Spy chiefs from the Five Eyes intelligence network briefed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on two occasions this year about the national-security risk from Chinese high-tech giant Huawei − meetings that took place months before Canada’s arrest of a top Huawei executive severely strained relations with Beijing.
Sources say Mr. Trudeau met the spy directors at a Five Eyes meeting in mid-July in Nova Scotia and at secret intelligence talks on the sidelines of the Commonwealth summit in London in April, where Huawei and its ties to the Chinese government dominated discussion.
The Five Eyes network is made up of Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, which co-operate to combat espionage, terrorism and global crime.
During the discussions in Halifax and London, sources said the spy chiefs stressed that their countries cannot become dependent upon Huawei’s 5G technology because they view the Shenzen-based company as beholden to the Chinese state. Under Chinese law, the country’s companies must work with China’s intelligence agencies if requested.
Senior federal officials, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, would not discuss the Five Eyes deliberations on Huawei.
“CSIS will not comment on the nature or substance of meetings held with its Five Eyes partners. Canada’s relationship with these partners remains strong and is focused on keeping Canada safe from a variety of threats,” CSIS chief information officer Tahera Mufti said in a statement.
Mr. Trudeau is facing a difficult decision on whether to join the majority of his Five Eyes allies and bar Huawei equipment from being used in next-generation 5G mobile networks.
China is already upset with Canada’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at the request of U.S. law-enforcement officials. Beijing has detained two Canadians – entrepreneur Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig − in what appears to be tit-for-tat reprisals.
China maintains that the arrest of Ms. Meng is a premeditated attempt by Canada and the United States to undermine Huawei, whose founder is Ms. Meng’s father.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said Beijing may retaliate against Canada if Ottawa bars Huawei from the country’s 5G networks.
The United States was the first Five Eyes country to block Huawei but the Chinese leadership is wary of reprisals against American interests, he said.
“China has a tendency to go after the junior partner instead of attacking the big guy who is the source of the problem,” he said. It’s not always easy to measure reprisals because it would entail missed opportunities and failed ventures that may not always be explicitly earmarked by China as retaliation.
Mr. Trudeau said his cabinet will accept the recommendations of national-security officials who are currently conducting a cybersecurity review of of Huawei. A decision is expected early in the New Year.
“The determination of the threat [Huawei] represents is something we entrust to our professionals in our intelligence and security agencies and that is very much who we work with to determine how best to protect Canadians,” Mr. Trudeau told CTV’s Question Period on Sunday. "We will make those decisions based on the recommendations of our security agencies, not based on politics.”
Huawei has denied that it acts for the Chinese state, and its Canadian vice-president, Scott Bradley, said the company has been working “openly and transparently” with the Canadian government and domestic telecoms for a decade to satisfy national-security concerns. He has noted that Huawei does not bid on Canadian government telecommunications contracts.
The Australia-based Sydney Morning Herald reported Friday that the Halifax meeting led to a Five Eyes decision to launch an unprecedented campaign to block Huawei from supplying equipment for next-generation 5G wireless technology.
The campaign has been led by U.S. national-security officials who have briefed allies and telecom executives, warning that Huawei is too closely connected to the Chinese state and that the company’s network equipment may contain back doors that could open the countries up to cyberespionage.
The global lobbying effort appears to be paying off among many of Canada’s allies.
In August, Australia announced that it would join the U.S. and bar Huawei equipment from their nascent 5G network and, in late November, New Zealand blocked the first request from one of its wireless carriers to install the Chinese firm’s equipment on a coming 5G network.
On Wednesday, Japan’s three major telecom giants decided to exclude Huawei’s gear in their 5G networks while the country plans to ban the Chinese conglomerate from bidding on government contracts.
France’s wireless carrier Orange announced on Friday that it would not hire the Chinese telecom giant to build its 5G network and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom – Europe’s largest telecommunication company – said it is reviewing its relationship with Huawei.
Orange CEO Stéphane Richard told reporters in Paris that the security concerns about Huawei are legitimate.
“I absolutely understand that all our countries and the French authorities are preoccupied [with Huawei]. We are too," he said. Deutsche told Reuters in a statement: “Deutsche Telekom takes the global discussion about the security network equipment from Chinese vendors very seriously.”
A week ago, one of Britain’s major telecoms, BT Group, said it was tearing out Huawei equipment from its network and would not buy the company’s 5G gear – a move that came after Alex Younger, the head of Britain’s secret service, known as MI6, questioned whether his country should be in business with Huawei.
South Korea’s largest telecom, SK Telecom, has also announced that it will not allow Huawei to be a preferred bidder for 5G technology.
The prospect of Canada barring Huawei from this country’s 5G mobile network threatens to disrupt purchasing plans for Canadian wireless carriers.
The Globe and Mail reported last week, citing industry sources, that it would cost Bell and Telus more than $1-billion to rip out and replace Huawei equipment. Rogers Communications is partnering with Huawei’s Swedish rival, Ericsson, on 5G technology.
Federal lobbying-registry records show that lobbyists for Bell have held more than 35 meetings with Canadian government officials, including Mr. Trudeau, in the last half of 2018. The registry also indicates that over the same period, Telus lobbyists met more than 25 times with Canadian officials, including in the Prime Minister’s Office and in the departments of Innovation and Finance.
Spokespeople for Bell and Telus did not immediately return requests for comment on whether these meetings were set up to discuss the future of Huawei equipment. As major carriers, both companies have a multitude of reasons to talk to Ottawa.