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Huawei: 5G espionage and hegemonic infrastructure

Image credit: Georgie Pauwels (Creative Commons: Flickr)

The saga concerning Huawei and its association as an espionage tool for the Chinese government has entered a new chapter. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned that the United States will not partner with countries that adopt Huawei for the implementation of 5G networks.

Indeed, as tensions inflame it becomes exceedingly apparent that this dispute over Huawei is likely to be a defining story of 2019. Yet despite these events having been extensively covered by the media, analysis of the strategy behind these maneuvers is largely missing from the debate.

5G: The Next Hegemonic Infrastructure

The basis of these recent tensions centres around the next generation 5G network. Beyond the significant advancement in internet speeds, 5G offers to make autonomous cars and smart cities a reality. The Internet of Things, powered through 5G, not only sets the groundwork for immersive entertainment, communication and collaboration, but also a revolution in industry. Simply put, 5G potentially provides an unparalleled competitive commercial opportunity.

More importantly, however, it provides a strategic opening for China to set the physical groundwork for next-generation internet and by extension develop infrastructure to support future hegemonic interests. One only has to examine the international institutions established by the US in the post-WWII era to comprehend the advantages of being the architect of infrastructure protocols that other states must adhere to.

However, whereas international institutions are limited to soft power and political leveraging, the potential to construct the physical infrastructure from which future cities, societies and governments rely on carries substantially more hegemonic potential. To the US government, this opportunity opens the risk that Huawei, at the behest of Beijing, may maliciously modify infrastructure to create inherent susceptibilities or to steal information. To Washington, reliance is near synonymous to vulnerability.

Huawei Espionage? It’s simply good strategic policy

Central to this debate is therefore whether or not Huawei would, in fact, become an espionage tool for the Chinese state or whether the accusations are simply an anti-competitive maneuver by the US. Much to the ire of security sceptics, free-market advocates and Beijing, no evidence has been provided to substantiate the accusations.

Yet one only need to examine the Anglosphere’s own attempts at internet espionage and hegemonic networks to understand that these accusations come from a place of self-reflection.

Lost in the much of debate towards Huawei’s potential as an espionage tool is the recognition that the ‘Five Eye’s’ Global Surveillance Program functions on similar principles. Through the PRISM program, the FISA amendments of 2008 provided legal immunity to internet and technology companies (like Google and Microsoft) in exchange for providing the National Security Agency (NSA) access to the data from their respective servers. Through a program called Tempora, GCHQ was able to monitor the world’s phone and internet traffic by directly tapping into fibre optic cables. Moreover, whilst the program’s use accelerated following 9/11 its scope has extended as far as to the heads of government effectively suggesting that the US government’s apprehension is based off its own practices with internet espionage.

Given this, the potential that Huawei may be used in a similar fashion can hardly be considered contrary to the norm. For Beijing it is simply good strategic policy and a response to existing internet espionage networks. For the US and ‘Five Eyes’ it’s a loss of their own competitive advantage.

Admittedly, such a perception is heavily realist. Yet China’s cyber policies do not exactly inspire liberal optimism. China’s Great Firewall, facial recognition software and social credit system are only some of the policies which demonstrate that China is not beyond engaging in aggressive security practices. Accordingly, it is not difficult to conceive that Beijing would apply similarly aggressive principles to its international rivals.

Huawei vs. the Anglosphere

Though suspicions towards Huawei has existed for years, 2018 saw a remarkable shift as governments rapidly introduced policies to secure themselves from this risk.

The Australian Government banned Huawei in August, followed by New Zealand in November. Through Britain has not banned Huawei, this was only after the company agreed to a series of technical changes which will cost $2 billion. The United States for its part has allowed US Federal prosecutors to pursue criminal cases for the alleged theft of trade secrets. Now, with the recent developments in the US, the nature of this ‘Five Eye’s’ tactical insulation from Huawei becomes increasingly apparent.

However, the internet is larger than then just the ‘Five Eyes’ and any concerted effort to substantially block Huawei requires a greater range of insulation. In this respect, such an event may be on the horizon. Germany is also considering banning Huawei, Taiwan is preparing to blacklist the company, and Polish authorities recently arrested a Huawei sales director on espionage charges.

Indeed, the US has succeeded in turning its defensive strategy into an offensive maneuver. Whilst Huawei’s commercial activities have proved resilient, its professional legitimacy is haemorrhaging from the recent negative headlines. Whilst Huawei began 2019 by initiating a ‘charm offensive,’ 2019 appears to be a definitive year for the company’s future as more western governments opt for security over its competitive 5G infrastructure prices.

Michael Nguyen is the Cyber Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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