By Nicholas Morgan
The United States has undertaken a global diplomatic offensive to dissuade allies from working with the Chinese telecom firm Huawei, who has spearheaded the cutting-edge 5G network. 5G technology is changing the game by significantly increasing network speeds.
American officials have warned that China could compel firms owned by its nationals to insert backdoors into their technology, and use it for purposes of espionage or cyber-attacks. Huawei insists that accusation is baseless. The international community’s receptiveness to Huawei and other Chinese firms has been mixed. However, global willingness seems to be more predictably shaped by domestic interests and economic necessity, rather than the preferences of American leadership.
Huawei, as well as Chinese firm ZTE, have already been prohibited from taking part in 5G projects in the US through the Defense Authorization Act signed by President Trump in August 2018. The Trump administration reached this decision following a report to Congress in 2012 and subsequent intelligence assessments that believed Huawei could pose a threat to national security. Following this decision, the US has lobbied its allies to drop Huawei from taking part in the construction of any future telecommunications networks.
Much of this effort has centred on Europe, Huawei’s second largest market outside of China and home to many of America’s closest allies. The results have been mixed. Many European countries have expressed their caution with Huawei’s involvement in their telecom networks, but few have opted for an outright ban. Even the United Kingdom, America’s closest security partner, has not followed in its footsteps. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has similarly proposed greater scrutiny, but no ban.
This impacts the US more acutely in the context of NATO countries, where the use of Chinese equipment in telecommunication infrastructure could pose a direct threat to US interests. If China was to become more integral to Europe in this regard, it could potentially influence positions of their governments in ways that weaken the ties between the trans-Atlantic allies.
Reluctant allies in Asia
US allies in Asia are also finding themselves caught in the middle. Australia and New Zealand have already banned Huawei from receiving government contracts in critical infrastructure, and they were joined in this front by Japan towards the end of 2018. China’s relations with these three countries are complicated by the fact Beijing is the largest trading partner of each nation, though it’s universally viewed with suspicion. Australia and New Zealand have worked to reduce Chinese influence within their political systems, and Japan has been locked in dispute with China over the status of the uninhabited Spratley Islands. Ultimately, each chose to ban Huawei over security interests, which align closely to Washington’s, being placed ahead of potential economic losses.
This is further bolstered by a treaty of mutual cooperation between the U.S and Japan, as well as the ANZUS and Five Eyes intelligence alliance with Australia and New Zealand. Their economies are also more economically robust than their regional peers, which may afford them a greater cushion against Chinese retaliation.
Other American allies in Asia have not been so quick to lock Huawei out of their markets. Huawei is already a major supplier of telecom equipment to Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. The largest telecom provider in the Philippines, Globe Telecom, for instance, has announced that it will push forward with plans to deploy 5G service, insisting the partnership with Huawei is important for economic competitiveness. However, each has adopted a position similar to their European counterparts, exercising caution when dealing with Chinese companies.
American claims that Huawei and other Chinese firms present an unacceptable security risk is based primarily on hypothetical concerns. This argument has not been particularly convincing to its Asian allies. For example, India, a potential strategic ally distrustful of Beijing, has made clear a ban on Huawei would not occur. Indian officials reason that Western technology and telecom firms also make use of Chinese equipment in their designs. Yet these firms are not viewed as presenting a similar security threat as Huawei, a Chinese owned private company.
Can the US divide China from its neighbours?
The US has long fostered security ties with several Pacific countries while trying to develop stronger ties with others. However, without the similar inter-connectedness that exist to a higher degree with allies like Japan, others in the region may feel less inclined to adopt its view of Huawei. Antagonizing China for many of them could create greater harm through inviting its retaliatory measures than through only the potential risk that can originate with Huawei.
This is not to say that those nations that refuse to turn on Huawei are blind to the risks that may accompany Chinese investments and expanding influence. Malaysia, whiledisagreeing on a Huawei ban, has shown willingness to reject Chinese investment when it was deemed inimical to its interests.
This situation represents an opportunity for the US to drive China’s neighbours further away from its orbit. However, it would be hard to pull them closer to a US front against Huawei without providing any unambiguous evidence of its danger or by offering an alternative to using Huawei technology to develop 5G networks.
It is unlikely that the US will be able to deny a major Chinese role in global 5G development – particularly with words alone. Huawei may present a security threat as American officials allege, but pressing its allies to rely solely on its words will fail to address any risk. The campaign over Huawei and 5G development is just the latest example of the difficulty Washington faces in countering China’s innovative growth. Without providing any compelling alternative to back up its rhetoric, the US stands to lose significant global influence.
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