The Democratic vice-chair of the U.S. Senate intelligence committee is urging Canada to set aside any ill feelings toward President Donald Trump and join the United States in blacklisting China’s Huawei Technologies from next-generation wireless networks.
Senator Mark Warner told The Globe and Mail in an exclusive interview that he’s concerned Western governments, alienated by some of the Trump administration’s foreign-policy moves – including declaring Canadian and European steel imports a threat to national security – are not paying sufficient heed to Washington’s warnings on Huawei.
Even though the Trump administration has damaged relations with foreign allies through “America-only-centric” actions, the senior Democrat said there is a bipartisan consensus in the United States −one shared by many allies − that Huawei is an “indirect agent” of Beijing’s ruling Communist Party and that countries cannot safeguard its new 5G technology to prevent spying or backdoor malware.
“It is much harder to make this case to our Canadian friends after the ridiculousness of the 232 designation earlier on steel and aluminum," Mr. Warner acknowledged in a telephone interview Monday, referring to Mr. Trump’s decision to slap tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum imports in June, 2018.
At that time, the President invoked an obscure provision of U.S. trade law, called Section 232, that allows tariffs to be imposed for “national-security” purposes. It was only last week that Washington lifted the tariffs after a costly tit-for-tat trade war.
"The hurt, angst and rightful indignation that that designation created was a real, real problem,” Mr. Warner said. “But it still begs the question, I would argue, what is in Canada’s best interest. … Does the Canadian government, the Canadian public, want to have a system where their communications could be vulnerable on a regular basis to a foreign power?”
Huawei − which has grown quickly to become the world’s largest telecommunications-equipment manufacturer − is at the heart of the battle between Washington and Beijing over what the Trump administration says is an effort by China to use its tech companies to expand its geopolitical goals.
Mr. Warner, a former telecommunications executive, said Washington’s anti-Huawei drive is not a Buy American campaign, noting that major non-Chinese leaders in wireless networking gear are European – including Ericsson and Nokia – or Korean, with Samsung. “There’s not even an American incumbent,” he said.
He said it is in Canada’s national-security interest to prohibit domestic wireless companies from installing Huawei’s 5G technology in its next-generation networks just as the United States, Australia and New Zealand have done.
The Trump administration last week added Huawei to a trade blacklist, saying it "is engaged in activities that are contrary to American national-security or foreign-policy interest,” and barring U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei without special government approval.
Canada and Britain, which are members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance along with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, have not taken any action yet against Huawei, but are conducting cybersecurity reviews of Huawei’s 5G equipment.
BCE and Telus are major users of Huawei 3G and 4G equipment and have lobbied the Trudeau government to allow it to buy the Chinese tech firm’s 5G technology. Rogers, the country’s second-largest telecom, uses 5G from Sweden’s Ericsson.
Mr. Warner said Huawei equipment is attractive to Western telecom companies because it sells at a 30-per-cent to 40-per-cent discount, but he argued that it is fallacious for security experts to assure people that Chinese gear can be made safe.
“The idea you can make this equipment secure is fundamentally flawed,” he said.
Mr. Warner said the ongoing maintenance of Huawei equipment – likely conducted by Huawei personnel – would give the company frequent access to Western wireless networks.
Even if Canadians take over the upgrade work, Mr. Warner warns, there is still the risk of espionage through the repeated software updates that will be transmitted from Huawei to its equipment all over the world.
“The idea that at any point in time, an upgrade could include a backdoor, malware … means there is not a way to get to the level of security that has traditionally existed amongst Five Eyes partners,” he said. The United States has warned that it would deny classified intelligence to allies who allow Huawei 5G.
Moreover, Mr. Warner said 5G networks built with Huawei gear would allow the routing of communications through China.
“If you are making a call from Ottawa to Los Angeles with a Huawei network, that call because of the nature of the cloud, geographically could be relayed through a switch that might be based in China,” he said. “And once it touches China, the Communist Party can actually demand Huawei scrape the information.”
Mr. Warner said 5G technology is different in that risky vendors such as Huawei can’t be put behind a firewall.
“In the old network configuration, you had your cellphone towers that would connect you to the centralized switch and the brains were in the switch, so you could guard the system,” Mr. Warner said. “In a distributed network, where there is no equivalent of a central switch … my understanding is you have got so many more vulnerability points.”
Mr. Warner discounted assertions from Huawei’s top executives that the company would be prepared to sign non-spying pacts with countries that allow their telecoms to use its 5G gear.
He noted that the ruling Communist Party passed sweeping laws forcing its companies and citizens to collaborate on espionage.
“Do you think, when push comes to shove, that an agreement signed with a foreign government, with the Canadian government, or with the British government or a local cell provider in North Dakota is going to overcome the dictates and rules of the Communist Party in Beijing?” he said. "Who do you think, at the end of the day, the Chinese company is going to answer more to?”
Two laws passed under Chinese President Xi Jinping in recent years would oblige Huawei and its officers to assist Beijing with spying: the 2017 national-intelligence law and the 2014 counterespionage law. Article 7 of the national-intelligence law says: “Any organization or citizen shall support, assist and co-operate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law.” Companies and citizens have no choice. The counterespionage law says: “When the state security organ investigates and understands the situation of espionage and collects relevant evidence, the relevant organizations and individuals shall provide it truthfully and may not refuse.”
Huawei’s problems are being compounded in light of U.S. trade action against it. Google announced Monday that it would comply with the U.S. order to stop supplying Huawei, meaning it would no longer be able to offer its popular Android apps to buyers of new Huawei phones. The suspension could hobble Huawei’s smartphone business outside China.
Last month, the Times of London reported that the CIA has told spy chiefs Huawei takes money from Beijing’s state-security apparatus. The funding allegation is the most serious assertion linking the world’s largest telecom-equipment manufacturer to the Chinese state, the Times reported.
The Democratic senator compares China’s ascension in areas such as 5G to the Sputnik crisis in the late 1950s, after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, named Sputnik, into space. It spurred anxiety among Western countries about a technology gap that had opened up with the Soviets. The Americans responded by pouring more resources into research and development and national security.
“I do think this is the 2019 version of a Sputnik event,” Mr. Warner said.
On Tuesday, Ren Zhengfei, the 74-year-old People’s Liberation Army engineer who founded Huawei, shrugged off U.S. efforts to block its 5G technology from being used around the world.
“I’ve sacrificed myself and family for the sake of our goal to stand on top of the world,” Mr. Ren told a group of Chinese journalists, according to a transcript published by state-run China Central. “To achieve this goal, a conflict with the U.S. is inevitable."
Mr. Ren’s daughter, Meng Wanzhou, is the chief financial officer of Huawei who was arrested in Canada in late December and is fighting extradition to the U.S. on charges related to allegedly breaching American sanctions against trading with Iran. China subsequently jailed two Canadians on allegations of stealing state secrets and barred billions of dollars of canola exports and other agricultural products.
Two former directors of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service − Richard Fadden and Ward Elcock − support a Huawei ban, but say Canada should not be rushed into a decision until tensions between Ottawa and Beijing ease over the Meng detention.
With reports from Reuters