Image credit: Latvian Foreign Ministry
The following piece 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.”
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.
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.
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.