By now, the Trudeau government’s indecision over whether to allow China’s Huawei Technologies to provide equipment for Canada’s new 5G wireless network has become something of a joke. It is two years since the government took up the question, more than a year since it promised a decision was imminent. Still, it dithers.
What could possibly be taking this long? The case has been made over and over again by security experts in Canada and abroad that Huawei’s participation in such sensitive infrastructure – giving it access not only to the country’s mobile telephone and data spine, but everything that connects to it – would pose a serious threat to national security.
Meantime, it is not as if events have been moving in Huawei’s favour. With Britain’s decision earlier this week to ban Huawei from its network – a reversal of an earlier ruling that would have allowed its gear in “non-core” areas – Canada is now the only member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance that has imposed no limits on Huawei’s involvement.
This, even after last month’s announcement by Bell and Telus, two of the three main players in the Canadian wireless industry, that they would purchase equipment from other suppliers (joining Rogers, which had already announced the same). No one, in short, is asking the government to include Huawei as a potential supplier, other than Huawei itself. Lots of people, including our closest allies, are asking Ottawa, quite urgently, not to.
What, then, is the holdup? The case against Huawei’s involvement is clear. Just as 5G is no ordinary network, so Huawei is no ordinary company. Rather, experts regard it as an instrument of Chinese state strategy, if not an arm of the state itself, without whose extensive sponsorship and support it could not have grown to become the world’s largest telecom equipment maker.
Like all Chinese companies, moreover, Huawei is obliged by Chinese security law to “support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work.” Access to Western telecom networks of this kind would offer unparalleled opportunities not only to engage in surveillance and espionage, but to sabotage, disrupt or even take control of those networks. Given China’s record of hacking, spying and intimidation in other countries, this is hardly far-fetched.
We should be equally concerned not to be out of step with our allies. Not only would it make them less inclined to share intelligence with us, but it would weaken and divide the alliance at a crucial moment, in the face of an increasingly belligerent Chinese dictatorship. And it isn’t only the Five Eyes (the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are the other members) – everyone is alarmed by China these days and looking for ways to contain it. Neither is 5G some private obsession of President Donald Trump’s. It was in fact Australia that first raised the alarm over the potential security threat.
(And it is strictly a security threat. Were it merely a question of Huawei being subsidized by the Chinese government – if the company were an agent only of Chinese economic policy, rather than intelligence – there would be far less reason to exclude it, whatever fainting spells it might set off among economic nationalists. The China National Offshore Oil Corp.’s purchase of Nexen in 2012 was supposed to be a great loss to Canada’s precious bodily fluids, but in hindsight, we can see the Chinese got taken to the cleaners: The company is today worth a fraction of what they paid for it.)
Finally, there is the simple matter that China is a hostile power, whose posture toward us has been notably aggressive of late, not only with regard to the two Michaels – Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, whom China has held without trial since December, 2018 – but on a range of other fronts, all designed to force Canada to release Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou rather than extradite her to the United States to face charges of bank fraud.
Indeed, if proof were needed of how intimately connected Huawei is with the innermost circles of the regime, you have only to look at the quite hysterical lengths to which it has been prepared to go to spare Ms. Meng from trial. Again, why would we even consider rewarding that behaviour, either by releasing Ms. Meng or by giving Huawei the business-as-usual treatment?
It’s understandable that the government would be concerned for the fate of the Canadian hostages and unwilling to do anything that might annoy their captors. Witness, in the same vein, our comparative silence on China’s suppression of Hong Kong, on the mistreatment of its Uyghur ethnic and religious minority, on its threats to Taiwan and beyond. But 18 months of such temporizing has not brought the two Michaels any closer to freedom.
Arguably, it has made matters worse. There’s a reason China singled out Canada, rather than the United States, to vent its displeasure over Ms. Meng. It is because we were perceived as weak – because everything this government had done to that point had signalled weakness, or at best an excessive readiness to play by Chinese rules, whether out of covetousness (1.5 billion consumers!), or geopolitical gamesmanship, or simple admiration of its “basic dictatorship.”
Reversing that perception will take time – more time, perhaps, than the two Michaels have. But we cannot buy their freedom at the cost of our national security, or our alliances, or basic principles of law. This isn’t to say that no negotiation is possible, on any point. But whatever we might offer for their release, it should not be sufficient to reward China for its cruelty, net of the costs it has sustained in international goodwill and the like.
What is needed, then, is to lower their expectations, sharply, and telling Huawei to take a hike would be a good place to start.
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