Huawei's war with Trump threatens to open a dangerous door for Vladimir Putin. And once that door is open, there is no turning back.
The battle between the U.S. and Chinese tech giant Huawei has now reached its most dangerous phase. Backs are against walls. Beijing is threatening foreign governments as to the consequences of excluding Chinese kit from 5G deployments. Huawei is saying its wheels may fall off this year. And the Trump administration is warning allies that long-standing intelligence-sharing alliances are now at risk.
And so while it might be this China standoff that’s front of mind, the implications have left Russia’s Vladimir Putin chuckling away to himself over in the Kremlin.
The U.S. case against Huawei is built on a simple hypothesis. If China does have the option and legal basis to use the tech giant to collect intelligence overseas, it will do so. Here are two more hypotheses. If China thinks it can use Huawei to disrupt intelligence operations overseas, it will try. And Russia will use all this to its own malicious advantage, playing the margins, looking for new weaknesses to exploit.
These are risks we should now be taking very seriously.
The U.S. is currently losing its hearts and minds battle against Huawei. With a few exceptions, governments around the world are opting for the lure of affordable Chinese technology and inward investment over theoretical security issues that no one yet seems able to prove. Later this month, the U.K. looks likely to do the same, ignoring U.S. warnings and allowing Chinese tech into its 5G networks.
This will represent Huawei’s greatest victory since its blacklisting. It will also be a major coup for Beijing. The U.K. will prohibit Huawei from the core of its network and from sensitive locations, arguing this mitigates the risk. The U.S. will claim it does not, and that it will encourage others to take risks they cannot manage.
For the western intelligence alliance, this likely U.K. decision carries risk. Not because Huawei has built backdoors into its kit and given Beijing a key. But because any rift between Washington and London carries consequences. And because Huawei’s software has holes, as the U.K. spy agency’s annual evaluation has reported.
If you saw yourself as an enemy of the west, that combination of infrastructural vulnerabilities and a weakened opposition front is a serious opportunity.
Putin is never one to miss an opportunity for mischief or advantage. A month after U.S. President Trump blacklisted Huawei, cutting its access to U.S. tech, Putin attacked the move. “In some circles,” he told a forum in St Petersburg in June, the U.S. battle with the Chinese tech giant “is called the first technological war of the coming digital era.” Those would be your circles, Comrade President.
China has built itself a digital fortress: The great firewall; a ban on flagship western websites and social media platforms; dystopian surveillance built around state-sponsored AI unicorns and the world’s leading equipment makers. That all works because China’s technology sector, notwithstanding U.S. supply chains, provides a level of self-sufficiency. Take a look at Xinjiang to see how this all works in practice.
Russia has no such advantage. But it has its ever-warming relationship with China. Putin wants to ape Beijing’s controls. An internet sovereignty law to sever Russia’s links to the worldwide web; a law mandating Russian software on western tech; action threatened against U.S. social media giants; even hints of a Russian Wikipedia.
Russia has also been a friend to Huawei throughout: 5G contracts have been signed; smartphone sales have soared; technical collaboration has been discussed. Whatever move Huawei makes next to further its independence from U.S. suppliers, you can be sure that Russia will play a helping hand. On Monday, Huawei’s CEO told Davos that Trump can do his worse.
“The impact against us will not be very significant,” Ren Zhengfei said. “I am confident we can survive future attacks.”
Maybe so. And Huawei did manage to come through 2019 in surprisingly strong shape. Revenues up 18%. 240 million smartphones sold—holding off Apple to retain its number two spot for shipments. More 5G contracts signed than any other supplier. The company has warned that 2020 will be much tougher. But new device launches are planned, and if the U.K. rejects Trump’s pleas that’s a huge victory.
As things stand, there is almost inevitably going to be some level of strain in key U.S. alliances. Good news for China. Possibly even better news for Russia. As the so-called splinternet—the tech divide east versus west—progresses, we enter new territory. We need to be certain the cunning and opportunism of our adversaries have been fully taken into account.
You can choose who you want to believe: U.S. hawks claim Huawei is controlled and funded by Beijing, an intelligence collection tool, a trojan horse inside critical networks worldwide; Beijing and Huawei plead innocence, no state control or spying; non-U.S. politicians and officials maintain that if risks exist, they can be mitigated.
As the U.S. election approaches, the cyber threat against the U.S. intensifies. This is not the best time for any weakening of intelligence sharing with key allies. And while all eyes are on China, keep a watch on Russia as this story develops.