The British government is debating whether Huawei, the Chinese telecoms company, should be allowed to bid for the new 5G telecoms system. No similar debate was held in Beijing: foreign companies are excluded from China’s 5G.
Debating Huawei has not been the British government’s strong suit. The 2013 Intelligence Committee report on Huawei’s involvement in an earlier generation of telecoms expresses shock that no ministerial consideration was given to national security. Its conclusions and recommendations ought to make a debate now redundant.
The Intelligence Committee defined critical national infrastructure (CNI) as something “the loss or compromise of which would have a major, detrimental impact on the availability or integrity of essential services, leading to severe economic or social consequences or to loss of life”. These days one might say that information and communications technology (ICT) has become ‘super-critical’: they controls power, water and other CNI.
Surely the last thing a government should do is to make its country vulnerable to pressure, direct or indirect, from a potential adversary or competitor with very different security interests and values? Our own experience should tell us that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not averse to playing hard ball.
If we have forgotten being put in the doghouse because our prime minister met the Dalai Lama, we might cast our minds to Norway’s turn after the Nobel Prize was awarded to a leading dissident, or to CCP directed economic measures (particularly reducing package tourism) against the Philippines over the South China Sea dispute, and against South Korea over the deployment of THAAD missiles.
Giving a foreign country the ability to disrupt or switch off your CNI is granting them a far bigger cudgel.
Let us leave aside the debate as to whether Huawei is a private company. Dispelling the fog in the pursuit of transparency has progressed little over the years. What is clear — the Party has told us so — is that through the Party committee embedded inside private companies the CCP has an enormous say in their affairs. Furthermore, recent national security legislation lays down that companies must do the Party’s bidding when called upon to do so for national security reasons.
With an eye to avoiding the cudgel, defenders of Huawei say that the “cell” (a Huawei run and financed organisation which vets UK personnel for anything untoward) has been operating for over 10 years and has found nothing.
The Intelligence committed was not impressed in 2013. Among the reasons two stand out. First, given Huawei’s management of the cell, who guards the guards? Second, it is far easier to hide a needle in a haystack than it is to find one.
Or as the Intelligence Committee put it: “While we note GCHQ’s [a UK security organisation] confidence in BT’s management of its network, the software that is embedded in telecoms equipment consists of ‘over a million lines of code’ and GCHQ has been clear from the outset that ‘it is just impossible to go through that much code and be absolutely confident you have found everything’.”
Sometimes, you hear the argument put forward that the US may be snooping on the UK. Quite possibly. But the UK has worked closely with the Americans since 1917. China eschews all formal alliances except with one country — North Korea. The UK shares with the US both its values of freedoms and of democracy as well as its security interests. If we must put our eggs in someone else’s basket, whose is safer?
The CCP will not take kindly to Huawei’s exclusion; it may threaten the “Golden Era” of ties that the countries are said to currently enjoy. But unspoken, it will understand the reason. It knows that you cannot have concrete proof of interference in ICT, unless you are lucky enough to find the needle in the haystack, and you don’t take the risk of putting your security in the hands of a potential adversary.
There is a further, more powerful argument. The intelligence sharing agreement between the “Five Eyes” — US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — is of immense importance. This is not just about sharing intelligence, for example on terrorism or security threats, but about working together on designing and operating those systems and technologies for intelligence collection.
Three of the Five Eyes have ruled out Huawei from their own systems. They will not trust the UK fully if Huawei is inside our systems, even with the “cell”. This loss would in itself be colossal, but other countries, Germany, Japan, France for example, might also not trust us if we were not up to what one academic calls “Five Eyes Standard”.
Should the government be willing to bet our security on the benevolence and restraint of the CCP? In the light of its current repression of its own people, its aggressive foreign policy and interference abroad, that surely crosses the border from naïveté into irresponsibility.
Charles Parton is associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank, and an adviser to the UK House of Commons select committee on foreign affairs.
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