The relationship between The UK and Australia are usually not a focal point in international relations. After all, the two allies share a common language, lineage, and common monarch. What recently led to a cloud of dust in which a high-ranking Australian parliamentarian reprimanded the British Foreign Minister and a group of Australian MPs canceled a trip to London in protest?
The answer is fears about Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant that is at the heart of the 5G debate about next-generation wireless devices. Australian officials were upset when the UK government recommended that the company play a limited role in the delivery of 5G in the UK, despite the fact that it served as an engineer for many years due to its close relationship with the Chinese government (the company's founder, Ren Zhengfei) The Australian government, a member of the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance (which includes the two countries plus the United States, Canada and New Zealand), disagreed in 2017 when it banned Huawei for national security reasons.
Now two close allies are arguing about the future of the Internet. It's not just about who equips the future of telecommunications infrastructure, but also about the values that the Internet itself has.
Two countries, ocean (s) apart
It's not just Australia and the UK that are separated by an ocean (or two). In America, Huawei is the most popular Trump administration company to hate. In a speech at this year's Munich Security Conference, Defense Minister Mark Esper called the company "today's flagship" for "shameful activities" while another White House official compared the company to "the mafia". It should come as no surprise that the company is targeting trade restrictions, a criminal act against its CFO, and a concerted diplomatic campaign.
America's concerns are twofold. First, the critical infrastructure of a Chinese company that is so closely linked to the country's central leadership is an unacceptable security risk. Second, there is a risk that American dominance in 5G technology will be abandoned if Huawei's increasing dominance is noted.
National security considerations have primarily driven political decision-makers in Australia. Canberra was geographically more vigilant about China's strategic risks and acted early and decisively to prevent Huawei from participating in its 5G networks. "The fundamental problem is trust between nations in cyberspace," writes Simeon Gilding, who until recently headed the Australian signaling division for signal intelligence and offensive cyber missions.
This lack of trust between China and Australia is compounded by the difficult geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. "It's not difficult to imagine a time when the US and China are in conflict," said Tom Uren of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). "If there was a shooting war, it would be almost inevitable that the United States would ask Australia for help, and we would be in this awkward situation if we had Huawei on our networks, which is our critical telecommunications." Networks were literally operated by an enemy we were at war with. "
Gilding warned, "It is simply not reasonable to expect Huawei to reject a Chinese Communist Party order." Regardless of what assurances the Huawei executives gave, they simply couldn't reconcile these concerns. Beijing didn't help Huawei's case when it passed its 2017 Intelligence Act, which obliges all Chinese companies and individuals to help with intelligence efforts on request. "People were always afraid (that could happen)," Uren adds, "and when they have it in writing, they have really reinforced those concerns."
As a result, Canberra's policy to ban Huawei was largely undisputed. With the exception of some of the country's telecommunications companies, "the decision to ban Huawei is supported by both parties," said Simon Jackman, CEO of the US Studies Center at the University of Sydney.
American officials want their British counterparts to share Australia's views – and are not afraid to say so. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the UK to reconsider the decision and recently campaigned for Prime Minister Boris Johnson on a trip to London. Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Esper has made it clear that choosing Huawei could jeopardize allies' access to American intelligence. "If countries choose to follow Huawei's path," Esper told reporters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, "it could jeopardize all of the information and information exchange we've been talking about, and could undermine the alliance." or at least our relationship with this country. "
British officials not only believe that this is a bluff – Five Eyes' intelligence alliance is far too strong, they assess the risk that Huawei poses differently. "The perception of the Huawei risk is particularly important for everyone," said Nigel Inkster, former deputy head of MI6 at the London International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Britain, however, goes further. British government experts, who used Huawei in their 3G and 4G networks in 2003, believe that the risks can not only be mitigated, but that they are primarily overvalued. "The Australian approach is based on the type of worst case analysis of the risk that 5G could pose on the brink of war," Inkster says. "I don't think Britain intends to go to war with China soon."
Inkster and other top officials remain confident in the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Center (HCSEC), which was established by the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) when Huawei was first introduced to the UK's telecommunications networks. "We never" trusted "Huawei," wrote NCSC technical director Dr. Ian Levy, in a January 2020 blog post. As a result, the UK "has always treated her as a" high-risk provider "and worked to limit its use in the UK and to further mitigate its equipment and services."
Levy and the other government cyber security experts believe that their system will continue to work. "The basic cyber security measures used for 3 / 4G also apply to 5G," argues Marcus Willett, who also served as the first cyber director at GCHQ, the British signal intelligence agency. "If Huawei had played games, we would have discovered it by now," said Pauline Neville-Jones, a conservative member of the House of Lords and previously security minister and cyber security advisor to the government of former British Prime Minister David Cameron.
UK regulations already limit Huawei and other high-risk vendors in a number of ways, including limiting their market share to 35% and continuously evaluating their devices through HCSEC. By preventing Huawei's 5G kit from being used close to sensitive locations and restricting it to the periphery of the network (as opposed to the core), British officials are also confident that they may pose an additional risk.
That doesn't mean that Huawei isn't exposed to strong resistance in some corners. Even if you reduce the risk, it's "quite a leap to allow the Chinese to deal closely with something sensitive like this," a retired British diplomat told me, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue . And the company is nobody's first choice. "If Britain didn't have a Huawei in its system, it wouldn't choose Huawei now," said Lady Neville-Jones. “But we are in a different location (than in Australia) and have put in place a system that we believe will allow us to manage risk. And with God we will be on alert. We are not stupid. (But) at the end of the day you say to yourself, do you trust your technical staff or not? And there was never a complaint about back doors or traps. "In fact, government experts have often noticed coding errors that she adds." I suspect the result of (UK inspections) is that Huawei is technically a better company than it would have been. "
The British position is also rooted in game theory. "Even if you could (shutdown the network) when would you do it?" asks Willett, formerly from GCHQ. “It's practically a one-shot function. If used by China, it would undermine the position of all Chinese companies in the global technology market. China would therefore presumably cancel the "one shot" for war or local war. In this case, it should be sure that it works. That is not easy. "
However, Australian experts are skeptical. "I think (the British) are too confident to reduce the risk," said Uren, the ASPI expert. His widespread view in Australia is that defenders always believe they can defend a system until they can no longer do so, and allowing a Chinese company to access the network is already too much of a concession. "Cyber security is about increasing the cost of the attacker," writes Gildling, the former Australian official. "Network access through vendors who need to span all 5G networks to service their devices effectively reduces access costs to zero."
The economic equation in Europe
However, it is difficult to understand the difference that geography makes. China is physically present in America and Australia – Pacific powers. For Europeans – including the UK – the risks of an emerging China do not have the same emotional weight.
"The idea that China is a direct security threat is still a bit abstract," says Dr. Janka Oertel from the European Council for External Relations. With the exception of countries like Poland and Estonia, which rely on US military support and are more willing to follow Washington's line, "European governments have only just begun to assess the risk China can pose in the cyber arena. " To address these growing concerns, Huawei set up a cybersecurity transparency center in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, about a year ago. Unlike the UK HCSEC, however, it is not an independent assessment center and is not designed to perform the same functions.
The economy dominates the conversation on the continent more than the national security concerns. The fragmented telecommunications market in Europe (105 mobile operators versus only four in America) has also proven to be beneficial for Huawei. In a competitive environment where costs have become everything, the state-subsidized Huawei can often underestimate its rivals. Even in the UK, security concerns were weighed against the fact that "removing (the Huawei components already in the system) and restarting it would incur huge costs," Inkster said.
Nevertheless, Oertel believes that the debate in Europe is being discussed for the wrong reasons. “It's really hard to say that Huawei is cheaper than Ericsson or Nokia. Nobody has the numbers because they are all contracts between private companies. We speak many hypotheses. "Their concern is that while Huawei appears to be cheaper now, it could change if it is able to take down competitors and raise prices.
The fight is not over, however. Ericsson and Nokia claim that they are competitive in technology and cost. In fact, Ericsson already operates 27 5G networks in 15 countries and has just been selected by the Danish government to build the country's 5G network and replace existing Huawei devices. In Germany, the government's move to use Huawei in the Bundestag, the German Bundestag, met with fierce resistance. Norbert Röttgen, a prominent member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's own party, helped draft a bill that would exclude any "untrustworthy" company from "core and peripheral networks".
The Trump administration remains concerned enough about Huawei's potential ability to dominate 5G worldwide, and is actively campaigning for a western alternative. "We encourage Allied and US technology companies to develop alternative 5G solutions," said Secretary of Defense Esper in Munich, where he also urged other security officials to "build our own secure 5G network … so we won't regret our decisions later." "
Other American officials have proposed even more extraordinary measures. In a February speech, Attorney General William Barr (who previously served as a long-time lawyer with U.S. telecommunications and tech-crunch parent Verizon) bluntly declared a majority stake in the U.S. and its allies on a proposal to the government and U.S. corporations Nokia and Ericsson take over, "actively review". "If we put our large market and financial strength behind one or both of these companies, it will be a far more impressive competitor."
Ericsson rejects these comments. "Personally, I find it strange that Barr really thinks so," said Gabriel Solomon, a senior executive at Ericsson in Europe. “We were the first to be used commercially on four continents. We are in a very competitive market. "
Indeed, this reflects a widespread view in Europe: The goal of America's Huawei policy is less security than market share – and ensuring that America, not China, has the future of 5G. And that has its own risks. “Turning Huawei off altogether may lead us to some kind of bipolar, forked Internet, which, if taken to a logical extreme, would have serious adverse effects at all costs, a slowdown in innovation, and a general reduction in intellectual and technical exchanges "Says Inkster, the former MI6 official.
Things would be easier, Europeans say, if America were an obvious alternative. Without one, the American allies feel they have no choice but to use Huawei if they don't want to fall behind technologically. "The West has messed up," says the retired British diplomat. "It is a striking failure of political cooperation and coordination that we should be in this position."
There is still optimism on both sides of the Atlantic that a western solution can be found. As Röttgen from Germany wrote in a tweet in February:
The #USA & EU could join forces to counter #China's # 5G dominance. We share the same security concerns and should work together to expand 🇪🇺 alternatives. To do this, however, we need to know that tariffs on Brussels are off the table. Partners do not threaten each other. https://t.co/ZPvZFKWNYq
– Norbert Röttgen (@n_roettgen), February 8, 2020
Instead of choosing a champion, another solution would be to improve the competitive conditions. "Telecommunications security doesn't pay off," admits Dr. Levy from HCSEC. And "externalizing the security costs of certain decisions (including the provider) will help operators make better decisions about security risk management." Another option: better national screening investment mechanisms that would limit the ability of state-owned companies to work unfairly.
Getting there, however, requires coordination and collaboration – and it's not necessarily as quick as you might expect. Germans still remember that the NSA hacked Chancellor Merkel's phone – and the Trump administration's trade war targeted Europe almost as much as China did. Röttgen warned that the cooperation at 5G is connected: "(W) We have to know that the tariffs against Brussels are off the table," he said in the same tweet. "Partners don't threaten each other." Meanwhile, Huawei deserves goodwill by sending medical devices to Europe to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Technology should unite us," complains Jackman, the Australian professor; "Instead, it separates us not only from our rivals, but also from our allies."