East & Pacific Asia

On Huawei, Canada Risks Far More Than Hypocrisy


Last month Canada was thrown into the international spotlight when Meng Wanzhou, Chief Financial Officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, was arrested in Vancouver at the request of US authorities. She is suspected of committing fraud by violating US sanctions against Iran. China responded in turn, detaining two Canadian citizens and sentencing a third, accused of drug smuggling, to death. China has accused Canada of hypocrisy in its response to the detentions—and it is correct to do so, but not in the way it intends.

Huawei at Mobile World Congress 2015 Barcelona

Image Courtesy of flickr, © 2015.


While observers have tended to portray Canada as a nation caught between two powers vying for dominance in tech and trade, Meng’s arrest has also precipitated a stern debate about Huawei’s conduct and future in Canada. More specifically, the arrest has drawn attention to Canada’s unwillingness, so far, to bar Huawei from building next-generation “5G” networks in the country. On this issue, Canada risks not only hypocrisy, but far more gravely, the future national security of its citizens and those of its intelligence allies, the Anglophone “Five Eyes” countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

Trudeau’s Liberal government invites the charge of hypocrisy. It has exercised little restraint in pronouncing its commitment to a rules-based international order. Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland has led the charge in trumpeting Canada’s opposition to the proliferation of threats worldwide that stem from rising forms of authoritarianism. To progressives beyond Canada’s borders, Trudeau and Freeland’s ostensibly open and tolerant foreign policy vision has rightly appeared a shining light amid the dark spread of illiberal politics driven by both authoritarian and populist sentiment. Yet, despite Canada’s proclaimed devotion to the norms and rules of liberal international institutions, the Huawei case sheds light on its reluctance to follow the course of action prescribed by its liberal principles.

Canada’s international position in intelligence gathering and sharing compounds the issue. At a meeting in the summer of 2018, espionage chiefs from the Five Eyes countries agreed that Huawei posed a security risk. They agreed to take measures to limit Huawei’s global growth, on the grounds that it may be performing espionage for the Chinese state. In 2018, Trudeau was reportedly warned twice about the national security threats posed by Huawei. Currently, Canadian authorities are reviewing Huawei equipment to determine its suitability for 5G network provision.

Other Five Eyes countries are moving forward. Since July 2018, the US has banned government purchase of Huawei equipment and taken several other steps to block the firm from US markets. This is not an isolated concern stemming from the Trump administration, but one also shared by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the American telecom industry. Australia has banned Huawei from working on its 5G network, while new regulations in New Zealand impede the country’s largest telecom provider, Spark, from using Huawei technology. BT, the UK’s largest phone carrier, is in the process of removing Huawei technology from its networks, while UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson has expressed “grave, very deep concerns about Huawei providing the 5G network in Britain.”

While Huawei has denied both links to the Chinese state and claims that it may be gathering data on its behalf, news investigations have highlighted the firm’s role in security breaches. In January 2018, French newspaper Le Monde published an investigation revealing that, for a period of five years starting in January 2012, servers inside the African Union’s headquarters transferred data for two hours every night to unidentified servers in Shanghai. This occurred despite claims from the ICT provider that “better security” was a key benefit of its package. Huawei was the provider. While this does not necessarily mean Huawei was complicit in what Le Monde described as “data theft,” recent events in Poland, where a Huawei employee has been charged with spying for China, cast doubt on Huawei’s plausible deniability. At minimum, these cases suggest that Huawei-outfitted networks are vulnerable to Chinese state intelligence gathering and surveillance.

Will Canada leave itself open to such risks? What is at stake here is not only Canada’s reputation in the short term as a standard-bearer for liberal world order. Leaving a backdoor open to the Chinese state via Huawei risks not only data theft, but more worryingly, a means for China to access sensitive information from Canada’s intelligence allies. Canada would not bear the costs of these eventualities on its own. They would be felt, perhaps primarily, by others, not least by the United States, whose telecom networks are deeply meshed with Canada’s. Failure to stand up against what one former Canadian Prime Minister has labeled “Chinese rule-breaking” demonstrates a lack of commitment to take action to defend those rules.

Failing detection of any issues with Huawei equipment, one imagines the Trudeau government advocating the preservation of equal opportunity in the global marketplace and accordingly defending Huawei’s presence and investment in Canada—a perspective that appears to square nicely with commitment to a rules-based international order. Bilateral trade talks, Chinese funding for several major Canadian infrastructure projects, and roughly two million Canadians of Chinese descent are additional variables conditioning the Trudeau government’s lack of action.

But what this stance fails to recognize is that some rules are more important than others. Those in place to safeguard not only national security but also the security of allies sit at the summit of that hierarchy. If Trudeau’s government purports to represent a Canada committed to international norms and rules it needs to take substantive action against those who seek to undermine them.

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