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Johnsen Romero in The Hill Times — Ottawa’s 5G Policy a Stress Test for Canada-China Relations

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The following commentary was originally published by The Hill Times.

As the Trudeau government has sworn in its newest cabinet, a decision on Huawei’s involvement in Canada’s 5G network appears to be the next major policy decision to stress relations with China. Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne hinted as much, stating that an announcement from his department is on the horizon with national security considerations to be front and centre.

Ottawa’s regulatory framework for 5G infrastructure vendors will be a litmus test for Canada-China relations and the direction of Ottawa’s China policy in the aftermath of the two Michaels. There is no doubt that the new policy will impose greater technical scrutiny on Chinese 5G technology equipment in Canadian networks. All major operators in Canada have already partnered up with vendors other than Huawei to develop their 5G networks. Therefore, the immediate impact of the government’s decision will be limited. However, it is the nature of how the expected 5G policy will target Chinese technology vendors (i.e. Huawei) that will clarify the government’s outlook on China and its positioning in the greater U.S.-China rivalry.

Beijing has long warned of potential consequences should Ottawa single out a particular company, such as Huawei, or establish more blanket orders through country-specific restrictions. Chinese Ambassador Cong Peiwu has elaborated that explicit “discriminatory” measures would invite a chilling effect on Chinese investment in Canada. He has also suggested that a Canadian telecom decision that reflects close alignment with U.S. pressure will be taken as a sign that Ottawa lacks autonomy.

As recently as the prime minister’s mission to Washington last month, the ranking member of the Senate foreign relations committee Jim Risch reminded Trudeau of U.S. expectations that Ottawa expedite its 5G decision. In conversation with the prime minister, Risch reiterated that “the Huawei issue needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.”

It is likely that Beijing fully expects Ottawa to impose a prohibition on Chinese vendors in some form. The key distinction will lie between a de jure ban targeting Chinese vendors and a de facto ban in the form of a security assessment and clearance process that is stringently enforced, but universally applied.

Given the turbulence in bilateral relations over the past several years, it is likely that Beijing fully expects Ottawa to impose a prohibition on Chinese vendors in some form. The key distinction will lie between a de jure ban targeting Chinese vendors and a de facto ban in the form of a security assessment and clearance process that is stringently enforced, but universally applied without singling out any particular company.

In terms of cybersecurity, a report from Citizen Lab underlines how a national telecommunication policy would be better served by an all-encompassing approach to mitigating security vulnerabilities across every vendor rather than Huawei alone. If the objective of banning Chinese technology in 5G networks is to prevent disruptions and cyberattack operations, the report notes that “there is no reason to expect that, should Canadian telecommunications companies be banned from using Huawei products, that such operations will stop being effective when directed toward Canadian networks and systems.”

In effect, a de jure and de facto ban may achieve the same ends in the short term. The difference between the two approaches’ foreign policy implications, however, is not minor. A federal decision to adopt one approach over the other will serve a political function as opposed to a technical judgement. Should the government opt for an explicit ban, it would signal the direction of Ottawa’s China policy through its willingness to accentuate its threat perception of Beijing. It would likely also influence Beijing’s willingness to treat Canada’s foreign policy independently of Washington’s.

Should the government opt for an explicit ban, it would signal the direction of Ottawa’s China policy through its willingness to accentuate its threat perception of Beijing. It would likely also influence Beijing’s willingness to treat Canada’s foreign policy independently of Washington’s.

New Zealand and Australia illustrate the difference between implicit and explicit telecom exclusions and the consequent Chinese policy response. Canberra’s consistency in characterizing its Huawei ban as a China-specific measure departs from Wellington’s approach. Under the Jacinda Ardern government, New Zealand has maintained a deliberate ambiguity in its telecom policy that is “blind” on evaluating the security merits of any one vendor.

In Australia’s case, Beijing has underlined its Huawei prohibition on a 14-point list of grievances that it says underpin Canberra’s choice to undertake a China policy that “does the bidding of the U.S.” Current Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton has recalled how the country’s decision to ban the company was a “tipping point” in Australia’s relations with China.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, New Zealand’s cabinet has categorically dismissed designing its telecom policy to specifically forbid Chinese companies, even as its security protocols accomplish this outcome all the same. Contrary to media depictions of a “ban” on Huawei, Wellington has insisted on the neutrality of its vendor assessment process that has parallels in Canada’s review program for 4G network operators.

According to the minister in charge of New Zealand’s intelligence bureau, the designation of security risks in Huawei equipment as part of a domestic 5G carrier proposal was a result of a technical procedure that would “never ban a particular company or a particular country.”

Prime Minister Ardern has emphasized this point repeatedly, noting that Huawei’s future operations in New Zealand would remain subject to a framework where “our legislation is vendor and country neutral.” She has also raised it in discussions to clarify her government’s security regulations with counterparts in Beijing, providing assurances that Wellington’s process is “very different than what any of our other Five Eyes partners are going through.” In stark contrast with Australia, New Zealand’s telecom policy has not produced similar diplomatic reprisals from China.

Ultimately, China likely understands that Canada’s regulatory options are circumscribed by the demands of its national security community and intelligence collaborations within the Five Eyes. At the same time, Beijing reckons that there is space within these limits for Canada, at minimum, to cushion a potential 5G ban in rhetoric if not in practice.

Written By:
Johnsen Romero
Johnsen Romero is a researcher at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a Yenching Scholar at Peking University. He has previously served as a policy analyst for Global Affairs Canada and as a researcher at the Department of Finance.
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This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


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Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

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Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

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Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

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Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

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Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

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Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

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Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor