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Adrian Weckler: 'Huawei 1, Atlanticist hawks 0'

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Britain looks to have sided with China over the US after supporting Huawei. Photo: Reuters

Britain looks to have sided with China over the US after supporting Huawei. Photo: Reuters

REUTERS

Britain looks to have sided with China over the US after supporting Huawei. Photo: Reuters

Last week, Huawei beat back US attempts to have it banned in Europe. The UK effectively sided with the Chinese telecoms equipment maker over the Americans. It was a tough blow for the US administration, especially coming from an increasingly isolated nation that needs its allies.

But economics and the UK's own security briefings trumped Donald Trump. Right-wing Atlanticist pundits were enraged.

"By allowing Huawei into their 5G network, Boris Johnson has chosen the surveillance state over the special relationship," tweeted Liz Cheney, a Republican congresswoman.

"[It's tragic] to see our closest ally, a nation Ronald Reagan once called 'incandescent with courage', turn away from our alliance and the cause of freedom."

In political terms, their anger is predictable. Johnson seemed to side with every other pinko, cheese-eating EU country in allowing the Chinese into Britain's networks.

Sure, there were some crumbs for the Americans. London will place limits on 'high-risk' telecoms equipment vendors (a list almost certain to include Huawei).

But the principle was ceded: operators can use Huawei kit in building out their 5G mobile networks.

A few days later, the European Commission published its own security 'toolkit' guidelines that allow for Huawei equipment to be used.

So is that it? Has Huawei won its war with western hawks?

More importantly, have we come to any clearer understanding on the substantive issue - whether Huawei telecoms equipment is a security threat? Not fully, on either count.

Even though it has won this round of skirmishes in Europe, Huawei still has the uncertainty over trading with US companies hanging over it.

Crucially, that means Google, whose Android platform underpins its 55 million annual smartphone sales.

Huawei's key problem is this: if you, a western phone consumer, thought there was a chance you may not get access to Gmail, YouTube or Maps in a few months, would you still buy a new Huawei phone?

Huawei's response to this looks increasingly radical. The company is starting to act like it's planning for a future without Google at all. Last week, Huawei's Austrian country manager, Fred Wangfei, told the press that the company looked likely to choose a future product roadmap without Google, even if the current trade ban was lifted.

A much more diluted version of this message was delivered at a Dublin Huawei event last week.

There, mobile operators were briefed that Huawei will be putting a lot more emphasis on its own app ecosystem from now on and won't be selling itself as much as an Android device, regardless of whatever else happens.

In other words, Huawei isn't risking its future on US administrative bans.

The security issue is more complex. The answer to the question 'is Huawei networking equipment a threat?' varies depending on the person you ask, the industry they're in, and the potential loss or benefit they'll suffer based on the outcome.

Telecoms operators, for example, are generally dismissive of security concerns.

"I find it hard to accept that it's not to do with the China-US trade issue," Carolan Lennon, Eir chief executive, told me last week. "Our guys say their kit is fantastic. Most of the telcos in Europe are using them."

And what of the argument that networks such as hers that use Huawei equipment are less secure? "I disagree with that. It's very hard to take the smoke away from everything that's going on around this.

"But security is really important to us. We've just recently won the garda mobile business tender.

"So it's not stopping us winning business. Do American multinationals mention it? Yes. But has it stopped us winning business? No, it hasn't."

Lennon's view is a very commonly articulated one in the telecoms industry. But there's more to it than just the merits of their claims on security.

Many operators have a massive pre-existing investment in Huawei equipment. If a European government was to tell them to strip it out, it would cost the operators (and then possibly consumers) billions and give their rivals a huge head-start in 5G.

It may also have a substantial knock-on effect in other industrial development that's waiting for 5G to take off.

This was almost certainly a pivotal factor in the UK's decision to allow operators to retain their Huawei kit.

Still, that's their problem. Isn't the main issue here security? Does the UK decision settle this question?

Not entirely, although it is a crucial intervention on the matter. Other than having Trump as their lead prosecutor, the biggest difficulty the anti-Huawei camp has is the lack of clear proof - of compromised networks, security breaches or unsavoury collusion with Chinese authorities.

To those who argue against Huawei, this is a moot point; as the crown jewel in China's export technology industry, Huawei must be assumed to be bound to Beijing interference at some point in future. Therefore, they argue, it is naive to assume that just because there is no smoking gun now, it is perfectly safe to regard the company as just another equipment vendor.

Some months back, I sat down with Jeanette Manfra, assistant director for cybersecurity at the US Homeland Security agency. I asked her pointedly about Huawei: is it genuinely a threat to security? To what extent? And where is the proof?

She told me that the US believes it is, even though it cannot yet publicly point to instances. Manfra was nuanced, emphasising that Huawei was only one of her concerns; that she had a responsibility to be vigilant in assessing the entire supply chain to core infrastructure. But for now, it's advantage Huawei.

Sunday Indo Business