Huawei is a company beholden to higher laws that could — and most likely would — make it a tool for Chinese state-sponsored espionage, writes J. Berkshire Miller.

By Johnathan Berkshire Miller, February 28, 2020

This month, one of Canada’s largest telecommunications companies — Telus Communications — once again tried to lobby its case on why Chinese carrier Huawei should be allowed into Canada’s next-generation 5G networks. In fact, the statements made by the company’s chief financial officer indicated that Telus was moving forward with plans to roll out 5G soon, and that launch would include components from Huawei. Telus currently uses Huawei components in its 4G systems and estimates that it would cost the company at least $1 billion to rip out such components in order to be compatible with a more holistic ban of the firm in the next-generation networks.

But the last-ditch effort to influence the Government of Canada’s decision on its 5G security review and decision-making process on Huawei is disingenuous and destined to fail. On one hand, it’s understandable why Telus — along with other supporters of Huawei in our 5G networks — is employing this strategy. Such arguments rely on the speed of launching the networks and the cost advantages — versus other non-Chinese vendors such as Nokia and Ericsson. Others point to Huawei’s large number of patents related to 5G or its large war chest to spend on research and development. And, perhaps the most alarming — but commonly bandied about — argument is that Huawei exists as a private company and isn’t beholden to the Chinese state.

The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Huawei claims that it’s a private company — similar to Apple or Google — and is being unfairly treated by the U.S. and its allies. But the reality remains that Huawei is a company beholden to higher laws that could — and most likely would — make it a tool for state-sponsored espionage. Case in point is China’s 2017 national intelligence law that compels private companies to “support, co-operate and assist” with the state on issues of national security and intelligence. Such activities could include the implantation of backdoors into its networks that allow Chinese intelligence officers to collect information on foreign stakeholders.

Canada’s security review on 5G comes at a critical inflection point with regard to the international rules-based order and China’s ambitions through its rapid rise — both in economic and military terms. The U.S. has labelled China as a “strategic competitor” and taken a much harder and more realistic view on its ability to induce Beijing to be more accepting of international laws and norms, whether it be on 5G, in the international trade domain or on maritime security.

Canada’s other allies in the Five Eyes — an intelligence-sharing network between the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand — may have different articulations but share similar assessments on China’s increasingly aggressive and destabilizing efforts. This is particularly the case in the intelligence world, where Beijing is conducting an expansive and multi-pronged effort at illicitly gathering sensitive information — both in the public and business domains — from the U.S. and its allies. And these concerns are still valid despite the recent decision from the U.K. to partly allow Huawei into its 5G networks. Other key international partners, such as Japan, have also decided to exclude Huawei from their 5G plans for national security reasons.

For Canada, we shouldn’t take such a risk and exude overconfidence at our ability to be able to hope for the best, and mitigate the rest. Canadians deserve to reap the benefits of next-generation technology and will do so, but not at the cost of its national security and that of our allies. This doesn’t mean that we need to cut off or downgrade our relations with Beijing. There is no option but to engage with China and it remains in Canadian interest to do so. But this engagement must exist on an equal footing, and in close consultation with our friends and allies, and not through coercion.

J. Berkshire Miller is deputy director and senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute and a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

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