Could Huawei Signal the End of the ‘Five Eyes’?

| Intel Brief
The Soufan Center

 

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The U.S. is continuing its aggressive campaign against the growing influence of Chinese telecom giant Huawei as countries move toward 5G infrastructure.
  • Particularly noteworthy is the adoption of Huawei infrastructure by ‘Five Eyes’ countries, America’s closest and most trusted allies in information sharing and intelligence cooperation.
  • The U.S. and many others fear using Huawei is essentially allowing the Chinese government to access sensitive or vital systems and infrastructure.
  • Some of the ‘Five Eyes’ are still considering using Huawei in some fashion, a choice that could have enormous repercussions for the entire group.

The United States’ campaign for allies and others to refrain from using Huawei products, services, and infrastructure is an ongoing legal issue as well as a contest over which company will provide the lion’s share of global infrastructure for the emerging 5G age of wireless communication. In essence, it is a struggle to control the world’s wireless networks. For the U.S., economics is not the driving force; instead, the U.S. is concerned that by relying on Huawei 5G infrastructure, countries are providing China with carte blanche access to monitor, surveil, and collect data from the towers, fibers, modems, and servers upon which entire economies, societies, and governments depend. For many countries, the low cost and easy accessibility of Huawei’s products are the chief concern. Many governments are skeptical of American claims that Huawei is intimately intertwined with the Chinese government or allegations that Huawei essentially serves as a department of Beijing’s intelligence services. For its part, Huawei has consistently denied any ties to the Chinese Communist Party and claims to be as autonomous as any other multinational corporation from the nation where it is headquartered.

The issue becomes particularly sensitive when it comes to the use of Huawei infrastructure by members of the ‘Five Eyes’ (FVEY), America’s closest intelligence sharing partnership comprised of Anglophone countries including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. While many countries might share intelligence on a specific threat or issue, FVEY is different as these countries share a vast scope of intelligence, including highly sensitive signals intelligence (SIGINT) and communications intelligence (COMINT) at a level of detail not typical in international intelligence cooperation. There is also a tacit understanding that these nations would refrain from spying on each other.

The U.S. firmly believes that Huawei constitutes a severe threat to the FVEY partnership if any member decides to rely on the tech giant’s infrastructure. Washington argues that the risks of systemic intelligence penetration and spying far outweigh any potential cost savings or convenience. Australia has already denied the possibility of Huawei in its 5G systems, while New Zealand has blocked the use of Huawei products by a local company building the infrastructure, while not completely ruling out the possibility. Canada also remains undecided and is in the midst of a politically sensitive extradition process involving the arrest of a senior Huawei official (and daughter of the company’s founder) in a case related to U.S. sanctions. The U.K. has not joined with the U.S. to date—Britain feels that it might be able to work out sufficient safeguards with Huawei that address security concerns. On this issue, the U.K. is more closely aligned with Germany – who is not a member of the ‘Five Eyes,’ but nevertheless a close ally – especially in terms of sharing valuable intelligence on emerging threats to national security.

It remains to be seen what will happen if the U.K. and other FVEY members choose Huawei as a close partner in their 5G infrastructure. Since the U.S. believes that Huawei would use its infrastructure to spy on users, it will inevitably limit the sharing of intelligence to the group. After all, the mandate of the FVEY consortium is to share intelligence with a tight-knit group of close allies. Excluding even one of these members could lead to a cascading effect that might encourage certain countries to begin stove-piping critical intelligence. If FVEY was no longer seen as relevant, it could begin to fray, with members deciding to pursue bilateral relationships to share intelligence. The end result would be that Huawei could very well spell the end of what has been one of the most important and long-standing intelligence sharing partnerships since it was established in 1941.

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