In telecommunications parlance, seven years is a generation. So, when the United Kingdom (UK) announced its decision to ban all Huawei equipment from the country’s 5G networks by end-2027, seven years and five months from today, it is high on bluster, low on action. Standing between two powers, this is UK’s symbolic gesture to US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy that doesn’t hurt Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions of intrusion. That said, UK joins a rising tide of nations now coming together to ward off Huawei. It will give momentum to other fence-sitters. And this tide will reach Indian shores soon.
The UK’s decision has been driven by the 15 May 2020 sanctions against Huawei by the US Department of Commerce, which restricted Huawei’s ability to use US technology and software to design and manufacture its semiconductors abroad. Exactly two months later, the UK has followed through. “These sanctions are not the first attempt by the US to restrict Huawei’s ability to supply equipment to 5G networks,” UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden said. “They are, however, the first to have potentially severe impacts on Huawei’s ability to supply new equipment in the UK.”
There are two big proposals of the UK government that will be executed through a future legislation, the Telecoms Security Bill. First, it proposes to ban the purchase of new Huawei 5G equipment after 31 December 2020. So, UK telecommunications firms are free to buy Huawei equipment for 5G for the next five months, which they likely will. And second, all Huawei equipment will be removed from 5G networks by end of 2027. That’s seven years later, and approximately the full life of a 5G network – a generation. By 2028, 6G is expected to be commercialised. Samsung, for instance, expects to launch 6G commercially by 2028, with mass adoption by 2030. In effect, therefore, UK’s policy is a play of words for the US and the ban irrelevant. It’s like a government banning a feature phone today, when everyone has shifted to a smartphone.
The US seems content with this symbolism. “The UK joins democracies such as the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Sweden in banning Huawei from future 5G networks,” US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said. “Clean carriers like Jio in India, Telstra in Australia, SK and KT in South Korea, NTT in Japan, and others have also prohibited the use of Huawei equipment in their networks.”
China’s reaction was on predictable lines, with its ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming terming the decision “disappointing and wrong,” and said it had become “questionable whether the UK can provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries.” But beyond G2G interactions, the Chinese press – another arm of the Chinese state – is sniggering: “Huawei can be seen as “Father of 5G”. Its European competitors lag far behind. They can only bring “4.5G”. UK can only completely remove Huawei by 2027, which indicates it’s difficult to leave Huawei. But there could be change before and after that,” Global Times Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin said in a tweet.
Stepping back, there is a reason why Huawei equipment must not be used for 5G in the UK in this particular case, but across the democratic world in general – China’s National Intelligence Law. Enacted three years ago on 27 June 2017, this law turns citizens, organisations and corporations of China into intelligence-gathering instruments for the Chinese state. “All organisations and citizens shall support, assist, and cooperate with national intelligence efforts in accordance with law, and shall protect national intelligence work secrets they are aware of,” states Article 7 of the law, for instance.
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Further, Article 9 gives incentives (commendations and awards) to individuals and organisations that contribute to national intelligence efforts. Article 14 encourages “organisations and citizens provide necessary support, assistance, and cooperation” for intelligence efforts. Such a law would apply to a company’s foreign subsidiaries and Chinese citizens working outside China as well, according to a January 2019 report by Mannheimer Swartling. A recent dossier titled, China’s Elite Capture, that terms Chinese telecom firms as “Beijing’s strategic assets” and calls prominent pro-Huawei individuals “useful idiots” is a case in point. It is no surprise that the announcement that the chairman of Huawei’s UK board, John Browne, will step down came hours before the government banned the company.
5G is not a routine technology upgrade; it is a technology that enables Internet of Things, smart agriculture, smart cities, energy monitoring, smart home and remote monitoring, self-driven cars. This is a network of networks. It captures huge amounts of data and has the capacity to pull out big trends such as electoral directions as well as home in on individuals through micro-surveillance. In China there are no protections to citizens; in democracies there are. To hand over such an intrusive technology to a company that is bound by law to collect and share intelligence with the Chinese state is like asking the Chinese Communist Party to hold elections for democracies.
Howsoever efficient the technology, however inexpensive its products, or innovative its offerings, a company like Huawei will be submerged by its Chinese nationality. Under President Xi Jinping, China has weaponised everything, from trade and technology to islands and investments. From Japan and South China Sea to Bhutan and India, it has put most of its neighbours on war alert. A neighborhood bully, it has threatened almost all its Asian trading partners, and is attempting to bankrupt countries signing up for the Belt and Road Initiative. It is now smothering Hong Kong and has set its eyes on taking over Taiwan.
Reading the actions of the Chinese state, its National Intelligence Law and the intrusive nature of 5G together, it is a no-brainer for any and every democracy to ban Huawei equipment in their 5G rollouts. The recent idea of a D10, a group of 10 leading democracies (G7 plus South Korea, India, and Australia) for addressing both 5G mobile communications and vulnerable supply chains, is a step in that direction. Among all countries in this group, the threat and danger is accentuated by geography for India, which shares a 3,488 km long border, which China attempted to breach in Ladakh and ended with a bloody nose. Handing over India’s 5G to a company like Huawei (or the other Chinese company ZTE) is fraught with a huge security risk.
Protected by distance, the only danger to the UK (and all other G7 nations) is data intrusion, privacy breach and government and corporate espionage. That said, if Huawei was safe till two days ago, what makes it unsafe now? The answer lies not in the UK’s national security policy but in its foreign policy, or specifically, its US policy. The ban statement has been drafted keeping the US in mind; but effectively, there is no ban and Huawei will continue to be an equipment provider till 5G becomes obsolete in seven years. The UK is handing over its intelligence to the Chinese state on a platter.
The other actors in this game are telecommunications firms. For them and their investors, it’s real money on the table – they will need to view national security policies through prisms of financial costs and smoke signals of geopolitical changes. Here too action has begun. In the UK, BT has earmarked 500 million pounds in anticipation of the ban. Italy’s Telecom Italia recently excluded Huawei from a tender for 5G equipment for core networks in Italy and Brazil, restricting bids from Cisco, Ericsson, Nokia, Mavenir and Affirmed Networks. And with Japan banning Huawei and ZTE from bidding for government contracts, Japanese firms too have declared that they would not purchase 5G equipment from them either.
Geopolitical pressures on companies are unlikely to end. With UK going in for this symbolic ban, it completes all Five Eyes Intelligence Oversight and Review Council nations – the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – all of whom have banned or will ban Huawei. All eyes are now on Germany and France. Germany has not banned Huawei and is unlikely to: its telecommunications provider Deutsche Telekom has said it looks at a multi-vendor strategy and will continue to source 25% of its equipment from European and Chinese manufacturers, notably Ericsson and Huawei. France has said it will not ban Huawei but will encourage firms to avoid using Chinese equipment. Both may have to relent.
It is only a matter of time that the concert of democracies shifts its no-Huawei focus to India. The invitation to join the expanded G7 as well as D10 will put moral pressure. Even if symbolic, a collective wall of democracies against a country running amok is as much a necessity as a signal. New Delhi has been avoiding an open confrontation with China on this issue so far – it even allowed Huawei to participate in 5G trials. Ladakh has changed the narrative and now Huawei may find it difficult to clear security hurdles. This change in stance is integral and includes the government, consumers, companies and citizens. It is irreversible. India’s ban on 59 Chinese apps, on Chinese firms in roads and highways sector, and on Chinese investors in MSMEs is a start. And at some point, a complete ban on Huawei in India should – and will – follow.
Gautam Chikermane @gchikermane is Vice President at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.
The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.
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