Liberty Expose: The United State’s War Against Huawei

The saga of the Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei’s troubles in winning over the West continue. Over the last few years, China has been seeking to build influence around the globe by investing in other countries telecommunications infrastructure through companies such as Huawei and ZTE. But what seems to be an earnest attempt at helping countries across the world in building up their digital infrastructure is being branded as a malignant attempt to gain access to the information of these states and their people. The United States is the leading voice calling for states to not allow Huawei’s products as they are allegedly vulnerable to the Chinese intelligence apparatus. So, is this suspicion warranted or is it merely another tactic in the battle to win the trade war?

I have briefly discussed China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the past so I will go into more detail here. Announced in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Initiative is a trillion dollar project that seeks to build closer ties with both developed and developing countries. There are three “prongs” to  Belt and Road: the Silk Road Economic belt that connects “Central Asia to Europe … the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road connecting Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe, and finally, the less talked about “digital new silk road.” If states that have previously been underdeveloped are able to have access to the fastest internet speeds, reliable public transportation and better roads, then the quality of life for their people will likewise improve dramatically.

Beijing’s lofty ambitions for the globe is certainly not without its controversy. The initiative has been called a ploy to build up Chinese influence by straddling poor countries (especially those in Africa or Southeast Asia) with millions of dollars in debt and questionable construction. Indeed, China has become infamous for deceptive loan practices by not reporting the amount they are giving to other countries. China might report that country X might owe 100 million USD; but in actuality, owes 10 times as much. These tactics hamper the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank’s abilities in “analyzing countries’ debt burdens, and coming up with recommendations for borrowing strategy that limits the risk of debt distress.”

Going back to Huawei, the telecom giant’s role in this is in developing the cities of the future by making them “smart cities.” These smart cities will “integrate information and communications technologies [ICTs] to improve city operations in everything from traffic flows to water conservation and crime prevention.” One of the major objectives Huawei has is developing 5G networks that will increase data download and upload speeds, and provide a more stable connections across a wider swath of land than previously capable. On paper this sounds like a great thing. Cities, especially those in the developing world, need new ways to better manage resources and maintain security as they continue to grow. Given the shoddiness of the crumbling U.S. transportation infrastructure such as New York City or Washington D.C., we could certainly benefit from them.

But there is one issue: all of this technology is being developed in China -- a country whose government has used similar technology to harass, persecute and destroy the lives of millions of people who do not conform to the state. This is the essence of the United State’s argument for why other states should not allow Chinese investment. From the plight of the Uighur Muslims in Western China to the nationwide crackdown on pro-democratic “propaganda” in print and online, Beijing has made it clear that they love control. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have expressed concern over the potential for China to gain backdoor access to the U.S. infrastructure, the military and private user data.

Industry leaders and tech experts on the other hand are not so quick to utterly condemn Huawei’s role in developing 5G networks as a national security threat. According to a Washington Post article by Reed Albergotti, American tech companies are warning that such a ban will only be detrimental to “their ability to develop new technological innovations, including those needed by the U.S. military.” With the trade war still raging, China will be less likely to buy chips from U.S.-based companies and look elsewhere, therefore harming these manufacturers’ bottom lines. However, Nicholas Weaver -- a staff researcher at the University of California, Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute -- states that any telecommunications device is designed to be wiretapped and such alterations can be nearly undetectable.

U.S. President Donald Trump is urging allies across the globe to implement similar bans that we have already put in place. So far, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom will not allow Huawei to be a part of developing their 5G networks, while other allies such as Bahrain, Canada, Germany, France, Poland will allow the telecom giant to participate but with some or many restrictions (ex. In France, Huawei will not “be allowed access to French users’ location data” should it be involved with the country’s 5G network). Allies are in a bind and their concern is understandable. In order to keep up with human development, they must utilize the newest innovations in ICTs to provide efficient governance and remain competitive in an ever changing market.

I have one main concern about the Huawei ban and the trade war in general. If we do prohibit the use of Chinese technology in the U.S., then China could retaliate with clamping down on our access to rare earth elements (REE). REEs are vital in the manufacturing of modern technology, including phones, laptops, monitors, vehicles and defense applications such as radar and guidance systems. As of 2011, China produces 97 percent of all REEs in the world. Should Beijing decide they do not want to export REEs to American companies, the consequences could be dire.

Ultimately, there is no easy answer to whether or not the U.S. should ban Huawei technology. Backdoors into any telecommunications technology are inevitable no matter where the product comes from  and the U.S. government often seeks to use the products of American tech companies such as Apple for national security purposes (that is why Apple has been dismissive of allowing the U.S. security apparatus to develop a backdoor into their products). Instead of implementing a wholesale ban on Huawei, the U.S. must continue working with partners in the tech industry  continuing researching and developing our own secure 5G network. Nevertheless, the U.S. and its partners in the international arena must continue to develop countermeasures to minimize any potential threat that any foreign government poses to their telecommunications infrastructure. Huawei might be a private company, but the spectre of the Chinese security apparatus still looms ahead.