Is Huawei’s 5G a threat? It is too soon to say

Written by: Zeno Leoni*

The debate on Huawei’s 5G has been shaped by ideological views, especially in Washington, D.C.
In an attempt at leveraging allies, the US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien warned that China will ‘steal wholesale state secrets, whether they are the UK’s nuclear secrets or secrets from MI6 or MI5’. This statement is only one among many released by president Donald Trump but also secret services and parliamentary watchdogs of other countries.
Andrew Grotto sought to make a list of problems concerning Huawei’s 5G.
Firstly, the Communist Party of China ‘considers Chinese companies to be extensions of the state …the company [Huawei] and its executives are virtually powerless’ against China’s government’. This is a fair point to the extent the symbiotic relationship between state and industries in China facilitates strategic coordination compared to the United States. However, the separation between state and private actors in liberal democracy is often formal but not substantial, especially when it comes to particularly influential actors – such as the Silicon Valley.
Grotto also highlights other elements such as the  fact that 5G is ‘more decentralized’, which means that ‘there are far more nodes for a defender to protect’. Secondly, 5G will need constant updating and maintenance, which implies a ‘persistent access’ of the vendor. Considering previous scandals involving the National Security Agency, Google, and Facebook, however, it is hard to believe that the problem is exclusively a Huawei problem. Therefore, Grotto’s critique of Huawei seems unfair.
Instead, it is much more interesting to read Henry Farrell’s and Abraham L. Newman’s argument on how globalisation has led to ‘weaponized interdependence’. This term points at the fact that some states have ‘political authority over the central nodes in the international networked structures’. This privileged position of power allows them to ‘impose costs on others’. Great powers can  ‘weaponize networks to gather information or choke off economic and information flows, discover and exploit vulnerabilities, compel policy change, and deter unwanted actions’. In particular, they can ‘extract informational advantages vis-à-vis adversaries’, on the one hand, or ‘cut adversaries off from network flows’, on the other hand.
In addition to the political struggle, there also is the economic struggle. 5G contracts and infrastructures can lead to nationwide deals and therefore be very lucrative. There is a chance that Huawei is going to cut off some American big businesses from these contracts.
All in all, it is early to have a final word on Huawei’s 5G. As a not so pro-China source like NATO reported in a study by the Cyber ​​Defense Center of Excellence, ‘to date, … there has been no evidence of significant vulnerabilities’. What is known, instead, is that Huawei has been accused of: industrial espionage (Cisco 2003 and T-Mobile 2014 cases); violations of sanctions against North Korea and Iran; intellectual property fraud and theft (by the US); sporadic episodes of espionage in Australia, Canada and Poland carried out by employees of the same company.

* @MultipolarOrder