The Huawei Debate’s Other Lesson
A British defence secretary has been dismissed over allegations that he leaked a government discussion about the market access which China’s telecommunication giant Huawei may obtain in the UK. But there are other lessons from this episode.
Whether Western states should take the (disputed) risks of incorporating Huawei technology into their forthcoming 5G networks or whether they should rely on more expensive and less advanced options from smaller businesses in Northern Europe (Ericsson in Sweden and Nokia in Finland) staggers on. It has already caused the sacking of a UK defence secretary and could yet lead to a significant argument between the UK and the US. But why is this the only choice for the UK and its allies? Why is there no European (or US) company that can offer what Huawei can?
The response must point significantly to the short-sightedness of Western governments (with the UK in a prominent position) of long refusing to pursue industrial policies targeting particular sectors. Until Brexit threatened a significant reduction in manufacturing activity in the UK, the Conservative-led governments showed little enthusiasm for any such stances. In defence, in contrast to the Defence Industrial Strategy promoted by Lord Drayson as a minister for defence equipment and support in 2005, which had dealt with defence on a sector-by-sector basis, the National Security Through Technology Paper of 2011 said that the default position for the Ministry of Defence would be to buy on a competitive basis from the world market.
Significantly because of a government reluctance to identify and target key industrial sectors, we find that China, which has clear official government policies on industrial development, is today in such a strong position in this vital area.
It is not as if the risks in the information world have recently and suddenly appeared:
- The emerging centrality of telecommunications networks to information-based economies and militaries has been known about for years. It was readily apparentwhen 4G networks were introduced that they would be succeeded by 5G with implications for numerous economic and social activities. ‘5G wireless technology is going to change the world’ as a US and a UK legislator wrote recently.
- The tremendous damage that could be done to critical national infrastructure facilities by cyber attack has also been clear for decades. Cyber threats were acknowledged in the UK’s 2009 update to the National Security Strategy and the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. To quote a 2018 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy report, ‘Since 2010 the Government has categorised major cyber attacks on the UK and its interests as a top-tier threat to national security. This means that such an attack is highly likely and/or would also have a high impact’.
Yet little seems to have been done to ensure that all the important sub-systems of the emerging 5G network should not be dependent on the good will of a potentially adversarial state.
Of course, it can be argued that the UK could not afford the investments needed, but that is an argument for action on the European or even the transatlantic scale, with governments collaborating to ensure the advancement of relevant technologies. Was anyone asking what Nokia and Ericsson could achieve in isolation and what they could have achieve with more money and a wider team?
In the face of China, a huge and assertive state with a talented population and deep pockets, the point of a national or collective Western industrial agenda is not directly about ‘picking winners’ for our prosperity but a matter of ensuring that Western governments can control the technologies central to their populations’ changing ways of life.
Trevor Taylor is a Professorial Research Fellow in the Defence, Industries and Society Programme at RUSI.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.
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