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Huawei has exposed Britain’s geopolitical reckoning

The UK faces a choice: align with the US, or strengthen Europe. Without deciding, it will continue stumbling into problems like the Huawei ban. 

When it comes to Huawei, Mike Pompeo – though perverse on everything else – is right. So is Gavin Williamson. It makes no sense for the UK to allow the Chinese tech giant to supply Britain’s fifth generation wireless network, even if it is limited to the “edge” – the part nearest your phone – rather than the core network along which the data travels.

First, because under Chinese law, the state can rightfully demand access to data flowing through systems owned by the Chinese private sector. Huawei is technically a private company owned by its 98,000 employees. However, as one recent academic study shows, those employees exert no meaningful ownership or control. Real ownership lies with a “trade union committee” appointed by the state and integrated with the Chinese Communist Party.

Second, because, as Pompeo points out, the Chinese state has a clear record of cyber-espionage aimed not only at discovering the state secrets of Western democracies, but at plundering the intellectual property of major companies. Of 19 advanced persistent threat groups (APTs) listed by the cyber security company Fireeye, two originate within the People’s Liberation Army.

Since 2013 the so-called APT10 group, through a mixture of malware and decoys, has targeted both individual corporations in the engineering, telecoms and aerospace sectors and governments in Europe, the USA and Japan, and the IT service providers their data flows through. Fireeye believes the targeting has “been in support of Chinese national security goals, including valuable military and intelligence information as well as the theft of confidential business data to support Chinese corporations”.

The fact that it is now de rigeur for Western executives to enter China only with “burner” phones and laptops, which are wiped and dumped after use, indicates how pervasive companies believe this threat now is.

Third, because in the black and white of an official report from the government security team set up to monitor Huawei, the company’s own security culture has been damned as “bringing significantly increased risk to UK operators”.

The report said “no material progress” had been made by Huawei in addressing security concerns flagged previously and that, as a result, Britain’s cyberspooks can provide only “limited assurance that all risks to UK national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks can be sufficiently mitigated long-term”.

Fourth, because all Britain’s key allies in the so-called Five Eyes Agreement, an intelligence sharing arrangement with the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have either rejected Huawei or are in the process of doing so under US pressure.

Finally because of the strategic nature of 5G technology itself. 5G operates at radio frequencies that will allow data to be uploaded and downloaded faster than the human brain can think. Once it matures 5G will allow for things sci-fi movies dream of: remotely driven vehicles, remotely controlled operating theatres, real-time feedback on traffic and mass transport systems and instant access to vast stores of information.

All the vital infrastructure healthcare, transport and energy systems of entire countries will run on 5G, just in the way the vital infrastructure of your life – from the thermostat on your central heating to your minicab journey – currently runs on your 4G phone. Right now, nobody can guarantee to mitigate the “risks” of letting a potentially hostile foreign actor into such systems because we don’t yet know what those risks are.

You might ask why, given all this, did Theresa May overrule her own ministers, backing a security-service plan to let Huawei into the system, leaving it to telecoms operators to use a mixture of suppliers and enforce their own security with UK government help?

The answer is geopolitics, whose dynamics are moving at a pace most people barely understand.

First, there’s the short term problem. The May administration’s Brexit chaos now poses real uncertainties over Britain’s future trading arrangements. Three years after the referendum we still don’t know whether Britain wants a close trading relationship with Europe, and therefore to see its trade with countries like China determined by those rules; or to become a free agent, making new and unique free trade agreements (FTAs) that circumvent the EU’s rules and culture.

Within the British elite, and thus in the Tory party, there remains a division over strategy: the Atlanticists, like Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Michael Gove, see a major reorientation towards the USA, both in terms of trade and geopolitics, as the ultimate goal of Brexit. For them, leaving the EU is phase one. In the future, an FTA with the USA can be used as a battering ram to destroy what’s left of environmental, consumer and labour regulations in this country. 

May’s strategy is for a soft Brexit that leaves the UK reluctantly tied to Europe. And though Europe has no FTA with China, keeping major Chinese corporations on board, and through them the Chinese state engaged, actually helps stave off a full blown Atlanticist turn post-Brexit. That’s probably the short term calculation, leaving aside the impact of any lobbying by City grandees currently filling their boots as advisers and directors to Huawei.

But in the longer term, Britain faces a major strategic reckoning. Our most important long-term threat is Russia. It wants to break up Europe into competing spheres of interest, paralyse NATO, make countries like Germany dependent on its energy supplies, and is waging what experts call “hybrid warfare” to achieve these aims: disinformation, propaganda, targeted assassinations and the promotion of far right groups to destabilise democracy.

There’s no cause for panic over that: it can be contained by maintaining the sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and over its use of chemical agents in the Skripal case – and by engaging Russia in dialogue over what it’s really trying to achieve.

The problem is, over the past five years, Russia has also begun trying to engage China in a de-facto anti-Western alliance. At last year’s Valdai conference, the showpiece annual event for Putin’s foreign policy, the entire agenda was dominated by Russia’s attempts to woo Beijing. There are calls for a “common information space”, bilateral currency arrangements designed to squeeze the dollar, and boost bilateral trade. 

But Beijing is reportedly resistant. It has complied with US requests to shut Russian companies and individuals out of its banking system, and has expressed reluctance to join in the breakup of the multilateral global order, which via the WTO has been the springboard to its own economic take-off.

The honest thing to do in the face of these big, tectonic developments is to admit that Britain is a second tier player in this game. The reason we don’t have our own 5G supplier is that, for 30 years, we allowed money-grabbing private equity firms to destroy the electrical engineering giant GEC and, at a wider level, prioritised high finance and low-wage businesses over the kind of state-guided innovation practised by Huawei.

Successive British defence reviews have bragged about our “global reach” – promising to distribute naval bases and aircraft carriers across the globe regardless of the £10 billion defence budget cuts and an army five thousand soldiers short of its recruitment target. The reality is, in a world of trade wars and super-power rivalry, we are not a first tier player.

Britain faces a choice, and we will go on stumbling into issues like the Huawei ban until we make it.

One of the joys of releasing the Labour party from the control of cold-warriors like Mike Gapes and John Woodcock is that, for the first time in living memory, it is possible to have a debate about what a left geopolitical strategy might look like.

As readers of this column know, I favour resisting Russian hybrid warfare, calling out its avatars on the fringes of Britain’s labour movement, and containing the Kremlin through sanctions and diplomacy. 

But we also have to be crystal clear about the venality of the Trump administration’s hostility towards China. It is designed not only to promote the interests of US corporations over Chinese firms, but to force China into the strategic acceptance of US military and corporate dominance for the next half century. The return of the “unipolar” global order of the Clinton-Bush era is what Pompeo wants, and for that they he is prepared to heavy the British establishment until it drops Huawei.

An independent left foreign policy for the UK begins from a recognition that the existence of the European Union – the biggest trading bloc in the world and the only one composed of relatively stable democracies – is a strategic advantage. It is a future market, ally and cultural partner. Right now, China is eating Europe from its economically frayed edges, buying power and influence in Italy, Greece and the Balkans – while Russia is working on the loose screws of Nato in the east: Hungary, Greece and Turkey.

Strengthening Europe’s cohesion – diplomatically, economically and in terms of cultural and political resilience – should be Britain’s strategy, independent of whether we are in or out of the EU, Schengen or the Euro.

Europe’s own response to the Huawei threat has been slow but prudent. Its draft guidelines say that nation states should conduct and implement their own risk-management operations over 5G, and there is a draft instrument to allow outright bans of foreign suppliers who pose a security threat. Germany has taken the lead with a draft regulation mandating that critical components can only be supplied by companies with “assured trustworthiness” – a status that, on the UK’s own reckoning, Huawei would not currently have.

Trotsky once said the British elite used to “do their thinking in terms of centuries and continents”. If they were doing so today, they would commit to the European Union’s rules and culture on cybersecurity, and indeed attempt to lead them. It would, as a no-brainer, ban Huawei from the 5G project – both as a gesture of compliance with the Five Eyes’ demands and as a standard-setting gesture to Germany, Italy and France as they formulate their own policy. Instead, we flounder.

And if you find this floundering frustrating now, just wait until the Tory party fractures openly between its pro-Trump and liberal wings. The Huawei decision, Williamson’s petulant response to it, and May’s summary dismissal of him look like a circus. But you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.