Oceania | Security

Huawei 5G Debate Causes Rift Between Western Powers

The allure of Huawei’s 5G has caused a growing rift between Australia and the U.S. on one side, and Europe on the other.

Joshua Mcdonald
Huawei 5G Debate Causes Rift Between Western Powers
Credit: Flickr/ Kārlis Dambrāns

Earlier this month, details from a high-level meeting between British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and members of the Australian parliament’s Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees were leaked to the press. 

The leak was an insight into the tense debate on how to deal with Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant that maintains close links to the communist Chinese government and is the world’s largest supplier of telecoms network gear.

While the Chinese government reserves the right to require any Chinese company to assist with intelligence gathering, Huawei is even more closely tied to the government due to its founder, Ren Zhengfei, having served as a technologist in the People’s Liberation Army for almost a decade. He remains a member of the Communist party.

The concern now is that if Huawei is given access to networks around the world it could be used to spy on foreign companies and governments. 

Despite this, the U.K. has already signed up. And Australian officials aren’t happy about it. 

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According to the Sydney Morning Herald, during the meeting in Canberra, the deputy chair of the intelligence committee, Anthony Byrne, rebuked Raab over Britain’s decision to allow Huawei a role in supplying its 5G technology. 

“How would you feel if the Russians laid down infrastructure in your own networks? That’s how we feel about Huawei,” Byrne was quoted as telling Raab.

British High Commissioner Vicki Treadell responded to the leak by writing to the heads of the two federal parliamentary committees to formally protest against the leaking of confidential conversations involving Britain’s visiting foreign secretary.  

The intelligence committee then cancelled a planned trip to the London for next month, with one member telling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the British High Commissioner’s intervention was a “big mistake” and “foolish.”

“If this is the attitude of the British, we may as well visit the Americans who we can trust more on this stuff,” he said. 

Amid the on-going trade war, the obvious antagonist on the Huawei issue has been U.S. President Donald Trump. Just last week has administration announced new charges against the Chinese company, which included racketeering and theft of trade secrets. 

The recent charges are part of a case against Meng Wanzhou, the company’s chief financial officer and the eldest daughter of Huawei’s founder, Zhengfei. Meng was arrested in Canada in late 2018 at the behest of the United States and is awaiting an extradition hearing in Vancouver.  

The U.S. has also taken aim at its allies, with American officials repeatedly threatening to cut intelligence sharing with any country that uses Huawei equipment. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper doubled down on the threats during a global security conference in Munich last weekend.

“If countries choose to go the Huawei route,” Esper told reporters, “it could well jeopardize all the information sharing and intelligence sharing we have been talking about, and that could undermine the alliance, or at least our relationship with that country.”

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And there is no sign of American pressure easing, with Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, set to arrive in London tomorrow to meet with Dominic Cummings, one of Johnson closest advisers, where he is expected to demand that Britain commit to removing Huawei from its network within three to five years.

Despite American efforts to prevent its allies from making deals with Huawei, Britain, Germany and other European nations are poised to at least give Huawei limited access to their networks.  

Australia, however, has stood by the U.S. and has had Huawei on a blacklist since August 2018, following advice from security officials that the company may pose a threat to Australia’s national security if allowed to build its 5G network. New Zealand, too, has joined the U.S. and Australia in barring Huawei’s involvement. 

Since the leak, Australia has been pulled back into the spat. On Monday, the Chinese ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, dismissed Australia’s concerns and criticized the government for discriminating against a Chinese company and said that the ban was “politically motivated.”  

Australia has had an uneasy relationship with Huawei since as early as 2012, when the government barred it from participating in the National Broadband Network project. But 5G is likely to be a much larger project, for which neither Australia, nor the U.S. have any company that is able to compete with Huawei.

There have long been suspicions that U.S. officials and business leaders express security concerns in order to give American companies a chance to catch up and gain a competitive edge. But even the U.K. and Germany have made clear that the concerns are real and that if not managed could present risks in the future.  

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson first announced in January that he had agreed to an agreement with the company but that it would be subject to what Raab said will be “one of the strongest regimes for telecoms security in the world.”

The agreement will restrict Huawei from supplying equipment to “sensitive parts” of the network, known as the core, and will only allow the company to account for 35 percent of each of Britain’s four mobile phone operators, Furthermore, it will be restricted from operating in areas near nuclear and military facilities. 

Britain’s spy agencies have argued that any risks from using Huawei can be contained and that U.S. measures are disproportionate. Under an existing agreement between Britain and Huawei, the company is subject to routine review by an arm of Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency.

German intelligence chiefs have mostly agreed with the American assessment of Huawei’s national security dangers, but Germany’s reliance on China as a key trading partner has assumed priority, especially after China hinted that Volkswagen, BMW and other major German companies would be on the receiving end of a Chinese retaliation. Like Britain, though, Germany is likely to keep Huawei at arm’s length, barring it from sensitive parts of the network. 

“I have always been more concerned about the possibility of network manipulation,” said Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the German Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, at the Munich conference. “You don’t even have to actually take that step, if you control the network. The knowledge that you can is power in itself. How free would we really be in our choices with respect to protecting human rights and other issues if we know that the functioning of crucial parts of our economy depends on the good will of an external power?”