Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight. He is standing to be Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
I am delighted that this Government is both unashamedly patriotic and positive about Britain’s future and our alliances. Yet Huawei presents a threat to those alliances, as is being reported this weekend.
Huawei involvement in the roll-out of UK’s 5G network is an extraordinarily important issue. Sadly, there has been little public or Parliamentary scrutiny. US officials are in town this week in a last-ditch attempt to win UK support for their position on Huawei. They want us to say no to it.
The Fifth Generation Cellular Communications network – 5G – will be a key part of our critical national infrastructure. The US is concerned that, amongst other issues, Chinese involvement in our 5G network will damage security relationships with our closest allies, especially the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ network: US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
In this instance, the US is absolutely right. We need to listen to them and other allies such as Australia. Both have banned Chinese high-tech from their 5G networks. We need to do the same to support our Western alliances and to protect our security, our people and our values.
The blunt reality is that China is a cyber risk and will remain so for years. It has a dreadful reputation for cyberattacks and intellectual property theft against Western and global institutions and firms. Huawei itself has been the subject of a US investigation for fraud and commercial espionage. In general, China is becoming more adversarial internationally and less tolerant of dissent domestically.
Sadly, the debate over Huawei is marked by dangerous levels of misunderstanding.
For example, Huawei argues that it is a private firm. In no meaningful sense is this correct. Huawei is to all intents and purposes part of the Chinese state. Allowing Huawei to build a significant role in our 5G network is effectively allowing China and the Chinese agencies access to it. To say otherwise is simply false.
It’s argued that Huawei will enable wider market provision. In reality, it’s the opposite. China openly seeks to dominate global comms. The risk is that in the next ten-to-20 years almost all Western providers such as Ericsson and Nokia will be put out of business by Chinese high-tech firms backed by tens of billions in state credit.
It’s also claimed that Huawei will be limited to the fringe of the 5G network. Untrue, say many experts. The difference between ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ does not exist in 5G to anything like the same extent as 4G. Antennas, for example, will not be ‘dumb’ bits of kit but an advanced combination of hardware and software. To be in the 5G system anywhere will be to be in the system. The assessment of technical experts from the US and other states is that the risks of allowing Chinese telecommunications equipment anywhere in 5G networks cannot be fully mitigated, despite laughable no-spy pledges.
Rob Strayer, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, has said any role for Huawei in 5G infrastructure poses an “unacceptable risk.” He has said: “If countries put unsecure and untrusted vendors into their 5G networks, in any place, we’re letting countries know that we’re going to have to consider the risk that that produces to our information-sharing arrangements with them.”
We need to build up alliances, not risk them.
There are powerful moral and ethical arguments against the use of Chinese firms. Huawei has an intimate relationship with the Chinese military and security services. China is using big data and Artificial Intelligence to build a surveillance state. In Xinjiang province, China has built the most advanced human monitoring system that the world has ever known; an actual, virtual Orwellian state.
We need public debate. The Australian Government did just that, initiating months of discussion before deciding de facto to exclude Chinese firms in its 5G network – despite pressure from Beijing and a far greater dependency on trade with their Pacific neighbour than we will ever have.
There is still time for the UK. Some members of the Cabinet and backbench MPs are privately concerned. But this issue is so new and the risks not yet fully understood that I fear we are sleepwalking into a decision we will regret in the years and decades to come.
We need to pause, and then decide to work with our Five Eyes and European and international partners to initiate new rules on privacy, high-tech co-operation and cyber laws that protect our citizens and our societies. We need to follow Australia’s example and have a wide-ranging public consultation.
We need international agreement on a common ‘trusted vendor’ status and agree that only those vendors can become primary contractors for our 5G – and for our critical national infrastructure in general. Trusted vendors would be defined as those coming from states that respect the rule of law, individual human rights, privacy and intellectual property. This rules out, de facto, high-tech from one-party states whose legal and political systems are very different from our own.
Whoever becomes chair of the Foreign or Intelligence and Security Select Committees needs to pledge to open immediate investigations into the suitability of Huawei and whether it can be seen in any sense as a ‘trusted vendor’.
We need good relations with China; there is no question about this. It is going to be a very significant voice in the next century. But we do not need to be making the world safe for its brand of surveillance authoritarianism or risking our collective and individual security. And with Chinese firms, there is risk. We have a right and a responsibility to protect our nation, our people and our values.
This Government is intent on putting our national interest first. Agreed; let’s do it. Let’s listen to Australia, the US and say “no way, Huawei”.