Democrats and Republicans rarely agree on anything, but this week, the parties united to condemn one common enemy: China.
The views of President Trump and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle aligned when they determined that allowing the Chinese company Huawei to build a global 5G network constitutes a security threat to the U.S.
That might not be the whole story, though: Dashing Huawei’s 5G ambitions would give the U.S. an economic advantage, and allies don’t agree with the threat level of a potential Huawei-run 5G network. However, experts say that fear about the control the Chinese government might exercise over a Huawei 5G network is genuine, and warranted.
On Wednesday, President Trump issued an Executive Order in which he declared a national emergency to safeguard U.S. information and technology networks from “foreign adversaries.”
Trump did not specifically name China in his order. But his actual nonstop tweets about China show that his order is basically a subtweet of the country and Huawei; where the order gives his agencies the broad authority to cancel transactions with and write policies against “persons owned by, controlled by, or subject to the jurisdiction or direction of a foreign adversary,” everyone knew who it was really talking about.
The U.S. Department of Commerce compounded that not-so-oblique reference when it placed Huawei on its “Entity List” shortly after the announcement, meaning that any U.S. company needs government approval to do business with Huawei.
I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible. It is far more powerful, faster, and smarter than the current standard. American companies must step up their efforts, or get left behind. There is no reason that we should be lagging behind on………
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2019
….something that is so obviously the future. I want the United States to win through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies. We must always be the leader in everything we do, especially when it comes to the very exciting world of technology!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2019
Just one day earlier, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to gain understanding about the risks that allowing Huawei to build 5G infrastructure posed to U.S. security. The general idea is that, because Huawei is a Chinese company, it is compelled to follow the orders of the authoritarian Chinese government, which could include espionage or even cyber warfare.
As Democratic senators like Dianne Feinstein solemnly endorsed this alleged threat alongside her Republican colleagues, Chairman Lindsey Graham blurted out, “I haven’t seen bipartisanship like this in a long time.”
Apparently, if there’s one thing that can unite the U.S. government, it’s alarm about China.
Huawei & ZTE pose a clear & alarming threat to our national security & the development of 5G, & should be banned. We now have to draw a line: foreign adversaries must be blocked from any involvement with our critical infrastructure & communications networks.
— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) May 16, 2019
The experts brought before Congress strongly argued that if Huawei was allowed to build 5G infrastructure, it would afford the Chinese government a backdoor into U.S. communications, and everything else that will be run on the 5G network, such as Internet of Things objects like autonomous vehicles.
“With all the critical services relying on 5G networks, the stakes for safeguarding them could not be higher,” Christopher Krebs, director of cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said while giving testimony. “This moves from a data confidentiality issue to a life safety issue.”
With all the head-nodding going on in the halls of Congress, and a full blown national emergency order coming from the White House, it would seem that the danger posed by a Chinese company building 5G infrastructure is clear cut. But that’s actually not the case around the world.
“There is significant bipartisan alarm,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said. “Why do our partners around the world seem less alarmed than we are?”
The UK has already contracted with Huawei to build some communications infrastructure, and the E.U. has not ruled it out. Other countries in Africa and the Middle East also have talks in the works for Huawei to build out 5G.
Hey DC Twitter friends, I agree that Huawei is a major concern, but let’s talk less about them and more about what the U.S. can and should be doing to increase our own competitiveness in 5G, especially increasing support for research and development pic.twitter.com/26rgRrncqN
— Elsa B. Kania (@EBKania) May 16, 2019
These countries see Huawei as a leader in 5G tech, and think the economic and technological advantages that contracting with Huawei provides outweighs potential risks.
“We are having a significant disagreement with some of our allies,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) pointed out.
So, what gives? How do Senate Democrats and President Trump manage to see eye to eye on this issue, while some of our closest allies deliver a proverbial shrug to concerns that the Chinese government could use 5G infrastructure to watch, control, manipulate, and wage war against us all?
“The U.S. government has not, at least publicly, pointed to a smoking gun,” Peter Harrell, an adjunct senior fellow in the energy economics and security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), told Mashable. “The technology has vulnerabilities, and Huawei is obliged to cooperate with the Chinese government. So there is strong circumstantial evidence of this, but no smoking gun.”
Harrell also explained that foreign countries have a strong financial interest in building out 5G, and building it fast — and, right now, that means working with Huawei. Huawei is offering governments existing technology at what many authorities consider good prices. So theoretical security concerns aren’t weighing as strongly in their minds.
“It’s not just a cost issue, it’s a pace of deployment issue,” Harrell said.
In the U.S., the big four telecoms companies have agreed to not buy 5G infrastructure from Huawei; they will be working with companies like Samsung and Nokia instead. The experts argued that these arrangements will make the U.S. a leader in 5G deployment by 2025, but allies are being lured by Huawei’s financial incentives.
The U.S. has taken other action in the past against Huawei, and China by proxy, when it forbade the government to get Huawei-supplied technology, and when it pursued Intellectual Property theft charges against Huawei’s CFO.
It’s hard not to see these actions against Huawei as an extension of the Trump Administration’s larger battle with China over trade, and, ultimately, technological power. Trump and China continue to argue about tariffs. Some have reported that the U.S.’s aggressive trade stance toward China is an effort to weaken their ambitions to become a manufacturing — not just assembly — hub, which could compromise the U.S.’s economic standing.
Given these U.S. ambitions, and European allies’ difference in opinion on Huawei’s security risks, is there something more to the U.S.’s alarm about Huawei building the 5G internet?
The jury is not entirely out, but many experts do think that China’s authoritarian government constitutes a real threat with regard to awarding Huawei with 5G contracts.
“I think there are genuine security concerns that are out there, and have been out there,” Harrell said. “They’re coming to a head now because of the 5G issue. And I think that these concerns have been simmering for a while.”
According to Harrell, the U.S. has been raising questions and taking action about the security risks of contracting with Huawei for the last decade — well before Trump got in office, and pursued his ambition to stymie China’s technological manufacturing hopes. Harrell acknowledged that there is, of course, an economic upside for the U.S. to preventing a Chinese company’s dominance in 5G, but that he did not think this was the driving force behind the security concerns.
“Clearly, if we are able to lead in the 5G race, we have the potential to gain economically from this as well,” Harrell said. “I think that’s indisputably true. But I don’t think the fact that the U.S. also wants the economic advantages means the security risks are not real.”
Huawei is fighting the perspective that it will be nothing more than a tool of the Chinese government. It issued a statement after the DOC placed it on the entities list, arguing against the categorization.
“This decision is in no one’s interest. It will do significant economic harm to the American companies with which Huawei does business, affect tens of thousands of American jobs, and disrupt the current collaboration and mutual trust that exist on the global supply chain.
Huawei will seek remedies immediately and find a resolution to this matter. We will also proactively endeavor to mitigate the impacts of this incident.”
Sorry, Huawei. For an issue that strengthens national security while delivering an economic upside, the strange bedfellows of elected officials uniting on this issue aren’t likely to back down.