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Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance, seen here on Dec. 3, 2019, says he is concerned about anything that would give China easier access to the Canadian military's computer networks.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance says he is worried about anything that would give China easier access to the Canadian military’s computer networks, but says there are ways to manage any security risks from Huawei’s participation in building Canada’s new 5G networks.

Vance’s comments in an interview with The Canadian Press come amid pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to bar the Chinese telecom giant from having any role in Canada’s fifth-generation wireless networks due to security concerns.

The U.S. believes letting Huawei sell equipment to the companies building Canada’s upgraded data networks will make them more vulnerable to Chinese spying, and the U.S. has warned it might hold back secret intelligence if Canada does not ban the company. Huawei has denied being a national-security threat.

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Canada is the only member of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network that has not made a decision on Huawei. Australia and New Zealand have followed the U.S. in banning the company while Britain has limited its involvement.

The Five Eyes network is “monumentally important” to Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces, Vance said, adding the government takes seriously U.S. warnings about Huawei and the potential impact on the intelligence-sharing relationship.

“I’ve made it clear that I have concerns about China and China’s cyber efforts,” he added, “and clearly if there was to be an avenue, an easier avenue, for China to get into our digital networks then I would be concerned about that.”

During a major defence conference last week, the chief of the defence staff specifically singled out China for its “malign activities in cyberspace,” an assessment echoed by several other Canadian and allied military officers.

Yet Vance also expressed confidence in the government’s ability to “mitigate” such a threat, and would not say whether he had recommended Huawei be banned from Canada’s 5G networks.

“There are ways to mitigate it,” he said. “So it is very much an active file discussion at the highest levels of government and therefore entirely inappropriate to comment on the advice I have given. But it is of concern.”

The development of 5G, or fifth-generation, networks will give people speedier connections and provide vast data capacity to meet the ceaseless demand for emerging applications, like virtual reality and autonomous driving, as more and more things link to the internet.

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In Canada, Huawei Technologies, Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia are among the leading candidates to help telecommunication firms such as BCE and Telus build their 5G networks.

A top Trump administration adviser on telecommunications met Monday with officials in Ottawa, the latest in a growing list of U.S. government envoys to visit Canada as the Liberal government continues working on what to do about Huawei.

Robert Blair “discussed the importance of a secure and reliable next-generation telecommunications infrastructure that will support and sustain economic prosperity, data privacy, interoperable energy infrastructure and the defence partnership,” the U.S. Embassy later said in a statement.

In January, Britain granted Huawei partial access to its next-generation 5G network, but it still considers the Chinese telecom company a security risk that requires special attention.

British officials have said there are not enough companies to serve the country’s 5G needs, so the government opted to limit Huawei’s participation to 35 per cent of its less sensitive parts.

The Trudeau government has said it is studying the British decision as part of a broader review that includes a strategic look at how 5G technology can foster economic growth, but has given no indication about whether its own long-awaited decision is coming any time soon.

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Given the scope of the review, several agencies – Public Safety Canada, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Communications Security Establishment, Global Affairs and Innovation, Science and Economic Development – have been taking part.

Pointing to the British decision, Vance said of the federal government: “Whatever decision they take, they’ll also have to do the mitigation necessary to ensure that the Five Eyes architecture is not compromised.”

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