The United Kingdom believes it can handle the risks posed by using Huawei equipment in building its 5G networks. That’s according to a Feb. 19 report from the Financial Times, citing sources familiar with the decision made by Britain’s National Cyber Security Center. The report was published just a week after a former director of the Government Communications Headquarters wrote an op-ed arguing that a blanket ban on Huawei equipment was nonsensical. British officials may not yet be willing to publicly declare this the official government position, but that hasn’t stopped the stance from being widely leaked to the press.
That the United Kingdom’s main signals intelligence organizations – of Bletchley Park and Enigma-codebreaking fame – believe the threat posed by China through Huawei can be contained is noteworthy in itself. But the implications of that judgment are far more important. If the FT report is accurate, it means the U.K. is publicly breaking with its closest allies – the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – on what has become a front-line issue between China and the English-speaking world. It would also contradict a study produced just seven months ago by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Center Oversight Board, raising the question of what prompted such a sudden change of heart among British intelligence.
The HCSEC’s fourth annual report to the U.K.’s national security adviser, delivered in July 2018, concluded that due to the “repeated discovery of critical shortfalls,” neither the NCSC nor the HCSEC “can provide long term technical assurance of sufficient scope and quality around Huawei in the U.K.” HCSEC reached this conclusion on the basis of two areas of particular concern. The first relates to the NCSC’s requirement that it possess a reliable copy of the coding behind all computer programs deployed in the creation of the U.K.’s 5G infrastructure. (Comparing the reliable copy to the deployed program is one of the key ways the NCSC could detect the intrusion of potentially malicious code.) Huawei has cooperated thus far, but even if everything goes without a hitch, the NCSC has assessed that it would be mid-2020 before Huawei’s equipment could be brought into compliance with the requirement, to say nothing of the long-term challenges in assuring the accuracy and reliability of the copies.
The second major problem is that Huawei’s technology integrates both commercial and open-source third-party components that HCSEC concludes are not under either Huawei’s or the NCSC’s “sufficient control.” Ironically, one of the problematic components is software sold by a U.S.-based firm that will stop issuing security patches and updates for the software in 2020 – even though the Huawei products themselves would still be in service. That could potentially leave any British network with these Huawei products embedded vulnerable to external attack.
The HCSEC report was released the same month that the spy chiefs of the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand agreed to cooperate on containing Chinese telecommunication companies, including Huawei and ZTE. Since then, the Australian and New Zealand governments have both acted to prevent telecom firms in their countries from using Huawei’s equipment in 5G networks. In the next few weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to issue an executive order expanding a ban on domestic use of Huawei technology. In December, Britain’s largest telecom company, BT Group, announced that it was stripping Huawei equipment from existing 3G and 4G networks and would not use Huawei technology for its core network. But after this initial spate of anti-Huawei moves, the campaign seems to have stalled. Just two months ago, the head of MI6 said the U.K. had tough decisions to make on Huawei and Canada arrested a Huawei executive at Washington’s behest – but at present, neither the British nor Canadian government appears convinced that a blanket ban on Huawei is the best course of action.
If the British government has decided against such a ban, it would represent a significant policy divergence between the United States and the United Kingdom, a divergence that may influence other members of the original five-country anti-Huawei coalition. Speaking to reporters on Feb. 18, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her government would conduct an independent assessment of the risks posed by Huawei. Canada, which has been dragging its feet on deciding whether to ban Huawei technology from its 5G network, can now point to the United Kingdom as an alternative model to the United States’ more heavy-handed attempt to contain Huawei. (Canada may even see this alternative as a way out of the U.S.-China crossfire in which it has been caught since December.) A shift in the British position would also vindicate other European countries like Germany and France, which have been skeptical of U.S. requests to ban Huawei. The German government, which as recently as last month was considering such a ban, issued a statement this week saying that it had already decided not to pursue one.
None of this is to say that the United Kingdom has broken with the U.S. and its other closest allies on the broader issue of the potential long-term threats posed by China. (After all, it was just last week that the U.K.’s defense secretary announced that the United Kingdom’s sole aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, would be dispatched to the Pacific for a freedom of navigation operation designed to display Britain’s hard power and its will to use it.) It does, however, reflect the extent to which China has already won the race for 5G technological superiority. If there were other sources for the 5G equipment in question, a country like the U.K. would ditch Huawei without a second thought. But most British telecom companies think that blocking Huawei and other Chinese companies like it might lead to delays of at least a year for rolling out 5G – and those estimates may be overly conservative. Implicit in a decision not to ban Huawei is the calculation that the cost of pursuing a ban would outweigh the risk posed by Huawei’s equipment in the first place.
On the surface, this might seem like a reasonable calculation. After all, there’s been little direct evidence to suggest that China is already slipping malware into the systems its companies have exported, or that it has any intention of doing so. But that is precisely where the logic of this position begins to waver. In this case, past behavior does not shed sufficient light on future intent. For the U.S., the threat has never been about Huawei. It is about China. The U.S. is blocking Huawei not because it thinks the company has nefarious intent, but rather because it thinks the Chinese government would not hesitate to seize control of Huawei, or the information it possesses, and use its technology against the U.S. and its allies during a conflict. Considering the scope of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s current drive to consolidate the Communist Party’s power at home and to secure Chinese power and influence abroad, it is a worst-case scenario worth preparing for.
But there is a deeper, quintessentially human fallacy at work here, one that is neither Western nor Eastern, liberal nor communist – namely, the idea that something as complex as Britain’s 5G network can be so expertly controlled by anyone, whether British or Chinese. As the HCSEC report showed, even assuming the best of China’s and Huawei’s intentions, there are other serious vulnerabilities that come with using Huawei’s technology – and, indeed, in using or becoming too dependent on any single technology – that can be manipulated by external actors looking for weaknesses to exploit. In that sense, the potential threat posed by Huawei is as much – if not more – about the complexity of 5G itself as about the Chinese government’s willingness to use Huawei’s 5G technology as a cyber-Trojan horse. The notion that British intelligence can mitigate the risk posed by using Huawei equipment in 5G networks sounds more than a little bit like hubris, but then, the notion that China can use Huawei to conquer the Western world has always sounded more than a little bit like paranoia.
Far more consequential here is the public airing of a difference of opinion, however slight, between the United States and the United Kingdom over how to deal with China. In the grand scheme of things, it is a relatively minor disagreement concerning the implementation of an overall strategy rather than a disagreement about strategy itself. But using technological advantage to drive a wedge between coalitions of countries aligned against it is far more in keeping with Chinese strategic thinking – and in the long term far more threatening – than China using a secret Huawei switch to vanquish its rivals.