ON APRIL 24TH the news broke that Britain’s government had decided to permit parts of the country’s 5G mobile networks to be built by Huawei, a Chinese firm. Many Americans and other friends of Britain will be appalled by its decision and fear that the country is being naive and toadying up to China. Huawei has, after all, become one of the most controversial firms in the world and sits at the centre of a geopolitical storm. America worries that the telecoms equipment-maker is a Trojan horse for China’s spies and autocrats and poses a grave threat to Western interests. It has been urging its allies to ban it.
Britain’s decision matters: it is a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance led by America, and was one of the first Western economies in which Huawei built a presence. Britain also has experience of electronic spying and knows Huawei well. Far from being a betrayal, Britain’s approach, of using the firm’s gear on the edges of 5G networks, under close supervision, offers a sensible framework for limited commercial engagement while protecting Britain’s security and that of its allies.
Huawei has annual sales of $105bn from 170 countries. It is a leading supplier of equipment for new 5G networks that will connect a vast array of devices and become deeply embedded in the economy. Rumours have long circulated that Huawei is cosy with China’s army, and worries about the firm have intensified in the past two years (see article). In February Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state, threatened to limit co-operation with countries that used Huawei gear. America is also trying to extradite a Huawei executive (the daughter of its founder) from Canada for sanctions-busting.
The easiest option for Britain would have been to ban Huawei from 5G networks, as Australia has. But that would be wrongheaded. One reason is technical. Refusing to use Huawei hardware does relatively little to eliminate the risk of cyber-attacks by hostile governments. State-backed hackers and saboteurs usually gain access to networks through flaws in software coding. This is why Russia can cause mayhem abroad, despite having no commercial role in Western telecoms networks.
A ban would also have geopolitical costs. If an open system for global commerce is to be saved, a framework has to be built for countries to engage economically even if they are rivals. No evidence of spying via Huawei gear has been made public. Most emerging economies have no intention of prohibiting it. A ban by a few American allies risks splitting the world into two blocs. And a system without rules could be abused to hobble other Chinese firms engaged in legitimate activity (see article).
For a calibrated policy to succeed, Britain and other countries will need to observe three principles. The first is continual monitoring for hidden back doors and bugs. Since 2010 Britain has had a system for vetting Huawei’s software and systems. This should continue and be extended to other 5G providers, with the aim of minimising the sloppy coding that creates vulnerabilities.
The second principle is to limit the scope of Huawei’s activities. Britain will exclude its gear from the network “core”, where the most sensitive processing takes place, and from government networks. Military communications should also be kept isolated. And the use of other equipment vendors means that if a problem emerges, it is easy to switch firms.
The final principle is that a U-turn is always possible. Britain should demand that Huawei continually raises standards in its software and improves its opaque governance—and should have no qualms about chucking it out if it does not. No one should be naive about Huawei. But neither should anyone be complacent about the dangers of a trading system racked by confrontation and ad hoc bans. The right path is to mitigate the risks Huawei presents and avoid an escalating trade war that makes economic engagement between the West and China impossible.