In order to understand the apprehension of the West, one has to understand who Huawei’s leadership is and its relationship with the Chinese state.
“Whua eiy”? “Huwai”? As it rolls off our tongue the Chinese tech giant Huawei – actually pronounced “wah-way” – is at the forefront of the ongoing battle between the United States and China in their race to control 5G – the fifth generation of mobile broadband. With the advent of Technological Revolution actors, international organizations and Multinational Corporates (MNCs) are able to operate globally without the limitation of borders, distance or location. Consequently, it is easier for governments to gather information, organize it and store it which is empowering them more than ever. In the past, a wanted criminal, drug lord or terrorist could easily cross borders and take refuge in a foreign country as seen in the instance of 9/11 attacks. The systems then became sophisticated enough to trigger a breach in fact powerful states have increased their power through the information technology by keeping tabs on mobile phones, electronic mails, data and radio transmissions in foreign countries. And now it has now gone a step further.
On January 11, Polish authorities detained Stanislaw Wang, Huawei’s sales director in Poland and Piotr D., a former Polish security official, on suspicion of spying for the Chinese government. The arrest took place a month after Meng Wanzhou’s, Huwaei Chief Financial Officer, detention during a layover at Vancouver airport by the Canadian authorities. The request to arrest Meng came from the United States charging her of violating sanctions on Iran. Prima facie the events may appear as arrests of Huawei officials in different countries for different reasons however, for analysts watching closely it’s more than just that: These are aggressive measure taken by the United States in the larger political campaign to prevent China from dominating the 5G space. In effect, this is the new face of an arms race in the global arena whereby the Trump’s administration view of Huawei’s expansion in western countries can be understood via zero-sum game theory.
Simply put, 5G is our imminent future that will transform tech and cities in their entirety with higher speed, wider and more stable coverage and allow more devices to connect thus creating a larger mobile internet ecosystem. Its implications go as far as coordinating drones for use of military, search & rescue operations, operating autonomous cars, and use of Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) common in our homes – all through our personal mobile devices. United States and China both recognize the competitive edge 5G network could provide as its acquisition means controlling the biggest technological shift of the century – it is likened to invention of the Gutenberg press.
The United States’ insecurities about the Chinese telecom equipment-maker acting on the directive of the Chinese intelligence is not a new occurrence. It is a long standing belief that the Chinese are looking for the so called “back door” into the United States official networks. Not only has the United States prevented Huawei from penetrating into its market, it’s also now actively leveraging its allegiance with Poland, Britain, Germany, and Canada to prevent Huawaei from setting up the infrastructure for the 5G technology. As a result, the NATO members are now seriously weighing out the costs of setting up cheaper networks against the perceived threat of national security – although recently both Britain and Germany have refused to ban Huawei. Japan, Australia and New Zealand too have been convinced to restrict Huawei.
While the Unites States is pressuring its allies, the Chinese have called out the United States for its sole interest in attainment of technological competitive edge. According to Hua Chunying, the Chinese Ministry spokeswoman, there has been no conclusive evidence presented by the United States and its western counterparts that confirm Huawei’s presence in various European markets as a national security threat.
In order to understand the apprehension of the West, one has to understand who Huawei’s leadership is and its relationship with the Chinese government. Firstly, Meng is the daughter of company’s founder Ren Zhengfei, a former military engineer in the People’s Liberation Army (ruling Communist Party of China). Mr Zengfei is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Asia as his company is well-positioned to be the world’s number one mobile provider. The company has already surpassed dominant players such as Cisco Systems, IBM, Motorola, and Lucent and now it is ready to push consumer-focused brands, like Apple, out of the number one spot by the end of next year.
Secondly, United States intelligence officials continue to emphasize the relationship of the Chinese private sector with the Chinese government highlighting it is not the same as it is in the West. The Unites States is quick to reference Article 7 of China’s 2017 National Intelligence Act which stipulates: “An organization or citizen shall support, assist in and cooperate in national intelligence work in accordance with the law and keep confidential the national intelligence work that it or he knows.”
The Unites States’ hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed either – in 2014, the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) was exposed for infiltrating the servers of Huawei by Edward Snowden in 2014. The operation code-named “Shotgiant” was used to find links between the tech company and People’s Liberation Army, and to exploit Huawei’s technologies which would enable the N.S.A. to tap into global networks of interest.
It is hard to tell whether the United States’ nervousness is justified or if it is another face of the “pre-emptive” strikes on the basis of an “imminent” threat as outlined in the Bush Doctrine that became the basis of waging war in Iraq. Rest assured, China is no Iraq and this power play is not restricted to sending the United States’ troops in to invade – this is an ongoing information and technological Cold War between two great powers.
While analysts are predicting a world order based on multipolarity, there is an arms race between United States and China. It is not an arms race in the traditional sense, but it is recognized that the country which owns the field of 5G will gain military superiority, economic advantage, and power overall. The interesting feature of this power struggle is the involvement of an actor other than the state itself – which is Huawei, a very powerful MNC which exercises dominance in the technological sphere. While there is no conclusive evidence against Huawei, the question of their loyalty to the Chinese government has been highlighted time and again. With that in mind, what we are seeing now is a whole new dynamic of the international system where the United States has rallied its western allies to go up against China and its ally – an MNC in the form of a telecom giant.
This blog post is contributed by Rabia K. Rathore, a digital native and former researcher at the PIIA.