At last it seems that years of argument over Huawei and Britain’s future 5G system are coming to an end. But it also looks as though the decision will hang in the balance until the final moment. This is a complex issue with even more complex ramifications, all the more so in view of the domestic political context and the contradiction between current American and Chinese pressure. Whatever has gone before, the judgement ‘5G with or without Huawei’ should be made only after proper account has been taken of the full gamut of Britain’s strategic national interests.
Worryingly, there is little to suggest that the years spent shadow-boxing around Huawei have achieved a balanced debate. Discourse is polarised between dominant optimism on one hand and defensive concerns on the other, with both sides generally talking past each other. This impasse is the result of a fundamental error in apportioning the burden of proof.
Since emphatically sweeping Tibet off the bilateral agenda, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has built up a compliant audience in British political and business circles for its self-promotion as a source of investment and market opportunities. Expressing concerns about the rise of a new authoritarian rival to the United Kingdom (UK) and the Western alliance became increasingly unfashionable. The ‘win-win’ platitudes of Xi Jinping’s Davos speech in 2017 further encouraged British complacency, which chimed with George Osborne’s attempt to usher in a ‘Golden Decade’ in British-Chinese relations.
Under cover of these rose-tinted mirages, Huawei’s massive wealth, itself a consequence of state-backed credit and surreptitious acquisition of Western technology, has been weaponised across the spectrum of CCP policy agendas. This has enabled Huawei to establish a foothold in the UK from which to interfere in British politics, penetrate Britain’s telecommunications market and buy access to its strategic national research capabilities, to China’s great benefit and Britain’s even greater loss.
Superficially, Huawei’s substantial investments in Britain’s university-led science and technology innovation generally appear advantageous to funder and host alike. Beneath this surface of ‘win-win’ however there lies a very different reality. Huawei, under the guise of a provider of reliable, competitively priced telecommunications, has opened the door to vulnerabilities that the CCP seeks to deepen and exploit. Penetration of the UK’s future 5G system is only one component of this, just as Huawei is only one instrument of Xi Jinping’s increasingly aggressive policy agenda. Huawei funds are lavished on under-funded UK research have helped establish wider dependencies that have in turn been exploited to assist with the modernisation of the CCP’s military and security capabilities.
Recent CCP activity in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the South China Sea shows this agenda in an uncomfortable light. Further afield, damage to democracy, free trade, the environment and regional cohesion by Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Africa, the Middle East, South America and elsewhere are increasingly apparent. Central to this is market capture by Chinese communications and surveillance technology, creating an expanding network of dependency relationships in China’s favour. By choosing the quick, relatively cheap installation of Chinese communications and Artificial Intelligence systems, client states surrender control of sensitive domestic data in return for increasing alignment with Beijing’s new world order.
Worryingly, there is little to suggest that the years spent shadow-boxing around Huawei have achieved a balanced debate…This impasse is the result of a fundamental error in apportioning the burden of proof.
Meanwhile, the vaunted ‘Golden Decade’ in Britain’s relations with China has never materialised. Beijing does not take Britain seriously as an equal trading partner. Chinese direct investment in the UK is very carefully directed at situations in which Beijing benefits, such as the property market, especially in London, in which, as Brexit uncertainties loom, China is speculating avidly. An element of capital flight and quasi-money laundering has been moderated somewhat by Xi’s management of both, but the results in terms of sector domination are just as significant. And after under-cutting world steel prices for decades, Beijing is delighted to offer a pittance to ‘rescue’ British steel. Overall, neither the balance nor the nature of bilateral economic relations with China has rarely been in Britain’s favour.
Now, having enabled the growth of Huawei and funded its acquisition of Western knowhow by all available means, the rationale is obvious to leverage Huawei technology to gain access to UK data which the CCP’s highly advanced computer systems can mine to strategic effect. As 5G moves forward to 6G and beyond, and the ‘Internet of Things’ becomes ubiquitous, dividends will increase exponentially. No price can be put on the losses to the UK that will result, but surely it will dwarf the supposed gains.
Equally, Huawei has been a pioneer in CCP penetration of innovative UK research and development. Building on this, Beijing has proliferated the channels whereby Chinese state resources can be deployed to direct UK innovation into areas of strategic value to strengthening the power of the CCP at home and abroad, thereby saving China untold billions.
From satellites to military armour, rocket and hypersonic aircraft engines to stealth technologies, nuclear science to nanotechnologies, the most sophisticated developments of face recognition technology, communications encryption and security, almost any area of British excellence in innovative research is now likely to be sponsored by Chinese institutions or crammed with Chinese researchers, or more usually both. In these circumstances there is no possibility that the CCP is not the gainer, financially and strategically, as a result.
Most of Britain’s national stock of expertise, and the intellectual property it generates, is effectively open to the CCP to influence, focus and drain at will. Joint laboratories set up in both countries rapidly enable to China to establish indigenous capability and overtake the naïve originators of such one-way co-operation. Risks that the UK’s American and Australian allies in particular are aware of, and have begun to address effectively by legislation, are barely discussed in British strategic circles. The supposed benefit of academic freedom in practice translates into subservience to an increasingly assertive authoritarian rival, which uses British intellectual property to oppress its own people and increase its ability to challenge and circumvent the rules-based international order.
It should be for the proponents of Huawei to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that under no circumstances would using Huawei in Britain’s 5G system pose any threat to security.
Yet, as a legacy of the hypnotic daze engendered by talk of a ‘Golden Decade’ – itself a consequence of outmoded strategic assumptions – critics of the likes of Huawei are required to demonstrate ‘proof’ that specific Chinese activity is linked to CCP interests and policy. What exactly needs to be proven when, for one example out of many, an extremely competent Chinese scientist, from a CCP military establishment, does a doctorate at Manchester’s National Graphene Institute and soon after his return to China is described in an army publication as a valued expert working on two of China’s most sensitive military research programmes? It is likely that more Chinese military research scientists, whether overtly or covertly, come to UK universities to study state-of–the art material and application science than to any other Western country, at least since the US started to address the problem. No measure of the balance of British-Chinese trade can have any credible value that does not take this into account; no British government policy that does not seek to deal with this massive loss of commercially and militarily sensitive intellectual property can claim to protect and promote British interests in regard to China.
Nor should the same rigour be withheld from China’s abuse of human rights, at home and abroad, informed by the use of cutting-edge new surveillance technology. It is now commonplace that Huawei equipment is part of the technical tool-kit used by the CCP’s security organs to collect data on the activities of its citizens, especially (but by no means only) in sensitive regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang.
A profiling and targeting programme for state security purposes, first implemented in Tibet, which uses facial recognition to distinguish ‘ethnic minorities’ from Han Chinese has reportedly been expanded to include Uyghurs as well as Tibetans. It may or may not be a coincidence that a UK university has achieved a major breakthrough in this same race profiling capability, through a project involving researchers from China and conducted in collaboration with researchers at a new facility at a leading Chinese university. Given the number of other Chinese scholars engaged in researching face-recognition at several other UK universities, it does at least seem likely that some of their work has found application in some extremely troubling circumstances.
Regarding Britain’s assessment of whether it is right to let Huawei into the country’s digital future, the burden of proof should always be required in very clear and simple terms. It should be for the proponents of Huawei to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that under no circumstances would using Huawei in Britain’s 5G system pose any threat to security, neither sooner nor later, nor would it compromise the transition to the (even more Orwellian) 6G age. No arguments in this regard to date have been in the least persuasive. But these are the only considerations that should be taken into account. Commercial expediency and fear of offending China are not normative in a security issue of such existential importance.
Risk in the case of the Huawei decision consists of the combined effects of harmful intent, capability and exposure. Through cyberattacks, theft or drainage of intellectual property and many other means, the CCP has shown intent to abuse UK-owned data. Huawei equipment in Britain’s 5G and subsequent systems would increase China’s capability to do so. If Britain decided to adopt such equipment, even in a limited role, it would increase its exposure and thus increase the risk – which would grow, rather than decrease, with the passage of time. Our 5 Eyes allies have told us where this would leave their confidence that post-Huawei penetration, Britain would be able to guard shared secrets. They are right- and what about our own?
The correct decision ought to be obvious. This is no moment for relative temporising. The people of Britain should be able to rely on their elected ministers to protect our country from an absolute strategic risk which, with the exercise of a minimum of moral and political courage, it is still not too late to avoid.