The politics of networks: How great power rivalries infected 5G

The politics of networks: How great power rivalries infected 5G
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The next generation of mobile broadband networks should be a technical matter, pure and simple, right? Wrong. The build-out of 5G has been caught up in a whirlwind of arrests, indictments, political threats, allegations and counter-allegations.

As states are poised to make procurement decisions for 5G infrastructure, they are having to confront — and potentially take sides in — geopolitical rivalries. Right now, the U.S. and China seem to be borrowing from one another’s playbooks. National security concerns provide cover for U.S. protectionist policies in relation to Chinese tech. Meanwhile, the ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy aims for China’s technical innovation and quality to triumph in international markets.


Known to consumers for its mobile handsets, Huawei is a global leader in the communications infrastructure market, and is well positioned for dominance in 5G. With a turnover of more than $100 billion in 2018, and more than 20 percent annual growth, Huawei claims that more than 80,000 staff are engaged in research and development — far more than Western rivals Ericsson or Nokia.

There are genuine cybersecurity concerns with 5G technology: the virtualised, software driven, intelligent network; the range and scale of unsecured devices that will form part of the 5G environment as Internet of Things mainstreams. The uncomfortable truth is that any provider that sits at a low level in a network enjoys a privileged position. Should it so choose, it will be capable of exploiting, inspecting or otherwise messing with data as it passes over the network.

All of these things should make states carefully evaluate cybersecurity risks as part of the procurement decisions relating to 5G. Sure enough, numerous Western countries are conducting or have completed reviews. So far, only Germany has announced that it will not proactively restrict Huawei’s access to national 5G deployment. Australia has imposed a blanket national ban, adopting a harder line even than the U.S. which only restricts Huawei from certain government contracts.

A nationality-based ban fails to solve any cybersecurity issue. Technology hardware and software supply chains are global, and even the most wholesome U.S. tech brands have components that are sourced in China.

5G infrastructure will sit on top of existing 4G kit. So, unless a country rips up its existing Huawei-provided 4G networks — at what cost? — it will not be able to exclude China from its future mobile broadband infrastructure.


To date, the UK’s approach to Huawei has been low-key and technical. The Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) was established in 2010 to build mutual confidence in the quality of Huawei’s products. Initially criticised by an influential government committee for letting Huawei staff effectively police themselves, the governance of HCSEC has been strengthened to include officials from the UK intelligence community.

The latest annual HCSEC report is a damning indictment of Huawei. Not of the company’s supposed links to the Chinese state, but — more scarily — the “serious and systemic defects in Huawei’s software engineering and cyber security competence.” Huawei has promised to invest $2 billion over five years in a company-wide transformation to mitigate the concerns raised by the HCSEC.

The HCSEC report should raise deep concerns for those worried about a Huawei-built 5G network, independent of alleged links (or not) to the Chinese state. In a software-driven, intelligent 5G network, the real and persistent risk will be of bugs and vulnerabilities enabling anyone (not just the Chinese) to compromise safety and security of users.

U.S. Secretary of State, Mike PompeoMike PompeoNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE has threatened allies that the U.S. will no longer share intelligence with them if they incorporate Huawei into their networks — risking a fracture in the longstanding Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership, in which the UK is a key contributor.

Despite unprecedented leaks from a meeting of the UK Security Council, it is still not clear how the UK will proceed. It cannot be an easy decision. But the potential fracturing of a vital international security partnership, as China continues to rise as a technological and economic superpower, significantly raises the implications of 5G purchasing decisions for Western allies.

Whatever happens, Huawei will be fine. Despite facing full or partial bans in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, Huawei has concluded 40 contracts to provide 5G infrastructure across the world, including 23 in Europe, and expects to have shipped 100,000 base stations by May 2019.

5G Networks — like the truth —  are rarely pure, never simple, and are certainly not neutral.

Emily Taylor is an associate fellow with the International Security Department at Chatham House in London and editor of the Journal of Cyber Policy; she is CEO of Oxford Information Labs and founder of ICANN accredited registrar Netistrar. She has served on major ICANN reviews of security, policy development and privacy, the UN Internet Governance Multistakeholder Advisory Group, Global Commission on Internet Governance research network, and as director of Legal and Policy for Nominet. She is a graduate of Cambridge University, qualified as a solicitor in England and Wales, and has an MBA from Open University. Follow her on Twitter @etaylaw