The Asia-Pacific’s Huawei Conundrum

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In January 2020, Britain decided that Huawei can play a restricted role in developing the country’s 5G wireless network. The company’s market share will be capped at 35 percent and its products will be excluded from security-critical core areas of Britain’s 5G wireless network. While the decision is pragmatic, it tests Britain’s relationship with its key Asia-Pacific allies; the United States and Australia. The British government also recently had to assuage the concerns of members of Parliament (MPs) who disagree with the decision and have attempted to stop Huawei’s participation. Likewise, other countries in the Asia-Pacific need to navigate inevitable trade-offs in selecting their 5G technology suppliers.

Different Approaches for Different Countries

As countries embrace Industry 4.0, the heart of this industrial revolution – wireless technology – becomes increasingly intertwined with issues of politics, security and trust within and between countries. In developing national 5G wireless networks, Asia-Pacific countries will find that trade-offs over these issues are inevitable. Will China exploit its leadership in 5G technology to undermine the global security alliances that the U.S. underwrites? The U.S.-China rivalry is putting pressure on countries to pick sides. There will be trade-offs even if countries choose a balanced approach of not picking sides.

While Britain had chosen a balanced approach, the U.S. and Australia have shut their doors to Huawei. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam’s Viettel Group is developing its domestic 5G technology to lock out Huawei. Malaysia’s Maxis Bhd is collaborating with Huawei to speed up the country’s implementation of 5G services. Singapore has welcomed Huawei’s opening of an artificial intelligence (AI) lab to test 5G applications. It can be difficult to extract learning points from the various countries’ approaches due to differing geoeconomic and geostrategic considerations.

Sparring for Digital Superiority

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The crux of the Huawei conundrum is the nexus between the China threat and cybersecurity. The United States and likeminded countries believe that China’s laws and statist economic policies can mandate Chinese citizens and companies, including Huawei, to cooperate in clandestine influence and intelligence activities overseas and in the cyberspace. There are concerns that Chinese companies are an extension of China’s Communist Party (CCP) influence.

Strategically, this narrative frames Huawei’s potential control of digital lines of communication as a national security threat to free countries. However, many countries have not bought into this narrative and remain amenable to Huawei’s participation in national digital infrastructure projects. Huawei’s products are more cost-effective and the company leads in 5G technology due to its massive investments in research and development. Furthermore, the economic impact of COVID-19 underscores the reality that the vibrancy of China’s industries and investments are intertwined with the health of the global economy.

Operationally, this narrative depicts Huawei as installing software backdoors in its products to enable China to spy on other countries. This narrative perhaps mirrors the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) purported use of backdoors in the encrypted communications products of Crypto AG to spy on other countries during the Cold War. The Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) in Britain had found shortfalls in Huawei’s software engineering and cybersecurity practices. However, HCSEC believes that China’s state interference did not create these shortfalls. The fundamental U.S. concern is perhaps China attaining digital superiority through Huawei and becoming a peer competitor in global intelligence collection.

Clash of Politico-Cultural Values

The other reasons that caught Huawei in the middle of the U.S.-China rivalry are essentially differences in values (and behaviors) that each great power promotes and can influence the international order. First, cyberspace as a domain is a global common like outer space and the seas. The competition between the U.S. and China in cyberspace somewhat mirrors their mutual hostilities in the South China Sea (SCS). Both powers seek to influence behavior and legal standards in the SCS domain through their respective interpretations of international rules vis-a-vis their national interests. Both powers also seek to be the dominant player in the domain and paint the other as a threat to regional peace and stability.

Second, technology and trade are two frontlines in a great power competition that was also characterized in the West as a civilisational conflict. This characterization is problematic as it reminds China of its painful historical experience with Western colonialism and may push Huawei deeper into the two frontlines. It also imposes unrealistic pressure on countries that use Huawei products for their 3G/4G networks, have multiracial and globalized societies, and benefit from Chinese and Western markets to pick a side. Countries in the Asia-Pacific may not buy into this narrative given their geographic proximity to China and similar historical experiences with Western colonialism.

Third, technology may enable political ideology and the United States believes that China is using Chinese companies to export digital authoritarianism and undermine the Western model of liberal democracy. Huawei’s products have been purportedly linked to China’s Golden Shield project that strengthens social control and smart surveillance systems that facilitate ethno-religious repression in Xinjiang. The U.S. is concerned that more countries will emulate China’s model of e-governance, information control and internet sovereignty. Countries that procure Huawei’s products solely based on cost and technical capabilities may have to evaluate whether Chinese technologies are indeed Trojan horses that can potentially undermine them socially and politically.

Navigating the Trade-Offs

No country wants its most sensitive data to be accessed by another – friend or foe. No technological platforms can be trusted to be totally free of unintended flaws or intentional backdoors. No country wants the U.S.-China rivalry to affect its sovereignty, or social and political stability. A country’s decision to ban or restrict the participation of Huawei in its digital infrastructure projects ultimately boils down to its confidence in managing cybersecurity risks, people and industrial needs, and whether alignment with the U.S.is an overriding factor.

Countries can learn from Britain’s risk assessment and mitigation approach. Inputs from the HCSEC were an important step to independently assess the potential cybersecurity risks and decide whether to restrict Huawei’s participation in security-critical core areas of Britain’s digital infrastructure. Additionally, a country’s counterintelligence apparatus will have an increasingly important role. Counterintelligence is key to detecting, analyzing and countering the Trojan horse of cyber-enabled strategies and means that any foreign power may employ for subversive activities.

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Countries should articulate the national interests and values that they must defend to maintain social and political stability. Keeping out incompatible Chinese political influence that rides on the technological bandwagon is somewhat similar to how some Asian societies resisted incompatible western cultural influence that broadcasted through the mass media in the past. Knowing what national interests and values matter is key to resisting the Trojan horse of malign foreign influences.

At a more strategic level, countries should consider whether they can create opportunities while navigating the trade-offs of restricting Huawei’s participation. These opportunities include devising innovative cybersecurity solutions and being honest brokers who can help mediate the U.S.-China rivalry. By being amenable to both Chinese and Western technologies, countries such as Singapore may have the moral high ground to engage China and the United States for the benefit of Asia-Pacific peace and stability.

Muhammad Faizal Bin Abdul Rahman and Russell Huang are, respectively, a research fellow and intern with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.