Wesley Wark is a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and an expert on intelligence and national security issues.
U.S. President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order effectively banning the Chinese global telecommunications giant Huawei from any role in the development and deployment of next-generation 5G communications networks in the United States.
There will be many voices in this country calling for us to follow suit. With a Canadian public alarmed by China’s actions, including the detention of Canadian citizens, the Liberals will be sorely tempted to take the seemingly safe and easy road, and jump on the U.S. ban bandwagon – especially during a turbulent election year. The Conservatives have already promised to do so.
We should not. Any decision on the Huawei case should require a careful weighing of security risks and economic benefits, a calculus that we will need to repeat many times over.
The security risks posed by the company have been widely, if superficially, canvassed. The main argument put forth is that Huawei could be used as an espionage and digital interference proxy by the Chinese government. This is a serious but hypothetical and future-oriented concern. It assumes China would use Huawei as a proxy (to the vast detriment of the company’s commercial fortunes in the West) despite having many other weapons at its disposal. This argument is built around an unstated scenario involving serious conflict between China and the West. Hopefully, we are not assuming the inevitability of such a scenario, and hopefully, alongside like-minded allies, Canada will work to prevent it.
In the world of telecommunications, as with all other dimensions of national security, there is no such thing as 100-per-cent security. No matter what the company’s provenance, there will be engineering, supply-chain and service-provider vulnerabilities that both state and non-state actors will seek to exploit.
What we can do about telecommunications security is to ring-fence government networks (where Huawei should not be allowed to operate – something the company is apparently fine with), set high security standards for all network operators, monitor performance and test telecommunications providers and operators against the security standards, and issue public reports (as the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre does in Britain) about the results of such testing. Such a system will not only catch things after the fact, it will also be designed to prevent issues from happening in the first place.
Some will argue that even the slightest risk posed by Huawei in our 5G networks is not worth it. But we need to consider the economic effects.
The question for Huawei, as for every other telecommunications company of concern, has to be around its contribution to the Canadian economy, its prosperity and its innovation. Huawei is a leading global company in terms of its research and development expenditure. Its R&D footprint in Canada is relatively small, but may grow if given the opportunity. Huawei’s existing research partnerships with Canadian universities have been criticized in some quarters as a disguised form of intellectual-property theft, but we don’t have the public balance sheet and the charges seem overwrought.
Huawei’s 5G advancements have been deeply influenced by research and development in Canada. Shutting them out would mean losing a competitive and innovative edge, an early and advantageous rollout of 5G and all the R&D money that Huawei spends in Canadian universities, which are often short on funds for such work. Two of Canada’s big three telecommunications operators, BCE and Telus, have used Huawei gear in their networks and want to continue to rely on Huawei’s products as they deploy their 5G networks. If they are prevented from doing so, it will end up costing the Canadian consumer.
What about the proverbial elephant in the room? Can Canada afford to allow Huawei to operate here after the United States has effectively banned the company? Signs are that the U.S. action will not find a universal, global following. Britain, Germany, other EU countries and China’s neighbour, South Korea, all look set to allow some role for Huawei in their public 5G systems. If Canada does not follow its southern neighbour, it will, at least, not be alone. Nor, it seems, will there be a uniform approach among our Five Eyes intelligence partners.
As a long-standing security partner with the United States, and with an economy dominated by the U.S. market, Canada will have to find a way to work with them on their Huawei approach. But it should be our approach, rooted in our own calculations of economic benefit and security-risk mitigation. We cannot have a sensible policy that is based on worst-case national-security calculations, no-case economic calculations and blind following of the United States. Canada, take a deep breath on Huawei.