are weak… For someone like me who has studied emerging market enterprises for decades, Huawei is the textbook case of a great company in the making; unfortunately, it has fallen victim to the anti-globalization policy and sentiment of the US and the ongoing trade war with China.”

Perhaps there is indeed no hard evidence to support the West’s concerns at this time, but this does not wholly invalidate them; indeed, since China’s National Intelligence Law was passed only two years ago, and 5G is a something of a recent technological innovation, dismissing American and European worries may well be seen as (or even amount to) some sort of bias.

Western worries over Huawei’s future intent are likely to have been made even worse over Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the Chief Financial Officer of the company, and daughter of Ren Zhengfei. Wanzhou was wanted by US authorities for allegedly directing the company to attempt to interfere with US sanctions on the Iranian government. Professor Wesley Wark of the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs told The Guardian “the Canadians will take a beating throughout this whole process” from China. “I suspect the Trudeau government is desperately hoping that the Americans reach a deal with the Chinese.”

Ottawa’s decision to begin extradition procedures to the United States has caused outrage in Beijing, with two Canadians subsequently arrested allegedly due to the national security concerns, and sentenced another Canadian man apprehended for drug smuggling to death.

The UK, however, has approved Huawei’s involvement in the establishment of Britain’s 5G network, despite concerns raised by its security council. Although the Chinese company will be barred from operating within ‘sensitive’ areas of the network and will instead work on projects such as antennas, the risk that back-door programs could be built to disable British communications remains.

London’s decision has caused ire in Washington, leading to the United States expressing future reluctance to share sensitive intelligence and information. Robert Strayer, the deputy assistant secretary for cyber at the US State Department, said: “If other countries insert and allow untrusted vendors to build out and become the vendors for their 5G networks we will have to reassess the ability for us to share information and be connected with them in the ways that we are today.”

The UK cannot afford to sour its relations with the United States due to its increasingly turbulent relationship with the European Union; indeed, one might argue that President Trump and his foibles would not have been tolerated by Therea May’s predecessors to the same degree. Like Canada, Britain is now walking a political tightrope between Beijing and Washington.

Developing countries, too, should perhaps also watch the proceedings with interest, particularly those in Eastern Europe who hope to benefit from Chinese investment while fostering closer ties to the West. Attracting Chinese money and seeking to join bodies such as NATO and the EU are currently compatible, but recent events suggest that this will not last indefinitely.

How Western governments deal with each other over their dealings with Huawei will remain a point of contention for some time, as will how the company acts itself; this matter will certainly not be settled any time soon, and so deserves continued scrutiny.

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