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Britain’s defense secretary was just fired over Huawei. Here’s what’s going on.

Security fights over 5G phone networks are tearing U.S. allies apart

- May 1, 2019

Gavin Williamson was just fired as Britain’s defense secretary after being accused of leaking information.

Last week, Britain’s National Security Council decided that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies would be allowed to play a limited role in building Britain’s 5G telecommunications network. Someone leaked this information to a British newspaper. According to the BBC, British Prime Minister Theresa May told Williamson that she had “compelling evidence” that he was responsible for the leak. Williamson has denied that he was the leaker.

This crisis in British politics reflects a broader set of global security problems: Telecommunications networks, which sound boring and technical, have become a major security issue.

There is a big fight happening over Huawei.

The leak was highly embarrassing to the British government because it revealed how controversial the Huawei decision was within the government. Britain — like other European jurisdictions — will have to upgrade its wireless communication network to 5G speeds. Huawei has played a substantial role in building the existing network, and it is widely regarded as the market leader. However, the United States wants to limit the reach of Huawei and has been engaged in a concerted diplomatic campaign to get its allies to boot Huawei out of their national telecommunications markets. This means that U.S. allies face a difficult choice: going with Huawei and incurring the displeasure of Washington or going with other providers and possibly paying much more, as well as encountering serious technical difficulties.

Britain decided informally to go ahead with Huawei, despite its strong security relationship with the United States. This decision was leaked to the Daily Telegraph, which also revealed that key cabinet members opposed the decision. The fallout from that leak is what prompted today’s firing.

Surveillance politics are challenging political alliances.

The reason the United States does not want Huawei to play a role in telecommunications networks is straightforward. It fears that Huawei is too closely connected to China’s government and will build back doors into these networks to allow China to easily spy on the West. Washington has taken steps to force Huawei out of the U.S. market and has made strong public statements about a need to exclude it more generally.

The problem is that U.S. allies are less likely to go along with U.S. wishes than they used to be.

That is, in part, because of the United States itself: The U.S. National Security Agency has remorselessly exploited global communications networks to spy in pursuit of the U.S. national interest. While it has shared key surveillance information with U.S. allies, it has also spied on many of them. This means that some allies are less willing to listen to U.S. warnings about Chinese spying than they might otherwise be, reasoning that the United States is itself in a somewhat hypocritical position.

It is also in part because the United States and its allies have different security sensitivities and different perceptions over whether they can stop bad behavior by Huawei or other companies.

And in part, it is because of money: Excluding Huawei might make it far more expensive to build 5G networks.

Global networks are being weaponized.

This is just one example of a broader problem that we describe in our forthcoming article for International Security on “weaponized interdependence.”

Over the past 25 years, the world economy has become increasingly dependent on global networks — not only in telecommunications, but also in finance, the Internet and the supply chains that build physical products. These networks produce enormous economic efficiencies, but they can also lead to serious security vulnerabilities. Now states are beginning to insulate themselves from these insecurities in ways that have international repercussions.

This will have big consequences for the global economy, as networks shrink and governments become far more suspicious of interdependent relationships between economies. It will also lead to quarrels between allies, which have different and sometimes conflicting understandings of security threats but also find that their fates are bound together. So one country’s insecurities potentially threaten the security of its partners, or one country’s efforts to insulate itself have huge economic ramifications for other countries that depend on it.

Finally, it is having important domestic consequences, as political decision-makers within countries begin to fight about the appropriate way to respond to challenges of economic cost and security vulnerability. Williamson’s firing is just one early indication of a much broader set of problems that is likely to reshape global economic politics.