There is an arms race going on: a race to build the next data infrastructure, the fifth-generation wireless network (5G), in the west. 5G is meant to be a revolution in how data is shared across multiple devices and at the core of what is called “The Internet of Things,” an integrated network of devices connected through previously unseen speeds. It isn’t only a new wireless network for connected devices such as phones and computers, it will change how we use several objects in our day to day lives such as autonomous cars, robots used in heavy industry, drones and more. Any significant change, however, is mostly long term. For the everyday consumer, this change may mean downloading movies within seconds or different ways to consume media, such as sports, news, or shopping. Yet, 5G will require new infrastructures by wireless providers, as well as new devices. The conflict lies around who is going to build this infrastructure. Huawei, a Chinese technology company, is right at the center of it all. This is where the issue lies.
Lines are already being drawn around this technology. Vice-President Mike Pence has already warned American allies not to use Chinese firms to build their 5G infrastructure, with fears that US information may be leaked with far more ease if Chinese firms have a monopoly on the technology and its equipment. Countries such as Poland, which are strongly pro-US, are already reconsidering letting Chinese firms such as Huawei build their new network. This puts pressure on the European Union, as a European standard is generally privileged and requires uniformity across member states in technological developments.
As it stands, Poland’s current 4G network was built by Chinese companies, a point of contention with Washington. In addition, the European Union and Canada are currently evaluating which companies should build their respective 5G networks. France and Germany have repeatedly cited concerns about Huawei’s protection of data and have expressed the pressing need to evaluate whether the company would supply the Chinese government with information or would have the possibility to do so. As a result, several French companies have declared they would go with a different supplier than Huawei for their 5G infrastructure.
Shots have already been fired between the US and China. The imprisonment of Huawei C.F.O Meng Wanzhou by Canadian authorities is akin to the first move in a conflict by proxy as it was under a United States extradition request. The arrest has largely been criticized as political, although Prime Minister Trudeau stated otherwise. However, a strong indication of political motive is that President Trump himself has stated that maybe the charges brought against Ms. Meng could be dropped if a positive trade deal was struck. It is unclear if he may be able to influence the situation in this way. This intervention by President Trump has surprised security officials, considering that giving away the next internet infrastructure of the US for a positive trade deal is largely seen as a losing strategy by security experts. Stated reasons for Ms. Meng’s arrests and the motive behind this situation is because of Huawei’s dealings with Iranian companies, which are said to be breaking US sanctions by several individuals, among them, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
Behind the arrest of Ms. Wanzhou is certainly the concern over the trade negotiations stated by President Trump. Ms. Wanzhou is essentially a hostage to these negotiations. What is surprising is the American support to the Canadian involvement, which has been lackluster, to say the least. However, Canada had some interest in complying with the US extradition request. As Canada is, and was at the time, in negotiations over the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. This trade deal has now mostly been agreed upon, with only some kinks left to be ironed out, but Canadian involvement with Huawei certainly helped with smoothing tense relations with their American neighbors.
Huawei has mostly responded calmly to the American allegations of espionage, putting forward the fact that there is no evidence of such actions for the moment. They repeated several times that there would be no “backdoors” or access to their equipment by the Chinese government. Whether that is true or not can be debated. Certainly, the US and Canada would require access to evaluate Huawei’s equipment before installations would begin. This is not to Huawei’s advantage nor to the Chinese’s government.
Another angle that has been suggested is to allow free competition for the contracts to build 5G infrastructure. This issue is also being considered, but technology companies like Huawei start with a competitive advantage. They have a large advantage in implementing that technology and conceptualizing the infrastructure for it, considering they’ve already done it in the past. It is worth mentioning that Huawei is in such hot water in part because of another Chinese company, Qualcomm, as backdoors were detected on several of its chips. Yet another company, ZTE was severely fined by the American government to the tune of one billion dollars for non-compliance with American requirements. Hence, the increased perceived risk from Huawei by North American officials.
Official word on both sides has thus far been deceptive and imprecise. Arrests were made in China, mostly perceived as political by Canadian media, certainly looking like retaliation to Ms. Meng’s arrest in escalating tensions. One thing is certain behind this story: 5G will come to American and European markets, yet who will build that infrastructure and what could be done with it are the real questions.
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