Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. —Benjamin Franklin
Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE long have been in the crosshairs of U.S. policymakers. Rumors that the telecoms are or could become conduits for Chinese government-sponsored cyber espionage or cyber attacks on so-called critical infrastructure in the United States have been swirling around Washington for a few years. Concerns about Huawei’s alleged ties to the People’s Liberation Army were plausible enough to cause the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to recommend that President Bush block a proposed acquisition by Huawei of 3Com in 2008. Subsequent attempts by Huawei to expand in the United States have also failed for similar reasons, and because of Huawei’s ham-fisted, amateurish public relations efforts.
So it’s not at all surprising that yesterday the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, yesterday, following a nearly year-long investigation, issued its "Investigative Report on the U.S. National Security Issues Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE," along with recommendations that U.S. companies avoid doing business with these firms.
But there is no smoking gun in the report, only innuendo sold as something more definitive. The most damning evidence against Huawei and ZTE is that the companies were evasive or incomplete when it came to providing answers to questions that would have revealed strategic information that the companies understandably might not want to share with U.S. policymakers, who may have the interests of their own favored U.S. telecoms in mind.
Again, what I see revealed here is inexperience and lack of political sophistication on the part of the Chinese telecoms. It was Huawei—seeking to repair its sullied name and overcome the numerous obstacles it continues to face in its efforts to expand its business in the United States—that requested the full investigation of its operations and ties, not anticipating adequately that the inquiries would put them on the spot. What they got from the investigation was an ultimatum: share strategic information about the company and its plans with U.S. policymakers or be deemed a threat to U.S. national security.
Now we have the House report—publicly fortified by a severely unbalanced 60 Minutes segment this past Sunday—to ratchet up the pressure for a more comprehensive solution. We’ve seen this pattern before: zealous lawmakers identifying imminent threats or gathering storms and then convincing the public that there are no alternatives to their excessive solutions. The public should note that fear imperils our freedoms and bestows greater powers on policymakers with their own agendas.
Granted, I’m no expert in cyber espionage or cyber security and one or both of these Chinese companies may be bad actors. But the House report falls well short of convincing me that either possesses or will deploy cyber weapons of mass destruction against critical U.S. infrastructure or that they are any more hazardous than Western companies utilizing the same or similar supply chains that traverse China or any other country for that matter. And the previous CFIUS recommendtions to the president to block Huawei acquisitions are classified.
Vulnerabilities in communications networks are ever-present and susceptible to insidious code, back doors, and malicious spyware regardless of where the components are manufactured. At best, shunning these two companies will provide a false sense of security.
What should raise red flags is that none of the findings in the House report have anything to do with specific cyber threats or cyber security, but merely reinforce what we already know about China: that its economy operates under a system of state-sponsored capitalism and that intellectual property theft is a larger problem there than it is in the United States.
And the report’s recommendations reveal more of a trade protectionist agenda than a critical infrastructure protection agenda. It states that CFIUS "must block acquisitions, takeovers, or mergers involving Huawei and ZTE given the threat to U.S. national security interests." (Emphasis added.) What threat? It is not documented in the report.
The report recommends that government contractors "exclude ZTE or Huawei equipment in their systems." U.S. network providers and systems developers are "strongly encouraged to seek other vendors for their projects." And it recommends that Congress and the executive branch enforcement agencies "investigate the unfair trade practices of the Chinese telecommunications sector, paying particular attention to China’s continued financial support for key companies." (Emphasis added.) Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!
Though not made explicit in the report, some U.S. telecom carriers allegedly were warned by U.S. policymakers that purchasing routers and other equipment for their networks from Huawei or ZTE would disqualify them from participating in the massive U.S. government procurement market for telecom services. If true, that is not only heavy-handed, but seemingly strong grounds for a Chinese WTO challenge on the grounds of discriminatory treatment.
Before taking protectionist, WTO-illegal actions—such as banning transactions with certain foreign companies or even "recommending" forgoing such transactions—that would likely cause U.S. companies to lose business in China, the onus is on policymakers, the intelligence committees, and those otherwise in the know to demonstrate that there is a real threat from these companies and that they—U.S. policymakers—are not simply trying to advance the fortunes of their own constituent companies through a particularly insidious brand of industrial policy.