Bryce Edwards: Huawei decision is the price of being in Five Eyes

Bryce Edwards: Huawei decision is the price of being in Five Eyes

John Key was once very candid in explaining the realpolitik reason New Zealand had to send troops to assist the US war on terror: it was simply “the price of the club”. He was speaking of the intelligence alliance known as Five Eyes involving the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

The Labour-led Government is unlikely to be equally upfront that this week’s decision to ban the Chinese company Huawei from supplying the infrastructure for the new telecommunications 5G network is also due to New Zealand’s membership of the Western allies’ club.

That reality is clear to political journalist Richard Harman, who says the Huawei ban “was the only one it could have come to. To have let Huawei in would have placed New Zealand at odds with its traditional friends – Australia, the United States and Britain – and offside with the Five Eyes alliance” – see: How the Huawei decision saw the old friends prevail.

This article points out that the Huawei decision “came coincidentally with the presence in the capital of a top-level delegation from the British Foreign office and also a senior FBI official from the US. The FBI official was here to open a new FBI liaison office in Police Headquarters.” And although it’s not clear that there was any recent pressure on the GCSB to ban Huawei, Harman points out that the signals from Five Eyes partners were very clear on the matter – especially with a British Government report in July, and then in “August Australia barred Huawei from participating in its 5G network.”

There is certainly going to be a cost for the ban. First, it seems that there will be consequences in terms of inferior and more expensive communications for consumers. Second, this country’s economic and diplomatic ties with the superpower of China will now be strained as a result.

Such costs could end up being significant, and will affect every New Zealander. In terms of Spark’s planned new telecommunications network, Barry Soper explains today: “they’ll probably have to settle for a more expensive and less efficient option. Huawei points out that in a trial for 5G in March they achieved a world record of more than 18 gigabytes a second while their competitors could only manage one gig. With data transfer rates at that speed perhaps that’s what spooked the GCSB” – see: Spy agency’s Huawei ban conveniences Government.

Soper says that essentially New Zealand has “finally picked sides” in the geopolitical rivalry between China and the US. He also stresses the economic and diplomatic prices that New Zealand will have to pay, saying “This decision has wide-reaching implications for this country with our biggest trading partner” and the “renegotiation of our Free Trade Agreement will now be on the back burner”.

In terms of diplomatic reaction, Soper says: “Now this is all out in the open it can come as no surprise the Chinese couldn’t find the time to see Jacinda Ardern in Beijing before Christmas, she was ready to go at the drop of a hat.”

Leftwing commentator Gordon Campbell seems to agree, saying “the Huawei ban is a hostile act”, and the “indefinite postponing of PM Jacinda Ardern’s trip to China is probably the first symptom of the cooling in our relationship” – see: On how banning Huawei fits into our new hostility towards China.

Campbell also suggests that the Huawei ban on involvement in the 5G project will be costly. He points to the fact that “In Australia, the Huawei bid was reportedly 30% lower than competing tenders”, and concludes that it “is reasonable to assume there will be extra costs for consumers as a consequence”.

As to why the Government is suddenly so sensitive about this new telecommunications network, when they haven’t been so worried in the past, Gordon provides a good explanation: “5G will be the key piece of architecture in the so-called ‘Internet of things’ that’s envisaged to connect our electricity and water systems, medical and driverless technologies, systems in homes and hospitals, factories and farms. The security concerns about China being central to the provision, installation and maintenance of such a massively interlinked system is not hard to imagine”.

Campbell argues that the Huawei ban is part of “a trifecta of measures via which the 5 Eyes allies have been beefing up their stance towards China” – the other two components being “(a) the increased defence spending in Australia and New Zealand for which countering China expansionism is the only conceivable rationale and (b) the massive increase in Australasia’s aid and diplomatic profile in the Pacific, in order to counter China’s ‘cheque book’ diplomacy”.

New Zealand really had no choice but to ban Huawei according to intelligence expert Paul Buchanan: “Diplomatically, it would be very difficult for the GCSB to green light Huawei’s involvement in the 5G upgrade in the face of the US request to withhold approval” – see: Huawei vs Five Eyes: NZ diplomatic ties at centre of dilemma.

Furthermore, “The fallout from such a decision could open a rift within the Five Eyes partnership because New Zealand is already seen as the Achilles Heel of the network given its past record of poor cyber security awareness (say, in the overlap between professional and personal communications). It is therefore prudent for the GCSB to side with the US on the matter.”

Siding with Western allies over China is evidence of New Zealand’s shifting orientation towards its biggest trading partner, according to Victoria University of Wellington’s strategic studies professor, Robert Ayson – see his Newstalk ZB interview: NZ’s relationship with China could suffer after GCSB decision – academic.

On the Huawei decision, Ayson says: “I think it’s an important sign that New Zealand’s approach to China is becoming more cautious. I think the special friendship between New Zealand and China is now a little less special in some ways”.

Ayson believes the reasons behind the ban would have been both genuine concerns for national security and about New Zealand’s alignment with the Five Eyes countries. He concludes: “I guess one of the question is, does New Zealand want to be seen as a weaker link?”

The cost of the Huawei ban is also well canvassed by Jamie Ensor in his article, NZ could see major fallout from Huawei 5G decision – expert. In this, Richard Harman is quoted on its impact on diplomatic relations with China: “The frequency of contact between New Zealand and China, and the intimacy of that contact, might slow down for a while”.

In terms of economic ties, Harman points to tourism and education as being the most likely hit. In terms of “worst case scenarios”, he says the Chinese Government “might try and restrain Chinese students who come here for education” and they might “take New Zealand off the preferred list of tourist destinations”.

Condemnation of the Huawei ban has been coming from both left and right. The former general secretary of the Labour Party, Mike Smith, has been highly critical of his own government: “The GCSB ban on Spark’s use of Huawei technology means this government has gone from ‘honest broker’ to poodle in a very short time” – see: Spooked!

He also suggests that it might be time for New Zealand to withdraw from Five Eyes, and says we shouldn’t believe much of what is being said about Huawei: “Maybe it’s time we got out of that too – it was designed for war. GCSB Minister Andrew Little argues that the GCSB decision is about the technology not the country. Nobody else believes that, certainly not the lobbyists and commentators including security analyst Adam Boileau, who said that argument didn’t make a lot of sense. He says Huawei’s engineering is pretty good.”

Rightwing blogger David Farrar appears to be in agreement on much of that, saying “the reality is that no one anywhere has ever been able to point to an actual security problem with Huawei. It is basically scaremongering” – see: We join the nonsense ban on Huawei.

Farrar elaborates: “Basically New Zealand has succumbed to peer pressure from our five eyes partners, primarily the US. Their motivations are protecting US companies from competition. They have never ever been able to say what exactly is it that Huawei has done wrong or could do wrong. They’ve been banned purely because of the country they are based in. This will increase the costs of telecommunications in New Zealand, by removing a preferred supplier. It will also be seen as a deeply offensive move by the Chinese Government and our exporters will probably end up paying the cost.”

Finally, for a fictional conversation about how the politics of the Huawei decision might be explained, see Chris Trotter’s From a table by the window.