The Tories last week announced the removal of Chinese technology firm Huawei from Britain’s new 5G network
This followed earlier decisions to limit Huawei involvement and exclude it from sensitive “core” parts of the developing network. All Huawei equipment is set to be removed by 2027.
Scientists have not found a security threat—a so-called “back door”—in Huawei products.
Meanwhile, hackers and data thieves operate without controlling the design and construction of hardware.
Yet, the Tories argue that the decision was taken on national security grounds.
The West, particularly the US, has long argued that Huawei is closely linked to the Chinese state, and that its technologies are used to promote Chinese state interests.
It is the world’s largest supplier of telecoms equipment, dwarfing rivals such as Samsung and the European firms Ericsson and Nokia. These firms are likely to be the chief beneficiaries of the British government’s decision.
Donald Trump’s government has contemplated strategic tie-ups to give them a boost.
Although 170 countries use Huawei equipment, US allies such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan have excluded the firm from their 5G systems.
Under US pressure, Canada arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer, and company founder’s daughter, Meng Wanzhou in December 2018. She was accused of fraud and breach of sanctions against Iran.
There has been a tightening of US restrictions on Huawei under Trump.
Two years ago the sale of US microchips to Huawei was restricted.
When US firms evaded this by selling chips made elsewhere the restrictions were extended to cover any chips made using US technology.
Since all the world’s major chipmakers use some US machine tools, Huawei was effectively forced out of lucrative 5G markets.
Britain’s decision, like those of other US allies, was taken after the US threatened to exclude it from intelligence sharing.
The deadline of 2027 allows time for telecoms firms to extricate Huawei from their systems.
For instance, telecom firm BT agreed to remove Huawei gear from its networks in December 2018, but in April 2020 delayed this in the absence of alternative suppliers.
But while technical and logistical concerns underpin the detail of these decisions they are fundamentally shaped by the recent increase in tensions between the West and China.
The US blames China for this.
The pressures on Western firms, the scale of China’s global industrial espionage, the Hong Kong crackdown, border clashes with India, and China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea are cited as evidence.
But the US is at the centre of the worlds most sophisticated and extensive surveillance and communications networks, and remains the world’s most powerful military and economic power.
Blaming China provides an excuse for the US to attempt to re-assert its global role and corral the rest of the West behind it in a system of global rivalry.
Although it is currently similar to superfast 4G there is no consensus that 5G holds the future for telecoms.
The industrial use of 5G—connecting systems of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines technology— remains largely untested.
But the US fears that 5G could eventually underpin a global system of smart integration, which links industrial processes as well as consumer goods.
It fears that Huawei could jam Western telecoms—with major military consequences—or use stolen Western data for competitive advantage.
The solution is not more tension but an end to economic competition and imperialist rivalry.
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Historian John Newsinger writes