Huawei 5G Risk Exposes Need for Greater Five Eyes Cohesion

Canada’s eventual verdict on Huawei as a 5G vendor will directly affect US national security
June 10, 2020 Updated: June 10, 2020

News Analysis

National security experts from the Five Eyes countries acknowledge the alliance has to come to terms with the risks of Huawei as a 5G vendor to ensure intelligence sharing isn’t diminished.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments implying potentially less intelligence sharing with countries that accept Huawei were also discussed during a June 8 webinar hosted by the Ottawa-based Conference of Defence Associations (CDA) Institute.

The Five Eyes, consisting of Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada, continues to be highly valued by its members although its diversity is leading to a range of positions regarding Huawei for 5G. The views of the United States and Australia on 5G, which is to be the backbone of critical infrastructure like power grids, health care, communication, and transportation, are the most alike.

Canada has yet to make an official decision on Huawei for its 5G infrastructure, but Richard Fadden, former head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said the Five Eyes would not be hurt in the long term if it excluded the Chinese telecommunications giant from its 5G rollout.

“We constantly talk about it but we never really sit down and work our way through what would be the consequences short-, medium-, and long-term if we say no to Huawei,” said Fadden, a former national security adviser to two prime ministers.

Strength in numbers to limit China’s coercion is worth pursuing, and a broader strategic view of entanglement with China would also be a wise step, said Martijn Rasser, a former intelligence officer and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“I’m talking more broadly than the Five Eyes, thinking about united fronts to limit the amount of economic and political coercion that China can inflict,” he said.

His remarks align with those of the NATO secretary-general in a speech laying out his 2030 vision for NATO, in which he called on like-minded countries to work more closely to counter threats from China and Russia.

US Stands Firm

The two U.S. analysts at the webinar elaborated on Pompeo’s warning from both technical and geopolitical angles.

“A complete ban of untrusted vendors on 5G networks is needed, because the core-edge risk-mitigation tactics for 4G simply won’t work on 5G networks,” Rasser said.

With 4G, there is a clear separation between core parts—for sensitive data—and edge parts of the network. That distinction is blurred with 5G, which attains much faster speeds for applications like autonomous vehicles and telemedicine.

“Australia deserves a lot of credit for understanding this technical reality earlier than the United States,” Rasser said.

He added that Huawei’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is murky. Huawei maintains that it is privately owned, but China’s intelligence law requires companies to cooperate with its security agencies and there is no recourse to resist doing so, as would be the case in a democratic country.

“It’s not a stretch to consider Beijing’s willingness to hold foreign critical infrastructure at risk to achieve its geopolitical goals,” Rasser said.

There is strong bipartisan support for the current position on Huawei in the United States, said Tim Heath, senior international defence researcher at the RAND Corporation. And the stance needs to be viewed through the lens of Sino-U.S. competition.

“There is a natural reason for the U.S. to also be concerned that China is investing so much effort to ensure it dominates this domain,” Heath said.

Huawei is of paramount importance to the CCP as it aims to control technologies that will gain even greater prominence in the future. The Henry Jackson Society think tank advises the Five Eyes to solidify leadership in the area of networking and data communications—one of its so-designated “Future 9” technologies.

The interconnectedness of communications systems in North America makes Canada’s decision on Huawei of paramount importance to the United States.

“If we allow Huawei in, we will not only be damaging our national security, we would risk, because of its interoperability, that of the United States in a pretty direct way,” Fadden said.

Heath said the United States does not want to seriously damage long-standing relationships like the Five Eyes but it is very serious about wanting its partners to think about the security implications of using Huawei for 5G.

Rasser said there will be curtailments of intelligence cooperation as a consequence, and for example, the United States will follow through on pulling the RC-135 spy planes out of the U.K.

There’s nothing that Huawei can do to change the U.S.’s position on it, due to China’s political system, he added.

The United States has sought reciprocity—or fair trade—from China, which has been reluctant to allow foreign companies to build out its own 5G network.

Australia, New Zealand, and the UK

The three non-North American Five Eyes members have taken three different approaches to Huawei as a 5G vendor, with New Zealand’s position appearing discordant.

New Zealand, the smallest member of the Five Eyes and most dependent on China, is in its early stages of rolling out 5G, going with Vodafone and Spark. However, Huawei has not been banned for good, explained Joe Burton, senior lecturer at the University of Waikato’s New Zealand Institute for Security and Crime Science.

New Zealand is a net receiver of intelligence—which comes mostly from the United States—and Burton says it is keenly aware of its vulnerabilities to Sino-U.S. tensions and reliance on foreign vendors.

“This whole dynamic … the Huawei Five Eyes debate, we don’t want to be seen necessarily as taking sides, and this I think helps explain the strategic ambiguity in New Zealand’s approach,” Burton said.

However, Britain has labelled Huawei a high-risk vendor and is excluding it from the core part of its 5G network while capping its involvement at 35 percent of non-core functions. Britain has sharpened its stance on Huawei during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and is also looking at phasing out Huawei completely from its 5G network by 2023.

In addition, the British government is moving toward being one of 10 democratic nations to develop their own 5G networks—a “D10” club—to reduce dependence on Huawei.

Huawei has been unsuccessful in lobbying Australia to be part of its telecommunications deployment for several years. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was already lobbying Washington to ban the Chinese telecommunications giant before the United States toughened its position.

“Capability might take the time to come … and develop, but intent can change in a heartbeat,” said Patrick Walsh, associate professor of intelligence and security studies at Charles Sturt University in Australia, in describing Turnbull’s advice to the United States.

Turnbull’s biggest concern was Huawei technology turning against Australia’s best interest and jeopardizing the country’s critical infrastructure.

Chinese infiltration of Australia’s government, academia, and corporate sector has reached a tipping point, and Australia is battling back with foreign interference laws and strengthened examination of Beijing’s foreign investment there.

Australia was determined to ban Huawei, a high-risk vendor.

“I don’t see that decision being revisited,” Walsh said.

Working on Improvements

Fadden and Walsh bemoaned their own countries not having a comprehensive “China policy” and winding up dealing with issues as they arrive on a piece-meal basis.

This method is then being reflected into the Five Eyes. The webinar panellists wanted to see a greater harnessing of the countries’ collective synergies for policy-making.

“I’d like to see more research and development innovation across the Five Eyes in parts of the 5G network and the technology that’s going to support it,” Burton said.

But in trying to get the Five Eyes to expand informally—possibly to include allies like Japan, South Korea, France, and Germany—Fadden said he met with “absolute total roadblocks.”

Canada’s large telecommunications companies are already making up their own minds, with Bell and Telus announcing on June 2 that they decided to partner with Huawei’s rivals—Ericsson and Nokia/Ericsson respectively—to build their 5G offerings. Rogers was already partnering with Ericsson.

“My view, to be clear, all of this is not about Huawei, but about China,” Fadden said.

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