26/03/2020

National infrastructure, and who provides it, has always been a political and diplomatic minefield. Sourcing reliable vendors to deliver quality output, on scale, and at the right price point is tough enough without having to also consider how their involvement may compromise national interests. In the world of tech infrastructure, no situation illustrates this better than the resourcing and roll-out of 5G network, and no vendor is more controversy-fraught than Huawei.

With 5G promising to fundamentally underpin the future of commerce, communication and civil connectivity generally, governments are approaching vendors such as Huawei, a Chinese tech and telco giant, with caution. But the fact that several Western governments have completely refused to involve Huawei in their 5G infrastructure doesn’t come down to the quality of their equipment (which some say is the best in the world). Rather, it reflects two concerns that have plagued Huawei for over a decade: that their equipment allows for ‘back-door’ access by the Chinese Government, and that Chinese laws can compel cooperation with the Ministry of State Security. Huawei fiercely refute the claims.

Putting the veracity of both contentions to one side, the perceived risk has nonetheless resulted in Australia, New Zealand and the US each refusing to allow Huawei to provide equipment for their national 5G networks. Australia opted for a similar restriction with regard to the NBN too. So it was welcome news for the Chinese firm when earlier this year British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his government would allow Huawei to continue supplying equipment for the UK 5G network.

Given the approach taken by other members of the Five Eyes alliance, as well as Huawei being deemed a ‘high risk vendor’ by the National Cyber Security Centre, the decision was highly controversial. In the hope of appeasing the concerns of wary parties at home and abroad, the decision came with a number of conditions and precautionary measures. These included Huawei equipment only being used on non-core parts of the network, and a mandate that telcos limit the firm’s total presence on their network to 35% by 2023. Unfortunately for Johnson, his compromise proved lacking.  

In the weeks following the January announcement, Conservative MPs rallied against the move and in early March launched a counterstrike in Parliament. Conservative backbenchers aligned with opposition members to put forward a legislative amendment that would have the effect of barring Huawei. Though this was narrowly defeated by Johnson’s camp, the move underscored latent tensions within his government, matched only by the backlash among Britain’s allies. The Trump administration warned the move would have a “direct and dramatic” impact on the cooperation between the two countries, particularly in regard to intelligence sharing. In Australia, leaked information revealed a significant diplomatic row and criticism aimed at the visiting UK Foreign Secretary over the 5G decision.

Despite the backlash, Johnson does not stand alone in his government’s stance on Huawei 5G. Canada, another member of the Five Eyes, has refused to rule out involvement of the Chinese firm in their network. The same goes for Germany, where members of Angela Merkel’s leading party have commented that “state actors with sufficient resources can infiltrate the network of any equipment maker”.

While the Australian position on the topic seems resolute – whether or not the UK decision will have felt impacts on Five Eyes cooperation remains to be seen.

Authors: Bryce Craig and Lesley Sutton

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