The decision renders Canada the only member of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence consortium – also made up of the United States, Australia and New Zealand – to have failed to block Huawei on security grounds from at least part of its high-speed 5G internet infrastructure.
Charles Burton, a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said “it now becomes very difficult for the Canadian government to agree to the installation of Huawei 5G”.
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The UK government announced that it would both ban the purchase of new 5G components from Huawei after the end of this year, and purge existing Huawei equipment by 2027.
Burton said “the will of the government” of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been to approve Huawei’s participation in Canadian 5G, and it remained under pressure from “the China lobby” to do so.
But Tuesday’s move by London made it “very difficult to make a decision that would distinguish us from our partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing consortium.”
“I think our government will have to make a decision against Huawei, and make that announcement, and they’ll probably have to do that soon,” said Burton.
He said that concerns about Huawei from retired Canadian intelligence officials and the public had made it impossible for Trudeau’s government to find “an opportune moment” to approve Huawei 5G.
Canada’s public safety ministry did not provide comment at time of publication.
Polls have shown a large majority of Canadians are opposed to Huawei’s participation in 5G internet infrastructure.
An Angus Reid poll released on May 13 found 78 per cent of 1,518 respondents in Canada thought the federal government should ban Huawei from 5G, up from 69 per cent in November. Two weeks later, Research Co polling of 1,000 people in Canada put support for a ban at 75 per cent.
“In four rounds of nationwide polling, most Canadians have never regarded Huawei as a welcome addition to Canada’s 5G network,” Mario Canseco, president of Research Co, said at the time.
Canseco said the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing extradition battle over Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou meant this position had “hardened considerably”.
Meng’s arrest at Vancouver’s airport in December 2018, at the request of US authorities who want her extradited to New York and put on trial for alleged fraud, has worsened China’s relations with the Ottawa and Washington.
Soon after Meng’s arrest, China detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and has now charged them with espionage. Their treatment is widely regarded in Canada as hostage-taking.
“One of the reasons we’ve made no progress on Kovrig and Spavor is that Canada has not made any kind of response of a retaliatory nature to the Chinese government and therefore we are perceived as weak, and therefore the Chinese government is not inclined to negotiate,” said Burton.
“If we were to make a statement against Huawei 5G, I think that would strengthen our negotiating position re Kovrig and Spavor. It would show that Canada is prepared to take action against China regardless of threats,” Burton said.
“In any case, our existing policy of appeasement towards China has not been effective; Kovrig and Spavor have now been detained for 19 months with no indication of their being freed any time.”
Trudeau’s Liberal government had said in April 2019 that it would release a ruling on Huawei before the October election that year, but it was postponed and has been stalled ever since.
The US, which has introduced a range of sanctions on Huawei that effectively ban it from 5G networks, has warned allies that intelligence sharing would be imperilled if they did not follow suit.
Burton said that “making a decision consistent with what our allies are doing with regards to Huawei 5G would make a great deal of sense.”
But he was dismissive of the suggestion that a ban would amount to simply satisfying the demands of the current US administration of Donald Trump.
“Canada has its own concerns regarding Chinese cyber espionage and the risk of China gaining potential control over our telecommunications [that] impinge on our domestic interests,” he said.
He cited “massive hacks” into government bodies that he said were attributable to Chinese sources.
“Put all these factors together and it’s clearly just not a viable option for Canada to have Huawei 5G, regardless of the US stance or our allies’. For Canadian domestic interests, it would be highly unwise to take the risk to our Canadian national security.”
Australia banned Huawei and other Chinese companies from being part of its 5G network in 2018, while New Zealand blocked a plan by telecoms company Spark to exclusively use Huawei 5G technology late that year, citing a “significant network security risk”.
Today’s decision by the UK to ban Huawei from its 5G networks advances Transatlantic security in the #5G era while protecting citizens’ privacy, national security, and free-world values.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) July 14, 2020
But New Zealand has since taken an ambiguous stance, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern denying there was an outright ban on Huawei 5G tech.
Huawei Canada’s vice-president of media affairs, Benjamin Howes, referred the South China Morning Post to a statement by Huawei’s UK spokesman, saying the decision by London was “bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone”.
The company has previously denied posing a security risk to Canada or elsewhere.
Major Canadian telecoms operators Telus and Bell last month announced that they were bypassing Huawei for their 5G networks, with Bell saying it was opting for Sweden’s Ericsson and Telus saying it was selecting Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia. A third major operator, Rogers, is already using Ericsson.
“So things are moving towards resolving themselves,” said Burton.
“But as an approach to China this is the wrong way to go: we really ought to make a decision, and make it clear to the Chinese government, that we don’t believe the Chinese technology would not be used by the Chinese state … to give it a geostrategic advantage, including in any possible future conflict with the United States.”
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