Suppressing Huawei beyond US security concerns: expert

Source:Global Times Published: 2019/8/29 22:23:40

Photo: IC

Editor's Note:

Today, cybersecurity has become a hot topic worldwide, with Huawei and 5G technology at the center of the storm. How is cybersecurity connected with geopolitics? In what way will cyber geopolitics influence a country's diplomacy? How to establish effective diplomatic mechanism in cyberspace? During the seminar "The Geopolitics of Cyberspace: A Diplomatic Perspective" organized by the Charhar Institute on Monday, Global Times (GT) reporter Li Qingqing talked to Shaun Riordan (Riordan), director of the Department for Diplomacy and Cyberspace at the European Institute of International Studies, on these issues.

GT: In your new book Cyberdiplomacy: Managing Security and Governance in Cyberspace, you have mentioned that diplomacy is needed to manage the problems in cyberspace. What is the relationship between cyberspace and geopolitics?

I think we could identify geopolitics and cyberspace in two ways. One is the physical structure of cyberspace, which includes cables, switching stations and storage in the physical world. But then, the virtual network is built up in cyberspace itself. The virtual network determines how you get access, but also creates an inevitable complexity and uncertainty.

In the physical network, for example, about 80 percent of internet traffic passes across the US, and that gives the US an enormous advantage in terms of surveillance. It also gives other countries an incentive to find new structures to avoid that surveillance. There is a concept called critical geopolitics, which is a way of analyzing how each individual actor experiences cyberspace. I think this can demonstrate how these actors behave and what they are going to do in cyberspace.

GT: The US has been putting pressure on China's Huawei, and some say that the US aims at a technological decoupling with China, or even a technological cold war. In your opinion, what is the US purpose of suppressing Huawei?

To some extent, I think we need to disconnect Huawei from the trade conflict between China and the US. I am not convinced that the US problem with Huawei is a security issue. I think the US problem with Huawei is that for the first time, in the case of the second phase of 5G, a non-American or non-American ally country is setting the international industrial standards for a new technology. This has not happened before. 

Now, Americans are trying to prevent non-American companies from setting international industrial standards. For the US, this is more important than the security issue, because it is eating into the US hegemony in cyberspace. There will be many examples of conflicts over industrial standards in the future.

GT: How will the US pressure influence Huawei, and how should the company break through the blockade?

The US has put direct pressure on Huawei, trying to prevent US component makers from selling key components to Huawei, and prevent Huawei from accessing Google's Android and downloading new updates of Android. In that area, Huawei is simply developing its own products. Then, to some extent, the US has backed off a little bit and allowed American companies to still sell components to Huawei. This is bad for the US, because it means that US influence is declining. Also, a lot of countries are going to be torn because either they can accept Huawei technology for 5G - in which case they can enjoy 5G early, cheaply and efficiently and gain an economic advantage - or they can say no to Huawei and wait years and lose the advantage. So, I think there will be a large number of countries which will go with Huawei anyway, despite the American pressure.

GT: How will China-US disputes develop in the area of cyberspace?

We can see increasing tension in China-US trade disputes, and cyberspace will reflect such tension. The problem is that US President Donald Trump once said the trade war is easy for the US to win and then he found out it is not. For a broad range of reasons, it is very difficult for either side to make concessions to the other. Once you put tariffs on everything, you have to look for different areas of leverage. And there is a danger that one or both sides will start thinking that cyberspace is an area where they can put pressure on the other. Although cyberspace may be a better way than the other alternatives to add pressure, it still has escalated into risks.

GT: What should China do to have more say and set up its own diplomatic mechanism in cyberspace?

The situation for China has changed. China used to be a country that was very conscious of the technological gap between it and the rest of the world. Therefore, China's priority in cyberspace was to acquire technology and to close that technological gap. But now, China is moving into a position where it is vulnerable to various kinds of espionage and other cyber attacks. So today, China's interests are increasingly in establishing stability in cyberspace to enable it to further develop economically. Therefore, the aim of Chinese diplomacy in cyberspace should be to identify other partners who share in China's preferred outcomes, and discuss with them how to establish norms of data protection, intellectual property and limit cyberattack targets, etc. China should have a conversation along those lines. For example, at the moment, conversations with Europeans would be a good option for China.

GT: In what way can different countries worldwide actualize a peaceful and orderly cyberspace?

Traditionally, diplomacy operates by identifying shared preferred outcomes in particular areas and reaching agreements. Countries would do it bilaterally and then they may bring in another country. But it is a slow process of building consensus upwards. Until now, the problem we have in cyberspace is that if you try to start in an ambitious way and make everyone embrace an agreement, then those key countries would not agree. I think we need to be more modest and slower. I have realized that we need to construct norms or international law in cyberspace exactly the same way as we did in physical space. It is a lengthy process, not something you accomplish overnight.

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