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The Huawei debate

The U.K. and Germany acknowledge potential risks to national security, but differ on how these should be managed

Europe’s pushback against banning Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei from the 5G mobile network markets is in stark contrast to the U.S.’s stance. Washington has long suspected the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment of espionage and cyber sabotage. These concerns are rooted in the perception that Chinese state-owned entities, recipients of large subsidies, routinely pass on sensitive information to the government. That reading was strengthened when China enacted the National Intelligence Law in 2017 requiring citizens and organisations to cooperate in national intelligence activities. Huawei is a privately listed firm, but there are suspicions that it can still access sensitive data. These suspicions stem from the fact that Huawei’s founder used to be in the military.

A 2011 open letter by its deputy chairman was aimed at an image makeover after the company was forced to divest itself of a U.S. tech start-up. But the next year, the House Intelligence Committee recommended that Huawei be blocked from future mergers and acquisitions. In 2014, classified documents showed that the U.S. National Security Agency had been hacking into Huawei to ascertain the latter’s links to the People’s Liberation Army. Within months of those revelations, the U.S. charged five Chinese army officials of stealing trade secrets from U.S. institutions. The next year, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed an agreement with his U.S. counterpart to cease cyber commercial espionage.

In the ongoing tussle, the Donald Trump administration in the U.S. has banned Huawei’s participation in the 5G rollout and canvassed allies in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network to follow suit. Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s head of finance, is challenging her detention by the Canadian government and faces extradition to the U.S. for Huawei’s alleged Iranian sanctions evasion.

In February, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence cautioned the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation states in Munich that the security of the West could not be guaranteed by reliance on the East, in an oblique reference to the telecom firm. Authorities in Britain and Germany acknowledge potential risks to national security from Huawei. But their responses diverge in terms of how the threat should be managed, as also factoring in the extensive trade and diplomatic ties with the world’s second largest economy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has backed the country’s cyber security agency. MI6 seems to attach some weight to U.S. caution over Huawei. But Britain’s other security services seem opposed to objections merely rooted in the technology supplier’s country of origin. Instead they emphasise on evidence-based threat perception and the adoption of tougher cyber security standards. Another recommendation is for mobile service providers to diversify their sourcing of telecom equipment. The debate continues.

The writer is a Deputy Editor at The Hindu in Chennai

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Printable version | Jul 8, 2020 7:30:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-huawei-debate/article26502477.ece

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