Telecommunications company Huawei legal action against the US Government’s ban on their involvement in 5G roll-out is a counter attack on claims that their involvement would impact national security. Exaggerated fears about cyber threat are part of a US campaign to contain China, and form the background to this week’s warning to the UK Government by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Cyber security is a concern to all national governments, but, rather than put up barriers, more can and should be done to develop protocols and agreements for international cooperation in this area, and in this China, Australia and South East Asian countries could take the lead.
It is no exaggeration to say that 5G technology will revolutionise life as it brings faster internet speeds and allows machines to communicate directly with each other. Countries that plan to introduce 5G first need to build the infrastructure and are now looking for the best options in terms of quality, cost and security. Companies that can provide networks to required standards will not only bring in the standards and specifications with which they are familiar but also will have the advantage of trialling and extending new technologies. Huawei is very competitive in this respect, compared with older-established European firms such as Ericsson and Nokia. (Samsung is working hard on 5G research but surprisingly there are no US companies directly competing for backbone equipment.)
Against this background, Western intelligence agencies have been working to bring down Huawei, which is China’s most successful international private corporation. Their arguments against the company are prompted by its superior technical capacity, which they claim might be used in an unfriendly manner, yet very little evidence of Huawei threatening national security has been disclosed up to this point. It seems that its main fault consists in being Chinese, and its detractors suggest that it is subject to direction from the Chinese Communist Party, so that, if required to do so, it would act in an unfriendly manner in its overseas markets.
This week Huawei confirmed that the company was suing the US government for the “unconstitutional” ban on purchase of its equipment that was enacted by Congress last year as part of the National Defence Authorisation Act. In line with this ban, the Australian and New Zealand governments have already barred Huawei from participating in 5G and European governments are considering what action they should take. There is however a complex network in the telecommunications industry of equipment suppliers and service agreements. Telcos round the world will suffer if forced to lock Huawei and ZTE out of their business plans, putting up costs and limiting technology options. European governments are consequently unlikely to implement a total ban; the UK National Cyber Security Centre has stated that there are ways of managing any risks; and President Trump has hinted that he will not sign Congress’s proposed Act. Why therefore should our former Prime Minister use his current visit to London to warn the British that Huawei was a threat to national security?
When Australia established diplomatic relations in 1972, China’s economy was on the brink of collapse, but, following the economic reforms of the 1980s, diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with Australia, the US, Japan and other countries underpinned its plans to rebuild and to secure the basis for further development. Such mutually advantageous relationships should be preserved. Now the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping is more confrontational in international affairs, but that should not lead to an abrupt about turn by the Western world. Rather there should be heightened initiatives to build cooperation and integration.
As China has emerged as an economic powerhouse, it has also become more assertive internationally. Private companies such as Huawei have contributed greatly to the development of China’s domestic market, so that Chinese consumers can now enjoy cutting-edge technology. Australia has the opportunity to build on decades of engagement with the PRC and cooperate with Huawei and other technology leaders, but has opted instead to cut off relations. In the future it seems the world will see the development of two competing telecommunication systems. Surely this is in no one’s interests.
In the realm of cyber security, state-based conflict in cyberspace can only be averted if international regulations, norms and confidence-building measures are developed and strengthened. Technology providers these days work across national boundaries. They need regulations to be harmonized also across borders. Transnational crime concerns all. In the case of cyber-crime, it is particularly important that we strengthen international cooperation at the investigation and also the prosecution stages. In August last year, ASEAN announced that it would form a regional framework for cybersecurity. This is a good first step, and one that Australia and China should support strongly.
The problem is that the US is adopting a unilateral exceptionalist stance on many critical policy issues, and it seems that there is little prospect of significant progress. Australia and the rest of the world can only prepare for a period of heightened strategic and economic risk, but, at the very least, we can and should avoid provoking trade and cyber war by needlessly attempting to bully Huawei. As Turnbull said in London, cyber is a “matter of the highest bilateral importance” and all countries should ensure that their citizens “could have the confidence that their governments and their intelligence communities are working to keep them safe, not only offline but also online.”
Jocelyn Chey’s last diplomatic posting was as Australian Consul General to Hong Kong 1992-95. She is a Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney and an Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University.