Five Eyes Must Lead on 5G
5G wireless technology is going to change the world. The challenge for policymakers is to ensure that our nations benefit from 5G’s promise while minimizing its risks. Foremost among these risks is information security. Given the deep security and commercial ties that bind the transatlantic community, Western-aligned countries must band together in order to ensure the unfettered and secure flow of information across the globe. Unfortunately, the reported decision by the United Kingdom to allow Huawei into its 5G network threatens to undermine this unity. If the United States and United Kingdom do not lead their partners in the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance and NATO in an effort to secure 5G networks, no one will.
The bandwidth and speed of 5G systems far exceed that of 4G, allowing countries to push near-persistent data over telecommunications networks, transform their economies, and enable emerging sectors like the “internet of things.” This level of connection will change what it means to be critical national infrastructure; from power to services, the integration will be greater than anything we have seen to date. That will include national security. In the United States, for example, the Department of Defense is already experimenting with how 5G can improve intelligence sharing and military operations. Utilizing commercial 5G networks for military purposes makes it essential that such networks remain secure.
Chinese telecommunications firms have demonstrated they pose a significant threat to the future security of global 5G networks. Of particular concern is Huawei, China’s largest telecommunications company. Nearly a decade ago, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that Huawei’s equipment could not be trusted, given the companies links to the Communist Party of China. Under General Secretary Xi Jinping, the link between Chinese telecommunications companies and the state has only deepened. Department of Justice indictments against Huawei and Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, along with the recent arrest of a Huawei executive in Poland, highlight just a few allegations of malign behavior. Further, Huawei is reported to have played a part in building the infamous bugging of the African Union’s headquarters. Huawei allegedly has supplied the world’s most repressive authoritarian regimes with the technology to suppress dissent.
The concern with Huawei ranges from commercial espionage to outright theft of military data as it travels between the United States and partners across Europe. 5G will involve near-persistent data transfer, which the Chinese government could feasibly capture given its control over Huawei. Given the often circuitous route data takes when traversing from its initial to its end destination, this interception could happen even if just one U.S. partner includes Huawei in its networks.
Key European partners, however, are reticent to outright ban Huawei. Focusing instead on the advantages of a rapid 5G roll-out, many are seeking to address what they see as short-term technical challenges rather than considering the longer-term strategic considerations of nesting Chinese telecommunications equipment within their networks. The United Kingdom has reportedly decided to allow Huawei to contribute to its “non-core” or “edge” network while seeking to mitigate engineering and security concerns through requested improvements. This would allow Huawei to participate in its 5G rollout, particularly since European countries have cited market diversity concerns if the Chinese telecommunications company were excluded. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she does not believe in excluding a company “simply because it’s from a certain country.”
But in the case of 5G, allowing Huawei to compete may very well reduce competition, diversity, and innovation in the future telecommunications market. China has long used industrial policies and state subsidies to dominate markets at home and abroad (including semiconductors and solar), and 5G will be no exception. Through China’s “Digital Silk Road,” Huawei is already underbidding foreign companies and eating up market share across Africa and Southeast Asia. Huawei’s networks are non-interoperable and will foster reliance on Chinese telecommunications equipment and firms. And, once China establishes dominance in 5G, it will be easier to maintain its advantages in future generations of wireless technology — 6G and beyond.
To Chancellor Merkel’s point, there are at least two reasons to challenge Huawei on the basis of country of origin: China’s National Intelligence Law and National Cyber Law — both of which legally require Chinese entities to cooperate with the party-state. In the case of Huawei, even the most rigorous pre-deployment technical testing cannot prevent the Chinese state from leveraging Huawei for access to intelligence information flowing among allies or even for denying service in the case of conflict. The regular servicing necessary to networks would require continuous active monitoring at great cost to national security agencies, and as Mike Burgess of the Australian Signals Directorate has argued, “the distinction between core and edge collapses in 5G networks. That means that a potential threat anywhere in the network will be a threat to the whole network.”
In a world where intelligence and military operations are conducted via 5G networks, NATO and Five Eyes partners require a reliable and sustainable telecommunications supply chain. Australia and New Zealand should be commended for taking definitive steps to ban Huawei from 5G networks and, thereby, contributing to the future security of global 5G.
It is now time for the United States, United Kingdom, and other like-minded intelligence-sharing countries to lead by example and ensure key partners throughout Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific choose security over convenience. The U.S. government has already identified Huawei as an unmitigable national security threat, but in order to secure global telecommunications networks, the Trump administration should now ensure 5G remains a top U.S. policy priority. The United Kingdom should take a second look at its telecommunications supply chain and set a precedent of considering both the short-term technical and long-term strategic implications of using Huawei equipment in 5G. Signaling that threats from Huawei can be mitigated will only lead to more dominoes to fall across Europe and beyond.
Success in this broader campaign starts at home with the intelligence sharing alliance at the heart of our international system: Five Eyes. Washington and London need to ensure Huawei networks are banned from carrying critical national security information shared among Five Eyes partners and NATO allies, which should be equally wary of telecommunications infrastructure from a country where the government has a blanket right to access information or influence corporate decisions. Allowing Huawei to become a dominant supplier in global 5G networks would pose a lasting and potentially insurmountable transatlantic threat.
Defense is only half the battle, however. Huawei’s low prices, reportedly the result of heavy subsidies, and vertical integration give it a leg up in the race for 5G in Europe and beyond. In order to convince allies and partners to avoid Huawei products and ensure that there is a viable alternative, the free world needs to get creative. Western-aligned governments need to think through new tools to help nations with limited resources pay for alternatives to Huawei. At the same time, private industry should think through mechanisms to increase interoperability and research and development expenditures in order to better compete.
This is a key moment for the transatlantic alliance. The security of our communications, from the intimate to the highly classified, is at stake over the coming months. If we fail to check Huawei and support a viable alternative, little information may be secure again. This is not a far-fetched dystopian future. This is the reality that the Chinese Communist Party is building on a daily basis. There is still time for the free world to act, but it must do so with a sense of urgency. Once again, Five Eyes must lead the way.
Mike Gallagher is a Marine Corps veteran and Republican Congressman from Wisconsin’s 8th district. He is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Tom Tugendhat is a former British Army officer and the Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling. He chairs the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee.