Steady work is underway in the US as the superpower streamlined its bid to uproot the presence of all Chinese equipment from the country’s communications network. In July 2022, the US Congress announced the sanction of nearabout $2 billion to cover the cost of replacing the Chinese equipment in small carriers in the current US communications networks, while the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sought another $3 billion to deliver on the task. Despite the whopping cost, the US is determined to rid the country of the gear manufactured by Chinese corporations Huawei and ZTC, since placing data in the clutches of these conglomerates is perceived to be too high of a security threat.
China’s move towards obtaining the status of a leader on the global front gained momentum with the rollout of the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) undertaken by the Xi regime in 2013. The extraordinary vision with which the BRI was introduced- that of global connectivity and of increasing collaboration between countries in order to expand trade and stimulate economic growth- has managed to woo a great number of nations across the African, Asian, European and South American continents.
Following the popularity of the tempting mandate of the BRI, Beijing expanded the initiative to include the ‘Digital Silk Road’ (DSR) in 2015. As a technological counterpart for the global infrastructural initiative, the DSR aims to ‘improve the telecommunication networks, artificial intelligence capabilities, cloud computing, e-commerce and mobile payment systems, surveillance technology, and other high-tech areas’ for recipient countries. Estimates suggest that of the 147 signatory nations of the BRI, more than one-third of them are involved in the DSR projects. Half the BRI partner-nations range from low to lower-middle income economies, and ultimately opt for the advantages of the Chinese products offer in terms of cheaper prices and high-quality equipment and software, despite the repeatedly proven security risks of these resources.
The Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, has taken center stage in recent times as the world runs towards the shiny new technology of 5G. When combined with the expansive reach of China’s Digital Silk Road, this has resulted in the Chinese tech giant’s unmistakable dominance in the world market. Even as countries of the West warn against the threats posed by Chinese equipment in network infrastructure, Huawei continues to capitalize on and engulf the markets of largely developing nations.
The rise of the Huawei empire
The industry leader of telecommunications equipment was founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, former member of the Engineering Corps of the People’s Liberation Army in China. Over the years, as his brainchild grew and gained recognition, and as China emerged as a major power on the global stage, the dubious ties of founder Ren with the Chinese Communist Party and the government came under intense scrutiny. Ren may deny the involvement of any official bodies in the establishment of the company, however company officials present at the time of its genesis sing a different tune, uncovering the millions worth of loans that were doled out to Huawei at the stage of its inception, as well as the support provided by the science and technology department of the state.
Huawei’s connections with the CCP, when paired with the intelligence laws put in place by Beijing in 2017, (which have the authority to turn any Chinese business or outfit essentially into a means of espionage at the behest of the government) lead to the emergence of a very dangerous picture, especially when one takes the relevant security concerns for other nations dealing with products of Chinese origin into account.
In just about 3 decades, Huawei has managed to clamber its way from a mere reseller of cellular devices to the world’s leading manufacturer of telecommunications gear, smartphones, cloud computing and cybersecurity amongst other resources. Its rapid reach into the countries in Asia, Africa and Europe has been as commendable as it is risky for nations all across. The electronic giant’s disreputable yet growing business, when coupled with China’s reach into nations under the guise of the DSR, could possibly lead to an eventual state of zero-trust policies between nations in the near future.
The significance of Huawei’s role in the race for 5G
Researchers believe that Huawei’s role in the race for 5G is a forgone conclusion, as the Chinese giant is already winning the world race for the latest network platform. However, the most vital aspect of winning this race is that of the company’s pervasive, long-term presence in the critical infrastructure of cyberspace in the countries that choose Huawei to usher in the era of 5G.
The business of setting up a 5G network in a country means digging your claws in and cementing your involvement for a long time, as once a corporation establishes the network, it is the same company most likely to be employed in the future to work upon the framework for upgrades well into the future, until said network becomes obsolete and is set to be replaced by a superior form. China is well on its way to use this foot-in-the-door technique, ensuring its continued presence in vulnerable nations.
Furthermore, the technology involved with the 5th generation network can open doors that have remained largely elusive up until now. The fear surrounding China’s involvement in 5G networks of other countries emerged from the possibility that when such access is merged with the technological reach of 5G, it would mean that China could, if it so chose to, sabotage and devastate anything that is touched by Huawei’s equipment, ranging from entire power grids across the world, to telecommunications and vehicles- essentially, China could bring down the internet and bring the world to a standstill.
How critical are the security threats that Chinese ventures represent?
One is likely to think that the hue and cry about Chinese firms posing security risks is an overstatement of unrealistic possibilities; however, through the years, Huawei has faced a fair amount of heat over incidents involving information breaches, data leaks, compromised software, backdoor entries and funneling of data to unknown locations- all of which makes the wariness surrounding Huawei and other Chinese firms relevant.
Australia was the first country in the world to have banned Huawei in its endeavor to establish the 5G network, citing ‘security concerns’ in 2018. Years later, these ‘security concerns’ were substantiated as word got out that the telecommunications network in the country had suffered an information breach in 2012, which was very visibly traced back to the Huawei equipment that Australia used. Using a sophisticated self-deleting, malicious software embedded in an update, the code reprogrammed all Huawei equipment present in the networks to record and reroute all information passing through it, to China. When Canberra shared this data leak with its American counterparts in Washington, it was found that a similar breach had occurred that year with Huawei equipment set up in the US as well.
In another incident of data rerouting and theft at the hands of Huawei, the African Union’s headquarters was found to be compromised. Widely reported in 2018, authorities found that for 5 long years, from 2012 through 2017, the Addis Ababa headquarters of the AU had been victim to their information being funneled to servers in Hong Kong and Shanghai- unsurprisingly, the headquarters itself as well as the technological equipment was financed and backed by the Chinese government, meant to signify the ‘latest landmark in the long friendship between China and Africa’. It has, hence, become imperative for nations who collaborate with China to remain aware that with each “good deed” the country offers, there’s always more to the situation than what meets the eye.
How much damage can China cause?
With Huawei’s predominance in developing and facilitating 5G networks, China stands to gain access to any and all information it wishes to acquire from any network or nation of its choosing. Huawei has a long history of providing flimsy security for its consumer nations, with a common theme of security breaches, data funneling to unauthorized locations and backdoor entries into software and equipment.
Having set up 5G for over 50 countries, the threat of Huawei isn’t just restricted to the host nations, but easily extends out to whichever other countries are connected to it. The presence of Huawei equipment in a country’s network is one of the biggest threats to mutual exchange of confidential information between nations, for fear of data stealing by the uninvited third-party, China.
Furthermore, involving Chinese equipment in a network could also result in arbitrary surveillance and censorship, as certain parts of a network have the ability to filter and manipulate data after accessing it- this is already actively occurring across the African continent in countries that use Huawei equipment. This act has also proven to be wildly popular amongst authoritarian regimes as a means to cling onto their positions of power by way of curtailing the rights of citizens.
Another threat to democracy that Huawei is purporting is the “safe city” dream. With equipment and software manufactured and supplied by Huawei, the idea of a safe city essentially encapsulates total monitoring and surveillance of individuals at every point, right from facial recognition to social media monitoring. Pair that with China’s own interest in expansive surveillance activities, and every nation that indulges in these products is essentially handing over the ability to profile their own citizens, to Beijing.
All the security incidents over the years are testament to the fact that the Huawei business acts as an extension of China’s arm of intelligence-gathering and surveillance mechanism, be it voluntarily or involuntarily. At this point in time, countries allowing China into their critical infrastructures for fear of being “left behind in technological advances” should do so with the full knowledge that they may find themselves staring down the dragon’s barrel.