In a sign of a growing quandary, UK postponed the decision of whether to allow Huawei or not in its 5G mobile networks until after elections this month. London is not alone in this predicament, as countries from Asia to Europe increasingly find themselves in the crosshairs of a US-China rivalry spilling over the technology space. US warnings over the security risks posed by the Chinese telecoms giant are heard, but support is mixed. As China unveiled the world’s largest 5G network early last month, is it time to rethink the global call to ban Huawei?
The revolutionary impact of 5G to industry, defense and governance is driving companies and countries to accelerate the adoption of 5G. As many US allies and partners weigh their options, the British decision could be a turning point. A decision not to block Huawei may undermine the strength of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing community, especially after other members like Australia and New Zealand already banned Huawei from their networks. Such a decision may trigger other members to reconsider their initial stand, especially as the Chinese tech firm continues to appeal its case before them.
As a major NATO ally with which US has deep and longstanding ties, the impact of UK’s dithering will be felt beyond the Five Eyes. It may be the clincher for countries similarly situated. Earlier reports suggest that Prime Minister Boris Johnson may likely allow Huawei to participate in UK’s non-contentious networks, a view similar to the one taken by his predecessor Theresa May, which led to a cabinet crisis. UK is a bellwether of sort. London’s decision to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, for instance, green lighted the European rush to join the China-led multilateral development bank.
This said, UK’s decision, if it pushes through, will not be the first time a major European partner decided not to shut out Huawei. Last October, Germany outlined new rules for its 5G telecoms sector that leave the door open for the Chinese firm. France is also not closing doors to Huawei and appears to reflect the British decision in not allowing the embattled Chinese firm in its core network. In September, Norway, also decided not to preclude Huawei. In June, Spain became one of the first European countries to roll out commercial 5G using Huawei gear. Hence, despite recognizing the security risks, attitudes towards Huawei suggests a brewing trans-Atlantic divide.
In Asia, results are also mixed. US ally Japan supports the ban, other countries like India and ally South Korea remain divided, while many in Southeast Asia seem to snub it. US allies Philippines and Thailand, along with Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos are going ahead with plans to roll out 5G and other technology-abled solutions like smart cities in partnership with Huawei or another Chinese telecom firm, ZTE. No less than Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad presided over the signing ceremony for domestic telecom company Maxis buying 5G equipment from Huawei last October. Indonesia and Singapore remain open to Huawei in their 5G plans too. Only Vietnam is distancing from the Chinese telecoms giant and is building its own system in cooperation with Swedish company Ericsson. And this move may be motivated more by its security concerns over its big northern neighbor than complying with the US ban.
The 5G race is shaping up as a new Cold War theater. This time, it will not be fought in the jungles of Indochina or the African bush, but rather in the bustling metropolises of Europe and developing Asia and Latin America. US global calls to ban Huawei are falling flat because of a number of factors. For one, it is seen as an infringement on sovereign choice and interference on the commercial decision of telecom carriers. Even countries that recognized Huawei’s security vulnerabilities would not want to appear as bowing to external pressure or politicizing what is supposed to be a technical or business judgment.
From the lens of major power contest in the technology domain, the ban is also seen as an instrument to tie down a fast-rising rival using the security card. Some countries, for instance, argue that the security risks posed by Huawei were exaggerated, especially for countries that do not possess sophisticated military or dual-use technologies that China may covet. Others point that there are measures to mitigate those risks.
This pushback should give US reason to pause and re-assess. Countries want to take advantage of what 5G can offer, while service providers want to go ahead of competition. For good or bad, they see an opportunity with Huawei, the world’s largest telecoms equipment maker and second largest smartphone vendor that combines advanced technology with affordability. Telecom firms also point out that a proposed rip-and-replace of Huawei gear from their infrastructure would be costly and may significantly delay their 5G rollout. Thus, more than raising security concerns, the US should also offer an alternative.
One approach is to provide safeguards by tapping into its domestic big tech and leveraging its alliances with other technology powers in Europe, Japan and South Korea. The safeguards can come in the form of a certification process and periodic network checks. This is less intrusive, more inclusive and can apply even to countries where Huawei already made headway, lessening disruption. This independent certification system that can be administered by a private industry body that can thoroughly examine security vulnerabilities of a country’s network, including access by equipment suppliers to data that passes through their devices, and provide recommendations for remedial measures for risks detected. Recommended measures may include the installation of protective devices from vetted sources. Countries that opened up for the certification and regular checks can be assured that intelligence cooperation with US and access to US and partner country technology would remain.
Other alternatives include providing economic disincentives to dissuade countries from partnering with Huawei, or to at least prevent Huawei from penetrating countries’ backbone or sensitive mobile networks. Another would be to support the Vietnam model of building an independent system which may entail more time and resources, but is not unfeasible.
Whichever way it goes, US should acknowledge that the global call to ban Huawei is increasingly under stress. It can decide to go ahead with it, despite the telltale signs, or switch strategy.