Fears that Huawei and its 5G wireless equipment could be exploited by the Chinese government to spy on other countries have been growing, spurring some countries — like the United States — to ban the company's products altogether. Huawei denies that any of its products pose a national security risk.
But a recent report
from NATO suggests that banning the company's products would be shortsighted from a strategic standpoint. While measures need to be put in place to ensure Chinese officials aren't exploiting Huawei's equipment, rejecting Huawei and its products could prevent many prospective customers in the West from using the company's state-of-the-art technology to develop their own advanced 5G downstream services.
Indeed, Huawei has managed to position itself on the cutting edge of a number of innovations in recent years — integrating western technology with its own secret sauce. These efforts are only likely to intensify. What's essential for users in the United States and other countries is that they carefully monitor how every product is operating and how it is being integrated into their systems.
At the same time, NATO's researchers advise that telecommunications companies in western countries establish viable alternatives to Huawei's 5G technology. Indeed, Finland's Nokia and Sweden's Ericsson are Huawei's biggest competitors
, but they've still lagged behind.
There would be severe consequences should the world depend on a single supplier, especially from a nation like China. Allowing Huawei to develop a global supplier monopoly with 5G technology could enable China to quickly leapfrog the West in developing the next generation space-based 6G networks that are already beginning to appear on some drawing boards, at least in academia. Researchers in Finland
, for example, are suggesting 6G will make possible such innovations as clothes that can monitor your health
in real-time as part of a fully AI-enabled world. And one can only imagine the military capabilities that 6G would provide. It's clear the competition between China and the United States is only just beginning.
NATO — a collection of 29 distinct nations, each with its own approach to technological development and open vs. closed markets — has not adopted, and seems unlikely to adopt, any uniform approach to Huawei and whatever challenges it might pose. So in addition to encouraging other nations to develop their own 5G technology to compete with Huawei, NATO should adopt a uniform series of responses to threats from external military or strategic challenges. And if Huawei is found to be facilitating Chinese cyber espionage or military operations, these countries should replace Huawei technology with a host of other alternatives — from providers like Nokia, Samsung, Qualcomm and Intel.
Indeed, governments in western nations should provide subsidies for advanced 5G and 6G research to prevent any one player from achieving utter dominance. In January 2018, Canada provided some $40 million to Nokia for research and development of 5G equipment. The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCE), author of this report, should use Canada as a model and coordinate NATO-wide public-private partnerships of this sort. Raising its funding to a level that would allow such joint NATO-wide operations would be an important first step.
The arrival of 5G and the anticipation of 6G, with all the extraordinary global advances they hold, will quickly overshadow any latent fears over the misuse or abuse of these new technologies. Nor should any such concerns restrain innovations that are inevitable at every stage in their development. But vigilance is equally appropriate and NATO is itself uniquely positioned to take the leading role here.