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Will Britain’s Decision on Huawei Help Canada to Finally Decide?

Written by: Hugh Stephens

After months of deliberation and high-level pressure from the US, Britain has finally reached a decision on whether or not to allow Chinese technology supplier Huawei to participate in the rollout of 5G networks in the UK. In an announcement made on January 28, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Huawei would be allowed limited participation. The compromise will allow “high risk vendors” (a definition which is deemed to include Huawei) to be a supplier to non-core parts of the network, with participation capped at 35 percent, while being banned from critical networks and sensitive sites. This British decision should help the Trudeau government to reach a decision that is based on Canada’s national interest.

The question of Huawei’s participation in 5G networks is very much rolled up in the US-China technology war and US suspicion of China, increasingly viewing it as a strategic competitor if not future adversary. Huawei, one of China’s technology champions, has been targeted by the US as a Chinese “Trojan Horse” particularly given recent Chinese legislation requiring Chinese companies to cooperate with Chinese security agencies. The US has moved to ban Huawei from participation in 5G in the US, and has increasingly put pressure on US companies not to sell components and technology to Huawei. Having “crossed the Rubicon” with Huawei, the US has put increasing pressure on its intelligence sharing allies, the so-called “Five Eyes” network  of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to do the same, under threat that intelligence sharing could be cut off.

Australia has complied with the US demands, New Zealand has waffled but semi-complied, and now the UK has made a decision to allow Huawei into 5G networks but to restrict its access. Meanwhile, Canada has kicked the can down the road but the end of that road is rapidly approaching, and the UK decision gives Canada some welcome support and “cover” to reach a similar balanced decision. The stakes are high.

Huawei is a major investor in both the UK and Canada; in fact a large part of Huawei’s R&D on 5G is based in Canada, building on the Nortel patents that Huawei purchased after Nortel’s demise. The industrial benefits to Huawei’s continued operations in Canada are considerable, much more so than Huawei’s limited presence in the US. But what about security issues and the Five Eyes intelligence sharing?

Does Huawei pose a potential risk to security of 5G networks? Yes, for two reasons. First, because of the speed with which it has developed its technology, Huawei is known to have weaker security than some other suppliers. Both the UK and Canada have established joint testing facilities with Huawei to ensure that any weak “back-doors” in its technology are identified and fixed. Then there is the question of deliberate secret “backdoors” built into the technology by Huawei to enable Chinese spying or disruption of networks. Huawei has denied any such intention and no evidence has been found of such “Trojan horses” but the suspicion of China is palpable. If you don’t trust China, you won’t trust a Chinese company, especially one so close to Beijing that the Chinese government will take the drastic action of holding Canadians in China hostage because of Canada’s willingness to arrest a senior Huawei official, Meng Wanzhou, on a US extradition warrant.

Does this mean that all the benefits that come with doing business with Huawei, from participation in its R&D program, to having access to a competitively-priced alternate suppliers for Canadian infrastructure providers like Telus and Bell (who already use Huawei equipment in their existing networks) have to be sacrificed on the altar of security and intelligence-sharing? I would argue that the UK decision shows that it is possible to do both. Britain has some of the top cyber experts in the world, and if British cyber-security and intelligence officials are satisfied that the Huawei risk can be managed, it is hard to understand why the same would not apply to Canada. There will always be risk, whether the supplier is Huawei or another company, and the important thing is to recognize and manage that risk.

As for the US threat to cut countries that deal with Huawei out of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement, this has to be understood in context. It is an intelligence-sharing arrangement, not just a network to disseminate US intelligence to its partners. Canada plays a not insignificant role in the collection of signal intelligence through its unique geographic location, and thus makes an important contribution to the network. Moreover, it is in the US interest to share intelligence with Canada in combatting terrorist threats to North America.

All these factors suggest that it is time that Ottawa made a decision on Huawei that is in Canada’s overall national interest. Our relations with the US, including intelligence-sharing, are part of that national interest but are not the only factors to consider. The UK decision has given us a bit of wiggle-room. Let’s hope that we use it wisely.

More from author Hugh Stephens HERE