New Zealand and Canada face a dilemma as the US pushes them to ban Huawei from telecoms networks, national security experts from Five Eyes countries said in an online discussion held by Canadian research organization Conference of Defence Associations Institute on June 9. 

Smaller countries in the US-led intelligence alliance are trying to avoid being entrapped in the conflicts between the two superpowers while keeping their relations with the US, said Joe Burton, senior lecturer at the University of Waikato’s Institute of Security and Crime Science, during the online panel. Representatives of four out of the five countries participated in the panel, with a UK expert canceling.

The Trump administration has waged a years-long campaign against the Chinese hardware giant, asking allies to ban its telecoms equipment and attempting to cut off its access to key technology. Most recently, the White House moved to cut the Chinese telecommunications equipment and handset maker off from global chip manufacturing. 

The United States has long warned of national security risks associated with Huawei’s equipment. The Shenzhen-based telecoms giant could spy on other countries’ telecommunications at Beijing’s behest, Washington has argued.

Around the world, some US allies, like Japan, have responded with restrictions of varying degrees on Huawei equipment.

The UK has sided with the US and plans to phase out Huawei products in the next three years. Australia excluded Huawei equipment from its 5G networks in 2018.

But Five Eyes members New Zealand and Canada have yet to come up with comprehensive policies on Huawei.

‘The door has been left ajar’

New Zealand placed restrictions on Huawei equipment in its 5G rollout, but “the door has been left ajar for [the company’s] involvement in the future,” said Burton.

The Pacific country doesn’t have an official ban targeting Huawei equipment in its 5G network. However, in 2018, the country’s intelligence agency rejected telecoms company Spark New Zealand’s request to use 5G gear provided by Huawei, citing concerns about national security.

In November, Spark named again Huawei as one of its preferred 5G vendors and Wellington has yet to decide whether to approve the new plans.

As a small state with considerable dependence on Chinese goods and markets, New Zealand doesn’t have “the capacity necessary to absorb economic shocks like other countries do,” said Burton.

Burton said that New Zealand’s current policy on Huawei shows they don’t want to get involved, and even entrapped, in US-China conflicts. Burton used entrapment, a term describing countries dragged into wars they don’t want to fight, to refer to the scenario that New Zealand is avoiding.

“We are afraid of entrapment…I think there is a new form of technological entrapment which we should be aware of, and the tensions in the China-US relationship over technology and industrial policy have adverse effects on us which we are keen to avoid,” said Burton.

Canada balances security and diplomacy

Canada hasn’t made a decision on whether Huawei’s involvement should be allowed in its 5G networks, despite warnings from its own military against Huawei equipment, said Richard Fadden, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, during the online discussion.

The US-China ongoing diplomatic dispute over the arrest and possible extradition of Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou makes things even more complicated for Canada. Wanzhou was arrested by Canadian authorities in Vancouver in 2018 over alleged sanction violations, at Washington’s request. British Columbia courts have yet to decide whether she will be extradited to the US.

Meng’s arrest plunged Canada’s relations with China into their darkest period in decades. Within a month of Meng’s arrest, China detained, and then formally arrested, two Canadians and halted key agricultural imports from the country. Beijing has threatened further retaliation if Canada bans Huawei from its 5G networks.

But this tit-for-tat diplomacy might not do much to sway Canada. The amount of harm that China can do to Canada is “limited,” said Fadden.

“Our country would not be materially hurt in the medium to long term if we said no to Huawei,” said Fadden, who is also a former Canadian national security advisor. 

But Canada could also see reprisals coming from its neighbor and largest trading partner. The US is prepared to reassess its intelligence-sharing arrangement with Canada if Huawei is allowed to participate in Canada’s 5G rollout, the Canadian State Department said earlier this month.

However, the country has long insisted on an independent approach towards Huawei. The country’s industry minister Navdeep Bains told local media in March that Canada would not be “strong-armed into a decision” on the Chinese company’s access to its 5G networks.

“We will make sure that we proceed in a manner that’s in our national interest. We won’t get bullied by any other jurisdictions,” said Bains.

Five eyes, five views

The Huawei dilemma is not going away in the near future. Whatever the result of the US presidential election, the country’s policy towards Huawei will not change, according to Timothy Heath, senior international defense researcher at American policy think tank Rand Corporation.

During the online discussion, Heath said the US approach towards China and Huawei is “bipartisan.”

Even within the Five Eyes, security concerns seem to be universal. Patrick Walsh, associate professor of intelligence & security studies at Australia’s Charles Sturt University said the country has been lobbying Washington to ban Huawei equipment even before Trump placed a series of restrictions on the company.

“We’ve seen things like the intelligence law that have come up, which essentially states that even if you’re a private sector company, if the state calls you to help with an intelligence operation, you’re compelled to participate in that,” said Walsh, referring to China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law which requires organizations and citizens to “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.”

“Huawei is operating in a sector considered strategic by the state and it is clearly subject to direction by the Chinese state,” said Fadden.

A Huawei spokesperson refused to comment on the discussion but cited company founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei as saying the company is willing to sign non-backdoor agreements with carriers around the world to address concerns over its equipment’s potential security risks. 

The company has set up a series of cybersecurity centers around the world, including in the UK, Germany, and Belgium, the spokesperson said.

Wei Sheng

Wei Sheng is a Beijing-based reporter covering hardware, smartphone, and telecommunications, along with regulations and policies related to the China tech scene. Before joining TechNode, he wrote about...