Huawei - The Five Eyes under Threat?

  • Jean-Patrick Clancy
  • 26.6.2020 09:33

Despite excluding Huawei from core parts of the British telecom system and of sensitive sites, the UK has succumbed to Washington’s relentless pressure over feared security risks posed by the Chinese telecom giant. With the UK seemingly back on the Five Eyes 5G bandwagon, the intelligence alliance seems to have succeeded in blocking a company described by many as a Trojan horse for Chinese intelligence.

The UK National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a branch of UK signals intelligence agency GCHQ, launched last month a new review into Huawei’s role in the UK’s 5G network. This government emergency review came after the US introduced in early May additional sanctions on the Chinese telecom giant, as well as a result of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, concerns over the controversial Hong Kong national security law, and escalating tensions in the South China Sea. These events have all prompted Downing Street to reassess relations with Beijing.

Despite a recent ease, these new sanctions will bar Huawei and its suppliers from using US made semiconductors and software to build 5G equipment thus forcing the company to find alternative sources which would most likely come from China.

The sanctions and subsequent review will provide British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with the opportunity to quell a Tory backbench rebellion over plans to allow Huawei to be used in Britain’s 5G network. Most importantly, it will allow the government to perform a U-turn on its initial controversial decision of allowing Huawei to supply a maximum of 35% of the country’s nonsensitive network.

This review and its predictable outcome is welcomed by UK allies - such as the US, Australia and New Zealand - which have banned Huawei’s involvement over concerns that the Chinese company could potentially expose allied states, especially members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, to more cybersecurity threats and possibly weaken their national security. This would seriously jeopardise the alliance’s ability to share intelligence and information between member States.


A High Risk Supplier

Huawei has been categorised by many as a high risk supplier due to its close ties to the Chinese government. One example of this relationship involves the company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, who served for many years in the People’s Liberation Army, is an active member of the Chinese Communist Party and who reportedly told his staff in 2018 that Huawei was at war with the US and that they should “surge forward, killing as you go, to blaze us a trail of blood”.

Huawei has been categorised by many as a high risk supplier due to its close ties to the Chinese government.”


The arrests in Poland of a Chinese employee of Huawei and of a former Polish security official on spying allegations have further undermined the company’s trustworthiness. 

There is no real evidence to this day which suggest that the Shenzhen-headquartered company acts as a spying proxy for the CCP and that the company’s executives have malign intentions towards its Western consumers.

There is a real possibility that the company could unwittingly or not be supplying ammunition to China’s next-generation intelligence and cyber-warfare capabilities and thereby providing it with an incredible new powerful tool.

Simply allowing a Chinese company to have access to such critical infrastructure in the West, especially in a Five Eyes member State, is perceived as an unacceptable security risk given current escalating diplomatic rifts between China and the US (as well as its allies). This is relevant when looking at China’s record of state-sponsored hacking in recent years, penetrating foreign networks and participating in the cyber thefts of government and private data.

To make matters worse, the 2017 Intelligence Law mandates all Chinese companies and individuals to assist Beijing with intelligence efforts when requested. Such obligations towards the Chinese government have the potential to be a genuine threat to the integrity of the Five Eyes members’ telecommunications networks. 


What Kind of Threat?

Many will argue that the US-led effort to convince partners to drop reliance on Huawei’s wireless technology has less to do with national security concerns and more to do with politics, a way of hindering Chinese supremacy in the next great wireless technological leap. 

But from a Five Eyes perspective, Huawei’s involvement in at least one of its members’ telecommunications network is a fundamental concern as it could be used as a Trojan horse, used to undermine national security of its members. 

There are also fears that the company could act as a gateway for Beijing’s intelligence agencies. So-called backdoors could be exploited and could allow the Chinese government to collect data and conduct cyber-espionage as well as cyber-attacks, therefore seriously undermining national security.


“There are fears that Huawei could act as a gateway for Beijing’s intelligence agencies.”


Despite the absence of evidence to corroborate the above fears, the idea is not so far-fetched. China - as well as the US and other countries - has been conducting extensive research on hardware Trojans.

Furthermore, China could also make use of its legal system to oblige Huawei to cooperate in terms of intelligence gathering under the National Intelligence Law for instance, compelling the company to steal government, defence and corporate material on behalf of Beijing authorities.


Time to Move Forward

The UK has long argued about taking back control from Brussels but it seems that it has increasingly been tempted to hand it over to Beijing. An increase of Chinese investments in the UK has been accompanied by an increase in tension between Downing Street and its Five Eyes partners, placing severe strains on the historically close intelligence alliance.

The final review report expected in July will most likely result in a reverse of the UK’s initial decision, which in turn will have a profound impact on the UK’s already suffering economy following Brexit and Covid-19. 

It has been reported that China would most likely retaliate with economic reprisals. These could include cancelling Chinese investments in major British projects such as the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant and the High Speed 2 rail link.

After Brexit, this is the opportunity for the UK to work more closely with its Five Eyes partners - the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - on developing reliable alternatives to Huawei and to directly compete with China rather than fully disengage. This could be a window of opportunity for the alliance and its partners to counter their powerful rival, China, with its global ambitions through its economic and technological advances.

The world has much to learn about China, too much for it to be entrusted with critical infrastructure which if compromised would possibly be the greatest threat to national security and Western interests.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy


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