The Politics of Huawei: What’s the Threat?

The rapid and exponential growth of China’s most successful telecommunications business closely matches the rise of its mother country. One of the biggest suppliers of high-tech kit used to build mobile-phone networks around the world, Huawei, is also spearheading “fifth-generation” or 5G technology. While the company’s success has been steady, the West’s attitude towards the telecoms business has been quite the opposite: from wariness to outright hostility (Huawei Is At the Centre of Political Controversy, 2020). Huawei’s endeavours have been met with difficulty to say the least.

Indeed, amidst accusations that Huawei could open the door to snooping and sabotage (America’s War on Huawei Nears Its Endgame, 2020) by the Chinese government, the American government announced that it would be targeting the company and all of its supply chains, campaigning against Huawei on a global scale. Put in place in May, sanctions directly target China’s use of semi-conductor chips manufactured using US technology, dealing a low blow to the company that will scramble to make its own. As a result, the UK will struggle to regulate the new technology, and therefore be disinclined to grant it the same security ratings as US-manufactured chips.

More significantly, the sanctions come at a challenging time and climate for Huawei, with a backdrop of Chinese action in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, calls for a ban on TikTok, as well as a global pandemic. Hence there are a number of factors that make the UK’s decision to exclude the Chinese company from the 5G network seem all the more inevitable (BBC News – Newscast, Go Huawei!, 2020). Having readily agreed to Huawei’s investment and consequently considerable involvement in the 5G infrastructure project, the British government has now backtracked and rescinded its agreement.

Despite posing a direct threat to the development of the 5G network and as a result, the affordability of the service, this decision has provided the British government with an opportunity to realign its political stance towards China to match that of the US. Huawei’s exclusion does appear to be a better response to the Chinese government’s new security laws in Hong Kong and the disapproval of many members of the Conservative Party. As such, by 2027 (Satariano, Castle, and Sanger, 2020.), Huawei products will be completely phased out of the UK, and this irrespective of the outcome of US presidential elections this coming November, and Germany’s decision (or not) to follow suit.

While the notion that Huawei poses a security threat is readily debated, the importance of the politics that surround it must not be understated. Huawei represents an utter conflict of interest between a desire for the West to capitalise on technological advancement, and the desire to uphold its democratic values.

As perfectly summarised by Robert Hannigan: “at the heart of this is a dilemma which the West has not faced before: how to cope with a technology superpower whose values are fundamentally opposed to our own” (Hannigan, 2020).

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