Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has become the epicenter of heightened Western scrutiny over the company’s suspected connection to Chinese espionage, highlighting key flashpoints between the West and China. In recent months, the tension has escalated into action. On 1 December 2018, Huawei executive and Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, was arrested in Vancouver, Canada at the request of the United States on the suspicion of violating sanctions against Iran, pushing Canada and China into a diplomatic dispute. On 11 January 2019, Poland arrested Huawei employee Weijing Wang and a Polish cyber-businessman identified as Piotr D on espionage charges.
Meng’s arrest elicited the arrests of two Canadian citizens in China on charges of “suspected involvement in activities that jeopardize China’s national security” in retaliation. China also sentenced another Canadian to death in a one-day retrial on charges of smuggling almost 500 pounds of methamphetamines to Australia after originally sentencing him to 15 years in prison. The recent tensions between China and the West over Huawei and these arrests is an interesting geopolitical episode that illustrates a fundamental disconnect between the way the two actors view global events.
In 2017, China passed a national intelligence law forcing “Chinese organizations and citizens” to “support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work.” The U.S. has suspected since 2012 that the Chinese government takes advantage of Chinese tech giants’ access to American citizens’ data and the 2017 law only heightened Western suspicions.
U.S. concerns in 2012 centered on Huawei and another Chinese telecommunications firm, ZTE. ZTE made international headlines in mid-2018 when the U.S. banned exports to ZTE in retaliation for violating sanctions against Iran and North Korea, effectively shutting down the firm’s operations. The Trump administration later reached a settlement with ZTE for $1 billion in exchange for access to the U.S. market, a move that attracted criticism from lawmakers who alleged that ZTE would continue to provide China access to Americans’ data. Many urged the administration to implement tougher penalties.
Greater scrutiny over Huawei is a result of security concerns over the implementation of 5G mobile networks worldwide. Huawei is a leader in 5G tech – Huawei Deputy Chairman Ken Hu claimed the firm had a 12-to-18 month head start over their rivals. However, China’s national security law, has left Western states wary of allowing Huawei to implement 5G technology, which may someday connect key infrastructure elements like self-driving cars and medical equipment. Western states believe that giving Huawei access to integral infrastructure would the Chinese government access as well for nefarious purposes. The list of nations that have banned Huawei includes Australia, New Zealand, France, Japan, and the United States, although Canada and Germany may follow. Poland has called on the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization to take a “joint stance” on whether to ban Huawei from 5G implementation.
Despite the West’s suspicion, there is no public proof that Huawei has been exploited for Chinese espionage purposes. The West is less interested in whether or not Huawei is currently a tool for Chinese intelligence – the real concern is the fact that Huawei could become a tool for Chinese intelligence, even over its executives’ objections. China’s national security law compels private Chinese companies to bend to the Chinese government’s will at any time. Western states are taking a cautionary approach to Huawei’s involvement in 5G implementation because any involvement with Huawei provides China with a backdoor into Western infrastructure to exploit in the future.
China’s victim complex
While the West views China and Huawei’s actions as a security threat, China views the West’s actions as a way to restrict Chinese economic growth and political clout, in conjunction with the U.S. trade war with China – one that has slowed down the Chinese economy’s growth rate to the lowest point since 1990 and left 21 out of China’s 29 provinces worse off than last year. China’s ambitious grand strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative, is focused on fostering infrastructure development across the globe, building Chinese influence in the process. Huawei and ZTE have been integral in that effort, aiding in the development of cellular networks in 60 countries around the world.
Because Huawei’s business activities are aligned with the BRI, and thus Huawei’s interests coincide with the Chinese government’s, Beijing – and the Chinese people – have viewed Meng’s arrest as an explicit and direct attack on their geopolitical goals. Chinese companies have come to Huawei’s aid in the aftermath of the arrest, with the Internet product company Mengpai Technologies and electronics supplier Shenzhen Huiyisheng both offering monetary incentives to their staff if they purchase Huawei smartphones and get rid of their American iPhones.
From the Chinese perspective, the arrest of Meng in Canada was akin to pouring salt into China’s fresh economic wounds, another part of the systematic Western campaign against their China’s economic agenda. China retaliated in the same manner in which they believed the West was acting, detaining Canadian citizens. Canada arrested Meng, so China arrested Kovrig and Spavor, both Canadian non-governmental organization employees working in China. China raised the stakes with drug dealer Robert Schellenberg’s revised death sentence.
The crucial problem lies in the fact the Chinese and Western judicial systems are fundamentally different. China sees the judicial system as tied to a state’s political and economic goals. When Canada arrested Chinese citizen Su Bin in 2014 on behalf of American law enforcement for charges related to hacking, Chinese authorities retaliated by arresting Julia and Kevin Garratt and subjecting them to interrogations involving threats of execution. China believed they could enact a trade: Su Bin for the Garratts.
The West, on the other hand, sees a state’s judicial system as completely independent, something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has emphasized in the aftermath of the arrests. A prisoner swap is incredibly rare in the U.S. and usually only involves prisoners of war during combat. A prisoner swap for purely political purposes is unheard of. However, President Trump has undermined that precedent by stating he would “certainly intervene” if it were good for trade relations with Beijing. Trump’s rhetoric plays into Chinese assumptions that the recent arrest of Chinese nationals in the West is a purely political act. Ultimately, the standoff between the West and China over Huawei is just a microcosm of the larger issues plaguing relations between the two axes. To reduce tensions between the two, both powers must bridge the fundamental gaps in their understanding of the other’s perspective.