The Power Politics Behind the Blacklisting of Huawei

The rise of surveillance capitalism in the 21st century has been very good for the world’s intelligence agencies, and vice versa. Maybe too good.

Google has become an indispensable partner of the National Security Agency. The CIA has “relied exclusively” on Amazon for a $600 million cloud computing system. Israel’s intelligence services have birthed a private security industry that pioneered the development of spyware.

The last twenty years have seen the globalization of intelligence, the convergence of global high-tech firms and national spy services. The alliance has enriched the technologists and empowered the spooks.

China’s Ministry of State Security

Case in point: Huawei, the world’s top telecom manufacturer and second-largest smartphone maker. As a matter of state policy, Huawei collaborates with China’s powerful Ministry of State Security.  The MSS censors the internet, fosters a growing system of “social credits,” suppresses the Uighur people of western China, and engages in economic espionage in the United States.

But the convergence of high tech and Big Brother has generated a growing backlash.

As Huawei seeks to become a world leader in building super-fast 5G communication networks, many fear the firm will build “back doors” into its equipment enabling the Chinese to spy or launch cyberattacks on its adversaries. In Feb. 2018, several U.S. intelligence directors warned Americans against buying Huawei phones. Last summer President Trump banned the U.S. government doing business with Huawei.

Last week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross extended the prohibition to U.S. companies. Ross blacklisted Huawei, and 86 non- U.S. affiliates, asserting they are “reasonably believed to be involved, or pose a significant risk of being or becoming involved, in activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” 

Not all U.S. allies are on board, according to Defense One.

Of the Washington’s closest intelligence partners, “only Australia and New Zealand have banned Huawei 5G gear. Canada and Britain have taken a softer stance, one that appears to be unwavering despite statements that using Huawei 5G would strain, if not dissolve, intelligence partnerships with the United States. Germany, too, has resisted U.S. pressure.”

Gen. Gordon Messenger, vice chief of the British Defence Staff, said in March that his government was “very alive to the risks” of “Made in China” 5G but had to be practical.

“We’re of the view that to simply suggest that one ban outright ban Chinese componentry from any future network that one delivers is, let’s just say, a very tall order,” Messenger said. “There is absolutely the ability to go into this with eyes open, recognizing the risks, recognizing the threats, and understanding the technology in building a 5G network that we can depend on and assure.”

In short, for some U.S. allies the technological and financial advantages of working with Huawei may outweigh the security risks. It is not easy to unwind the globalization of technology and commerce that has taken place since the 1990s. Yet it will hard for smaller countries to resist U.S. pressure.

The U.S. war on Huawei signals nothing less than a profound change in geopolitics, says political scientist Henry Farrell.

Globalization Evolves

In the 1990s, he wrote on Twitter last week  “National economic systems that had previously been separate from each other became densely interpenetrated, and deeply dependent on financial, informational and trade networks that spanned border.”

Now the globalized order is evolving again, he says.

“A world of networks built around the pursuit of economic efficiencies is becoming a world where these networks are being exploited (or at risk of being exploited) for strategic advantage,” he says.

Farrell calls it “weaponized interdependence,” and notes that only the economic superpowers that serve as the hubs of these networks—the U.S. and China—have the leverage to use it

China, he predicts, will protect itself from U.S. pressure by redoubling its efforts to build “autonomous and controllable” technology and supply chains beyond Washington’s control “to decrease their vulnerability to future attack.” In short, economic nationalism, not globalization, is the answer.

For the tech companies, their globalized model is falling apart. The days when security questions did not hinder the global ambitions of Google and Huawei are over.  Now the superpowers–and their empowered intelligence services–are calling the shots.

“But this struggle is not really about technology at all,” say the editors of The Guardian. “It is about dominance: who is to be the master. Whether it is China or the US that emerges the winner, both sides will suffer, and third parties such as the UK will perhaps suffer most.”

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