Opinionista David Monyae 15 December 2020

Huawei wars: Joe Biden’s ascent to US presidency a ray of hope for multilateralism

Unlike the US-USSR Cold War rivalry, the Sino-American rivalry is between two giants whose economies are inextricably intertwined. Thus, in crude terms, China poses a greater threat to the United States than did the Soviet Union. Nowhere is this more heated than in the technological sphere.

David Monyae

Dr David Monyae is the Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

The election of Joe Biden as the next president of the United States, at the expense of Donald Trump’s bid for a second term, is undoubtedly a ray of hope for multilateralists. The Trump administration was a divisive edifice with no clear policy direction, save for satisfying Trump’s atavistic desires for untrammelled power, domination and fealty. He won the surprise 2016 election by appealing to the baser instincts of human nature, deflecting responsibility for one’s problem onto a perceived threat.

In terms of America’s economic and employment challenges, Trump blamed it on his predecessor’s alleged incompetence and China’s unfair trade benefits. He vowed to get American jobs back from China and to make sure that he would punish China for what he said was China’s gaming of the international system.

As president, Trump felt compelled to carry through some of his campaign promises. No political realist could blame him for that because his rhetoric granted an unexpected victory and thus, it was understandable that he would not depart from what he thought was a winning formula. Knowing very well that he was woefully unsuited to be president, Trump never ceased to campaign, and his rallies were invariably laced with the hate-filled oratory of his pre-presidency campaigns. As one who wanted to “make America great again”, Trump had a special place for China in his armoury of anti-globalist positions. 

America has for the last three quarters of the century been accustomed to being at the summit of the international system. Its peerless economy and its dominant role in military and technological spheres gave the United States unprecedented influence on global affairs. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union posed the only, if distant, competition to America’s dominance. Today, however, America faces China’s steep competition in almost all fields.

Unlike the US-USSR rivalry, the Sino-American rivalry is a rivalry between two giants whose economies are inextricably intertwined. Thus, in crude terms, China poses a greater threat to the United States than did the Soviet Union. One area in which the jostle for dominance in the ensuing world system will be more heated is in the technological sphere. 

One of the biggest heralds of China’s technological ascent is telecom equipment maker Huawei Technologies Co Ltd founded in 1987. Huawei is now the world’s biggest producer of telecom equipment. The company states that it “guarantees that its commitment to cybersecurity will never be outweighed by the consideration of commercial interests”.

Despite Huawei’s assurances of cyber safety and independence from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is essentially the Chinese government, the company is constantly forced to respond to endless allegations leveled against it by its competitors and China’s detractors. It is often accused without any shred of evidence of working in tandem with the Chinese government to spy on people at the behest of the CCP.

In May 2019, the United States added Huawei and 70 of its non-American affiliates to the Entity List. The Entity List is a compilation of businesses, research institutions, governments and individuals that enjoins those listed to get a special licence in order to export, reimport, or transfer products subject to Export Administration Regulations.

This also “meant that suppliers who normally supply Huawei with US products (including software updates and other technology) would no longer be able to do so without a licence from the US”. In other words, Huawei and all entities that appear on the List are perceived as threats to US security. Huawei was added to it on the assumption that it is engaged in activities that are inimical to America’s national security. 

America’s allies, chief among them the United Kingdom and Australia, are persuaded by America’s fear. Britain’s Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) deals with areas of concern pertaining to Huawei’s approach to software development. In September 2020 HCSEC issued its 2020 annual report, the sixth of its kind, which is based on January 2019 to December 2019 annual activities. While the report noted that while “HCSEC satisfied its requirements regarding the provision of software engineering and cybersecurity assurance artefacts to… the UK operators as part of the strategy to manage risks to UK national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks”, it still reserves concerns about Huawei’s software developments, concerns that might jeopardise the UK’s security.

The report accused Huawei of not upholding its own guidelines on matters such as coding. These misgivings dovetail with those of the National Cyber Security Centre, a UK body that offers support to private and public consumers of cyber products in order “to make the UK the safest place to live and work online”.

Australia, in the same manner as the UK and US, also went on to ban high-risk vendors from its 5G rollout, with Huawei and ZTE particularly singled out. Predictably, China has taken umbrage at such measures, characterising them as bias and discrimination. At a political level, the conduct of the UK and Australia in espousing American positions conjures up memories of how the UK erroneously and disastrously followed America into the war against Iraq.  

Notwithstanding possible dangers that might come with any form of technology, the assumption of the US is that it could convert any power to its mode of looking at world politics, with the bandwagoneers doing so unthinkingly. Africa is one of the regions where the United States will pontificate about the dangers of Huawei-sponsored technology. African giants such as South Africa have already made great strides in using Huawei. Africa has to exercise a great deal of sovereignty and vigilance as it consumes technologies that emanate from beyond its shores. The risks however should and must not be leveled against one company, Huawei alone, as most biased analysts do.

It appears that Huawei will never satisfy its detractors as the more it answers security questions the more new questions are posed. According to Gabriel Wadi, “securing digital networks requires a coordinated international response – an outcome that the Trump administration’s  actions have yet to produce.”

Inter-governmental collaboration is needed: countries need to work together and talk to each other, because cybersecurity is not only about data flow within domestic boundaries, but between countries in terms of service trade, e-commerce, culture exchange, and international cooperation on law enforcement. 

Furthermore, within its own personnel, Huawei commits about 46% of these to research and development, asserts that security is in its DNA and that “security requirements are embedded into how we design, build and deliver all our products”.

Finally, in Africa’s case, and indeed in the case of any players who might be under duress to jettison Huawei technologies, they have to assert their sovereignty and respond to this pressure with the certainty that digital surveillance, where it exists, is not an exclusively Chinese phenomenon. DM

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