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Huawei and the US ‘pivot to Asia’

Part two in an eight part series investigating the crisis in Canada-China relations

Canadian PoliticsAsiaUSA Politics

An imminent Canadian decision on whether to ban Huawei from participating in the deployment of 5G networks will bring Canada-China relations to a boil once again. Photo courtesy Huawei.

Amid the wreckage of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have turned their sights on China. University of Victoria professor emeritus and historian John Price examines the rise of the coalition of Anglo settler colonial states of Canada, the United Kingdom, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, and how they are today fomenting conflict in the Asia Pacific. You can read the series in its entirety here.

An imminent Canadian decision on whether to ban Huawei from participating in the deployment of 5G networks will bring Canada-China relations to a boil once again. A recent commentary by Postmedia columnist Licia Corbella reflects the continuing hyperbole in Canada: “If Huawei is allowed to supply Canada’s 5G network, our country and our allies will be at risk. It would be as though China was holding 38 million of us for ransom.”

Such incendiary popular views are reinforced by academics such as Charles Burton, senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. “Allowing Huawei into our 5G, even on the periphery of the network, is nothing short of appeasement at the expense of security,” he stated in an October 2021 commentary in the Globe and Mail.

The Hamilton-based Coalition to Free Meng Wanzhou, on the other hand, has called on the Trudeau government to “abide by relevant World Trade Organization rules, rebuff pressure from the US government, and finally allow Huawei Canada to participate fully in the deployment of the Canadian 5G network. 1,300 highly-paying Canadian jobs are at stake.” This is unlikely to happen as public opinion in Canada and much of the Global North has become critical of China.

Many people today associate Huawei’s troubles with Donald Trump’s anti-China policies, but the telecommunications giant’s problems pre-date the former president. If the 2008 financial meltdown signalled the decline of American economic hegemony, the 2008 Beijing Olympics signalled China’s rise as a global economic and technological powerhouse, setting off alarm bells in Washington. A year later, Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency in 2009 would mark the beginning of a shift in US foreign policy known as the “pivot to Asia.”

Huawei’s rise

A few years ago, Huawei was well on its way to becoming a household name in Canada through its sponsorship of the ever-popular “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcast by Rogers Communications. Huawei smartphones were becoming competitive with Apple and Samsung devices. And Bell and Telus, major Canadian telecommunications companies, had been partnering with Huawei in deploying their high-speed networks. So, what went wrong?

Dr. Yun Wen, a recent graduate of Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication, has recently written a comprehensive account of this successful transnational corporation’s rise titled The Huawei Model: The Rise of China’s Technology Giant.[1] Ren Zhengfei founded the company after Deng Xiaoping became leader of the Chinese Communist Party in the late 1970s. It was a private start-up based in the new economic zone of Shenzhen. From there, it carefully rode the currents of China’s industrial policy to become a major producer of information and communications technology (ICT) including both hardware and software.

Huawei’s success, concludes Wen, was because of its independent capacity to navigate the vagaries of the Chinese state. Like any telecommunications corporation, Huawei is subject to the dictates of national security—a fact that Wan acknowledges, albeit indirectly.[2] Huawei successfully developed its worldwide commercial operations in the Global South in the 1980s.[3] By 2005, overseas sales outstripped domestic sales for the first time. As it expanded its operations into the Global North, however, Huawei’s growth was buffeted by severe headwinds emanating from Washington.

Pivot to Asia

Huawei’s trajectory reflected the fact that China had become the second largest economy in the world by 2010. Regionally, it was forging stronger ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on multiple fronts, by participating in the ASEAN+3 (ASEAN plus China, Japan, and South Korea) group, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and free trade negotiations.[4] This prompted the hawkish side of the Obama administration to pursue a more responsive policy in the Asia Pacific to remain a dominant player in the region. Thus, when the Japanese coast guard detained a Chinese fishing vessel near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea in 2010, the US State Department asserted that the US-Japan military alliance applied to those waters despite earlier pledges to maintain US neutrality in territorial disputes. Obama then announced a “pivot to Asia” during his 2011 trip to Hawai’i, Australia, and Indonesia. This pivot included initiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a free trade proposal excluding China), prioritizing the East Asia Summit over the ARF for security discussions, and ‘re-balancing’ American troop deployments from the Middle East to Asia which included stationing 2,500 Marines in Darwin. This, we should keep in mind, all occurred before Xi Jinping assumed the leadership of the Communist Party in 2012.

Around the same time, Mike Rogers and Charles Albert “Dutch” Ruppersberger of the House Intelligence Committee issued a 60-page report recommending that “US government systems, particularly sensitive systems, should not include Huawei or ZTE (a Chinese partially state-owned technology company that specializes in telecommunication) equipment, including in component parts. Similarly, government contractors—particularly those working on contracts for sensitive US programs—should exclude ZTE or Huawei equipment in their systems.”[5] Huawei itself had called for the investigation, believing that it had nothing to hide. Conversely, the 60-page report condemned the Chinese firm for not providing enough evidence and concluded, without substantiation, that their “provision of equipment to US critical infrastructure could undermine core US national security interests.”[6] Behind this bluster, however, lurks a darker story.

Just prior to this, Edward Snowden, the soon-to-be whistleblower, found himself stationed in Japan. His autobiography, Permanent Record, documents his journey through the US security apparatus and his work assessing China’s ability to “electronically track American officers and assets operating in the region” at the Yokota Air Base near Tokyo from 2009 to 2011. It was at that moment that he began to suspect that something was dreadfully wrong:

There was simply no way for America to have so much information about what the Chinese were doing without having done some of the very same things itself, and I had the sneaking sense while I was looking through all this China material that I was looking at a mirror and seeing a reflection of America. What China was doing publicly to its own citizens, America might be—could be—doing secretly to the world.[7]

At that moment, Snowden repressed his suspicions, rationalizing that China was an oppressive regime whereas the US was open with only “defensive and targeted surveillance.” As a system administrator inside the US intelligence network, Snowden had the highest security clearance available. Within two years of his initial worry that something was seriously amiss, he came upon the mass surveillance program, STELLARWIND, that confirmed his earlier suspicions: the NSA was illegally involved in a global scheme of mass surveillance unlike any other in history.[8] US cybercrimes not only targeted China, they also breeched the privacy of internet users around the world, and reportedly went so far as to hack the telephone of German chancellor Angela Merkel. Snowden’s discoveries marked the “the so-called Western world’s transformation from the creator and defender of the free internet to its opponent and prospective destroyer.”[9]

Reporters and analysts sorted through the massive amounts of intelligence that Snowden provided, revealing: “The US National Security Agency has infiltrated servers in the headquarters of Chinese telecommunications and internet giant Huawei Technologies Co., obtaining sensitive information and monitoring the communications of top executives.” In other words, the NSA hacked Huawei nearly ten years ago—the very act that the House Intelligence Committee had falsely accused Huawei of committing.

We know that “high technology telecommunications giants and the key hardware manufacturers have to play cooperatively with agencies” for the Five Eyes—an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the US—to be effective.[10] The fear of Huawei is based, not on a concern about what Huawei might do, but rather on the fact that it might object to being forced into Five Eyes systems, many of which are targeting China.

Aggressive US policies, including its cybercrimes, the “pivot to Asia,” and its intentional exacerbation of territorial disputes in East Asia, provide important context for understanding the reactions of the PRC without necessarily condoning them. Having successfully followed the globalization ministrations of Washington for years, the Chinese government expected commendation but was met instead with hostility and new initiatives to “contain” China. To ensure public support for these policies, the US-led coalition of settler colonial states directed the Five Eyes intelligence network to focus on China.

Part 3: A red under every bed? Canada, racial profiling, and the Five Eyes

John Price is professor emeritus at the University of Victoria, author of Orienting Canada, and a member of the Advisory Board of the newly formed Canada-China Focus, a project of the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute and the Centre for Global Studies (University of Victoria).

[1] Wen, The Huawei Model: The Rise of China’s Technology Giant (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020).

[2] Wen, The Huawei Model, 191; Karen J. Greenberg, Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016). For more information on Verizon’s subordination to the US spy system, see Greenberg’s book as cited.

[3] Huawei’s experiences are summarized in The Huawei Model, Chapter 2 on the Global South and Chapter 3, for the Global North.

[4] Kenneth G. Leberthal, “The American Pivot to Asia,” (Brookings, December 2011); Janine Davidson, “The U.S. ‘Pivot to Asia’,” American Journal of Chinese Studies, 21 (June 2014): 77-82. Janine Davidson is the former deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans.

[5] Mike Rogers and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, “Investigative Report on the U.S. National Security Issues Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE,” (Washington: U.S. House of Repesentatives, 2012): 45.

[6] Rogers and Ruppersberger, “Investigative Report,” vi.

[7] Edward Snowden, Permanent Record (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019), 171.

[8] Snowden, Permanent Record, 175-177.

[9] Snowden, Permanent Record, 267.

[10] Anthony R. Wells, Between Five Eyes: 50 Years of Intelligence Sharing (Oxford: Casemate, 2020), 111.


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