After some wrangling, the Five Eyes member states have arrived at a common position on the use of Huawei technology in critical infrastructure. But the Huawei snafu is likely just the first of many challenges to alliance solidarity as an expansionist China looks for ways to win Western allies to its cause.
In January this year, the UK Government broke ranks with its Five Eyes allies, confirming that Huawei would be involved in building part of its 5G network. The decision defied warnings from the United States that “if countries choose to go the Huawei route, it could well jeopardize all the information sharing and intelligence sharing we have been talking about, and that could undermine the alliance, or at least our relationship with that country.” Britain’s stance was also out of step with the declared positions of Australia and New Zealand. One US official decried the UK’s decision to put technological and economic expediency ahead of Five Eyes solidarity as a “sucker punch” on “an absolutely key issue at a critical juncture.”
The condemnation of allies and growing domestic political pressure has since provoked a reversal in the UK position on Huawei. In mid-July, British Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport,Oliver Dowden, announced that buying new Huawei equipment would be banned after December 2020 and that all existing Huawei technology would be removed from 5G networks by the end of 2027. Many consider the timeframe too long, and also note that Britain’s earlier position was made virtually untenable after the US banned semiconductors that rely on US chip technology from provisioning Huawei without US government permission. Nonetheless, there is relief among the Five Eyes community that a consistent position on the use of Huawei for critical infrastructure has ultimately emerged. (For its part, Canada has not yet officially prohibited Huawei technology in its 5G build, but many observers consider it inevitable following Britain’s change of heart.)
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The Huawei episode illustrates the challenges of keeping the alliance together in the face of growing pressure from China. Why, despite all the warnings, was the UK prepared to compromise such an important and longstanding alliance? Certainly, the comparative cheapness of Huawei technology was a consideration, but many commentators have also pointed to the very adept way that Huawei – and Chinese interests more broadly – have infiltrated the British establishment and bought influence at the highest levels. Before the ban, Huawei’s UK board boasted some of the biggest names in British industry – among them Lord Browne (former CEO of British Petroleum), Sir Andrew Cahn (former head of UK Trade and Investment) and Sir Mike Rake (former president of the UK Confederation of Industry). The UK is by no means unique in this regard. While Australia has, to date, taken a tougher line towards China, it is not for want of Chinese attempts to buy influence. Huawei was the biggest sponsor of overseas travel for members of the Australian parliament between 2010 and early 2018, and in recent years, Huawei’s Australia’s board has boasted the services of former foreign Minister Alexander Downer, former Premier of Victoria John Brumby, and a former Rear Admiral of Australian Navy John Lord.
It seems inevitable that the Huawei episode will be just the first of many tests to Five Eye’s solidarity as China seeks to parlay economic power into geopolitical influence, and the United States responds in kind. So far, Australia has shown itself most willing to follow the US’s more hawkish lead. In September, the Australian government passed legislation barring state governments from reaching agreements with foreign powers deemed to be ‘not in the national interest.’ The first casualty of the Australian government’s new powers will almost certainly be the Victorian government’s 2019 agreement to participate in Beijing’s signature Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative (BRI). By contrast, New Zealand signed onto the BRI in 2019. When the Five Eyes countries attempted to put forward a unified front condemning the erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong earlier this year, New Zealand demurred. The eventual statement had only four signatories – the US, UK, Canada, and Australia.
In a post-COVID world the difficulty of keeping all Five Eyes allies on the same strategic page is only going increase. Small, export-reliant, and now heavily indebted countries like NZ cannot afford to jeopardize trade with China. Indeed, New Zealand need only look across the Tasman Sea to know that taking a tougher stance towards Beijing can have immediate economic repercussions. Similarly, the Victorian Labor government’s MOU with Beijing suggests a change in partisan government at the national level could well see Australia split from the US and adopt a more accommodating position toward China. Canada too, may not be so unflinching the next time China slaps a ban on Canadian canola or sentences Canadian citizens to death on dubious charges. In sum, it seems very unlikely that the Five Eyes alliance will hang together as naturally and seamlessly as it did during the unipolar period of the immediate post-Cold War era.
Read another great blog in this series: Is it Time to Expand the Five Eyes? By Greg Fyffe