25 April 2019

The Huawei deal puts Britain’s Five Eyes relationships at risk

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With the NCS leak about Huawei’s inclusion in the UK’s 5G infrastructure on the front pages, the Five Eyes intelligence alliance has come under renewed scrutiny. Our role in the world’s largest and longest-lasting intelligence partnership has been one of our key assets, enabling us to punch above our weight in Washington and in corridors of power across the world.

But intelligence relationships are a lot like a marriage. They involve trust – and the development of key institutions or traditions that keep each partner reassured about the intentions, reliability, and thoughts of the other party. The Five Eyes relationship, a marriage, if you will allow, is an incredible feat of alliance-management. Many Britons know little, if anything, about it. If they do, it’s probably through the X-files or Wikileaks. The reality is more banal but at the same time, more incredible.

After fascism was defeated in the Second World War, five democracies (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK, and US) pooled their resources on human and signals intelligence. Crossing into uncharted territory, they institutionalised intelligence-sharing in ways that are unprecedented for sovereign states. Later, programmes were created allowing officers from one country to serve in the corresponding bureaucracy of another allied nation. A British signals officer might spend time in the NSA in Maryland, or a Canadian diplomat might spend a year in the FCO, or an Australian defence official might serve time in the Pentagon.

These intelligence bureaucracies might have presented risks to the democratic integrity of the participating nations, but surprisingly, the Five Eyes relationship worked seamlessly from its earliest days. The robust constitutions underpinning all five countries allowed elected representatives to oversee the budgets and policies of their intelligence services and manage them according to their democratically permitted discretion. While slip-ups occurred, they were the exception rather than the rule. The group spent the Cold War protecting the rights and freedoms of many ordinary citizens to great success, all in the shadows and for very little personal reward or public acknowledgement.

As the cyber age arrived, the Five Eyes adjusted and adapted, but they have not always been quick off the mark. The current arrangement by which British engineers check Huawei’s code and equipment occurred after a slip-up in the early 2000s when BT nearly awarded a network contract to what was then an obscure Chinese tech company with little security oversight.

Twelve years on and that company has gone from strength to strength, combining the telecommunications ability of BT with the data-storage capacity of Google and the powerful handsets of Apple. It’s a remarkable achievement, but how exactly did Huawei come to dominate the European telecoms market so quickly? What role did state loans play in subsidising products that were sometimes 18 per cent cheaper than its competitors?

As we approach the end of the telecoms review process, it has become clear that a great lobbying battle has taken place in Westminster between Huawei and its British carrier-supporters who stand to benefit from its financing, and the Australian and US Governments, whose security is under threat. It’s been clear that despite presenting the UK with constant signs of Huawei’s links to Chinese intelligence, examples of hacking behaviour, and involvement in the situation in Xinjiang, the National Security Council has decided that the UK can “mitigate the risk”.

After all, they reason, we handed 4G over, surely a 4G solution for a 5G problem will do the job. The problem with this assessment is that by the Government’s own accounts, Huawei’s 4G solutions were not up to standard.

That should have been the end of the story, but Brexit has played a large role behind the scenes. It leaps off the page from a report commissioned by network carriers that says “£7 billion at risk if Huawei banned”. It leaps out again when The Guardian asks in tremulous tones whether a ban will impact Britain’s trade relations with China (No.It didn’t with either the US or Australia who have whopping trade relations with Beijing). And so, the panic has continued.

Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury , is quoted in the Daily Express as saying that a decision should be made on a “case-by-case” basis, and that any decisions “should be led by the UK – we shouldn’t be deciding on the basis of what the Americans think or what the Australians think” , which is the marital equivalent of telling your spouse that you’ll have a drink with whoever you damn well please and that they shouldn’t be suspicious.

The government has a right to make its choice, but there will likely be unforeseen consequences as a result of its decision. With Five Eyes, Britain is married. It has partners that trust it to do the right thing and in exchange provide it with vast amounts of sensitive real-time data. The Treasury might not think that is very important, but Britain’s spy chiefs do and the trust shared between partners is certainly worth more than £7 billion and being degraded to a second-tier partner or being excluded altogether would be a huge blow to our capabilities.

In the long run, Britain can do what it wants. Washington and Canberra won’t force us to do the right thing, but they will have to react and protect their own interests and the interests of the remaining four, but China’s covert influence-campaigns and given the known unknowns of 5G, the British government should spend more time thinking these questions through.

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John Hemmings is Director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society.