Mixed Loyalties (2)

The UK government has decided to ban all Huawei products from the country’s 5G network. All Huawei products that are part of the infrastructure must be removed by 2027 at the latest. Even this is not enough for some critics. A powerful group of Conservative MPs are telling media contacts that they will try to amend the government’s bill so that Huawei products must be removed immediately.

These critics cite security concerns – the idea that China will use Huawei products to spy on the UK. This is undoubtedly true, but no more than the fact that data gathered by American internet companies is provided to the NSA in America. It is not a question of stopping other countries spying on you, but really a matter of “Who do you want spying on you?”

If such espionage is inevitable (and the Snowden revelations suggest that it almost certainly is) then most UK citizens would probably prefer it was the US rather than China doing the spying. But is it that simple?

The original assessment from the UK intelligence services was that the risk could be managed. The security threat from Huawei products has long been known about and GCHQ had established a special facility near Banbury, known as “The Cell”, where all Huawei products and software are checked out. Huawei has to explain all their code and allow all their hardware to be fully examined. If Huawei cannot explain something, then that product is banned from UK networks. Compare this with the known practice of the NSA of inserting back doors into US software – something that they do not declare even to their allies (back to Snowden again). Which is the safer option: a threat you know about and can manage or one you cannot?

Now it is true that the security advice had recently changed. Following an embargo by the US government on Chinese access to US chip manufacturing, a lot more work would have been done in China. This would have been very difficult to monitor. It was argued by critics that computer chip architecture is so complex that it would be almost impossible to be certain that security checks were not missing something.

However, this new restriction by America offered opportunities as well as problems. China was desperate for this deal to go ahead and it would have been possible to construct systems with checks so tight that even this fear could be dealt with. It would have used measures similar to those seen in the Iran nuclear deal (which was also torpedoed by the Trump administration). So although much has been made of the security threat, the advice actually remained largely the same – that the threat was manageable. This is why the full advice has not been published and this is also why key personnel such as the UK National Security Adviser had to be replaced shortly before the decision was taken. (see Brexit Spies).

So, if that was the advice from the intelligence services, why was the decision taken? The answer, not surprisingly, is domestic politics. The Brexit faction in the Conservative Party had promised an “oven ready” Brexit deal with Europe. It now looks as if this will not happen and certainly not with all the advantages they promised. They expected the EU to crawl to the negotiating table and the EU has not. With a post-Covid economic downturn hanging over their future, the pro-Brexit group are more desperate than ever for a US trade deal. President Trump had said that anyone who used Huawei tech would not get US intelligence, let alone a trade deal. The Brexiteers had to oppose any deal with China if they were to keep their hopes of a US deal alive.

It was not a hard choice to make. Ruthless Chinese policy against minorities and their crushing of democracy in Hong Kong made this an easy battle for the critics to win. But no one should believe that this decision was taken purely for security reasons.

One further thought and it is a lesson from history: One of the main reasons that Japan went to war with United States in 1941 was that they had been gradually strangled economically. Even in their own backyard of South-East Asia they were denied access to vital raw materials by a succession of US governments that feared Japan’s growing economic strength. They knew they would lose a fight against the industrial might of America unless they could secure an early truce (which is what the attack on Pearl Harbour was supposed to achieve). Eighty years later, is China being driven towards a similar predicament?

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