15 July 2020

A (not only) British dilemma: to be or not to be a Huawei client

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

After thinking, for a time, about the possibility for the Chinese company, Huawei, to play a role in implementing the 5G technology in Great Britain, the London government has recently warned that the initial semi-positive signals for the Chinese company, however limited by the conclusions of a special committee, assigned to that end, might end with Great Britain adopting the same strong position promoted, until now, by the US. The American sanctions over Huawei have also played a role in this possible British decision, but these can be added to the already existent pressures of the partner across the ocean, the security solidarity inside the Five Eyes group/FVEY, their own strategic considerations and, not least, the recent developments in Hong Kong.

Image source: Profi Media

The British report that ends an era

The information the British media published on the British government’s new approach were completed by a special report, leaking in the media excerpts revealing a series of actions Huawei made to get the “benevolence” of some high British officials, since the time David Cameron was prime-minister, regarding the participation of the Chinese company in implementing this technology. The official signals, along with reveals included in complex files, although not necessarily lacking controversies, seem to  clear the ground for the announcement the prime-minister Boris Johnson might make, most likely at the end of July 2020.

For now, the report is not officially published, nor is the decision of the minister guaranteed to be a refusal of the Chinese participation. But proofs are conclusive to that end.

The document, named “China’s Elite Capture” does not want to directly influence the executive’s decision. Its aim rather seems to be to indirectly persuade, by offering arguments to those levels of the British policy (mainly the conservative deputies) and the public opinion which, also, could pressure the Downing Street 10. The authors of the report are quite controversial and the allegations against public figures are not always well-supported, but the impact of the reveals might be decisive given the recent developments in the China-Great Britain bilateral relations.

Therefore, the fact the one of the authors is the former MI6 employee, Christopher Steele, involved in the “Trump-Russia file” (Steele seems to try, through this report, to serve his time on president Trump), may not raise suspicions. The British public opinion, already sensitive to the Hong Kong protests and frustrated by the developments occurred after imposing the Chinese security law in the region that was supposed to stay autonomous until 2047, is ready to look negatively to any of China’s actions, even if it would only have economic reasons. This does not seem to be Huawei’s case.

The main conclusions of the report are provocatively presented, without any restrictions that these papers are normally defined by when being elaborated by special institutes or governmental structures:

- British politicians, researchers and other members of the so called national “elite” were the target of the Chinese Communist Party, their objective being dragging them into becoming “useful idiots” or even “agents”;

- an undercover company in the “dark web” (things could be more complex than just “dark web”, existing also a “in depth web”) was organized and coordinated by the Chinese authorities for more than two years;

- the British intelligence services think that the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre/ HCSEC, also known as “the Cell”, cannot play a preventive role in China’s communication espionage actions. The conclusion is supported by the fact that the structure is part of the Huawei Technologies UK Co. Ltd, which is the exact same company whose operations are being monitored. However, even this “cell” has stated, in its 2018 report, that there might be two problems on technology and the use of components from third parties, which can have consequences over the 5G network security;

- there are information (however, no additional information are offered to that end) according to which a “state actor” would have offered up to 600 000 pounds for “hacking services” in the “dark web” of the “Cell’s” activities;

- Huawei is highly connected to the Chinese Communist Party, trying to materialize its plans to get a superior position in the international relations;

- China’s main objectives in the Great Britain are making a bridgehead in the critical infrastructure of the kingdom, the energy one – such as the Central Nuclear from Hinkley Point (the China General Nuclear Power Group is the Chinese company involved in the project) or telecommunications – where they nap on Huawei.

The report also has information, not all confirmed from various sources, about Huawei’s actions, but the consistent part of the text is rather analyzing the negative potential it might have for Great Britain’s security the fact that the entire communication network could be dependent on the technology produced by a state wherewith its relations are far from being friendly.

Is is Huawei or is it China? Or is it the US and China?

The idea of national communications dependency on a foreign actor is the one that is actually worrying everyone especially that we are talking about a technology that can change not just the communication method, the economy in general, but also the way future military conflicts will develop.

A former MI6 chief, John Sawers, who afterwards became an adviser for political and geopolitical risks, thinks that the last six months were extremely revealing for the China-Great Britain relations.  Of course, things got worse, therefore his advice would be to block the Huawei access to the British contacts. There is also a reasonable explanation for this change of perspective: after the American sanctions have stopped the Huawei access to the Western high-tech components, its equipment could be seen as not having the previous quality and safety. And if there are technical vulnerabilities, these could create opportunities for those who want to get in the communication systems, be it state actors or private entities, or even terrorist.

Therefore, the arguments for denying Huawei’s access to implement the 5G technology in Great Britain are piling up.

The US and, most likely, the UK economic war with Huawei are revealing also a development which overcomes the concerns related to the hidden agenda of the Chinese company to support the public one of the Chinese government. The question behind the debate on the Chinese company access on the European markets is actually whether the European can still provide national security when technologies rely on have components provided by partners which can also become competitors or by competitors who are also enemies.

If the discussion would only be about Huawei, things would probably be simpler. The company was founded in 1987, only eight months after the big opening initiated by Deng Xiaoping, and 20 years later has reached sells of over 100 billion dollars. Only in 2018, the company has sold 200 million phones. Unlike other companies, Huawei is massively focusing on telecommunication equipment, where it overcame Nokia and Ericson. Its systems cover the communication needs of 3 billion people, almost half of them, of course, in China. The 4G network with Huawei equipment works even in some regions of the US.


What’s probably provoking many concerns among the policy makers in the US and other Western states is not the current situation, the current threats regarding the implementation of some foreign technologies in the national infrastructure. Even the security one. To protect themselves from possible risks there are standards, functioning norms, security requirements. This is why the “Cell” was created, and following that model other scrupulous states the new technology may act the same.

The problem is rather the development. The way this is made. The coronavirus crisis has revealed not only the interdependency existent in the global technological and supply chains, but also the slightly dependency on equipments provided from one source only.

The US, the first world economy and, by far, the strongest military force, will not get to the point where it has to depend on someone else, not even for a transistor (Oh, what times!) “made in China”. It is a dual option, because it involves both security and economics. For the public, the first is presented as the most pressing. The public opinion can be more easily persuaded if the arguments call for national security, the danger posed by the Chinese system, China's territorial and ideological ambitions.

The competition, or rather the confrontation, takes place, however, especially in the economic field, research and innovation and, finally, the collection of dividends.

And whoever wins in the economic field will be the dominant force in the military domain as well. In the competition for the implementation of 5G technology, the US already has the disadvantage of lacking an internal manufacturer, as Apple will launch its first 5G phone only this year. The construction of a national network will probably take place around 2025. This happens, given that in China, including the capital of Tibet, Lhasa, is already covered by this network. Five years in this field are almost irretrievable.

How is the 5G technology’s relation with the economic and military field? Which could be the possible changes?

A two years old estimation places the 5G contribution to world economy to around 12 trillion dollars, until 2035. Now the numbers are different and, indeed, this contribution is not equally distributed. Who he will have this network the first will be the one to get the profits.

The new way of communication and data transmission will change the economic circuits, will transform the stock exchanges, will produce an explosion in the creation of new applications, inventions and patents. Transactions will be made differently, the products will be manufactured more and more with intelligent technologies. And these new patents and technologies cost. Who he will produce them, will establish the operating standards of a digitized company, will impose the rules of application internationally, will collect the dividends. He will dominate.

But also in the military plan, there will be other developments. Distances will no longer be a problem, the coordination of operations and decision-making will be done instantly, the number of soldiers will matter less, the speed of reaction in a virtual battlefield, actually  no, even in the real one, will be the most important. The equipment will lose its necessary characteristics today, the military training could start with the training in the network.

Only these few changes, which can become possible due to the capabilities of new communication technologies, can make a lot of people think and, first of all, those who lead the destinies of some nations.

A report called faith

So this discussion is not only about Huawei, about the connections this company has with the Chinese leadership, about the security problems it can have with implementing the 5G technology in the states that can become targets, at first only economic issues, for Beijing.

It is all about who will conduct the technological changes in the post-health crisis period we experience and if the West can risk losing the race and offer the wand of changes, for the first time after 2500 years, to someone else.

A sign that the United States is not ready to give up is, of course, the Trump Administration's new approach to blocking Chinese technology access to US telecommunications infrastructure. But more directly, perhaps even more effectively, is the project of involving the federal authorities in creating a real and competitive competitor to the Chinese giant, using even the model promoted by China. That is a massive state intervention in an area where the American companies have so far pursued only easy and immediate economic benefit.

Back to the strategic perspective in this area, it seems, by all appearances, a priority of the current administration and, according to the recent statements made by Joe Biden, even of the democratic opposition. The topic of the acquisition of Nokia by Cisco Systems, Inc. was debated in the media during this period, being almost similar to the American attempt to take over the German company CureVac, a potential producer of a vaccine to fight Covid-19.

The method matters less, Trump being, of course, at ease with the business field,  but the important thing is that the US finally realized, after 30 years of wasting resources through theatres of operations in the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia , that it has to deal with a competitor that does not benefit (for now!) from the same capabilities, but, precisely because they are limited, it directs them as a priority in the fields that will be relevant in the very near future.

Remaking the American innovation capacity is a bet that the current White House administration seems to have made. And the United Kingdom could soon join the United States in this endeavour. Through sanctions against Huawei and China, Washington has also gone on an allied hunt. There are not many, and there could have been even fewer if Beijing had not misjudged, during the current pandemic, that the game has already been won. Some European states could join the US approach. A report by NUPI / Norwegian Institute of International Relations, with just a few months to go before the coronavirus crisis, offered a solution: “No matter what European governments decide in the short-term, the dependency on China for core equipment that is used in critical internet infrastructure needs to be reduced in the long-term. For the moment vetting and corporate infrastructure reform should be taken into consideration to reduce risks. However, further restriction of equipment (made in China) should not be taken off the table.

And the moment of chosing an option is closer and closer

UK might make an announcement in a few weeks. The most awaited will be, however, Germany’s. For the time being, Berlin has announced, through one operator, Telefonica, the cooperation with Ericsson, and through another, Telekom, the maintenance of the partnership with Huawei. This approach probably stems from the fact that Germany is China's first European partner, and China is, reciprocally, Germany's most important external partner.

Germany’s new position, as leader of the European Union, to whom it must provide a post-Brexit viability, might change the things.

For now, there is nothing left to do but wait for London’s decision. Let’s just re-read an old Chinese saying, which says that: “if you free a tiger, you might regret it”.

Translated by Andreea Soare