The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has linked curtailing the spread of 5G telecommunications network by Huawei to the continuation of US intelligence sharing arrangements with partners and allies. Although no evidence has been supplied publicly, the expressed fear is that cyber security is at greater risk.
The Five Eyes is an expedient intelligence sharing arrangement, between a select group of governments. It derives from an exchange of letters. It is not a formal Treaty. By its very nature of course expediency is changeable should circumstances and context, change. Intelligence contributes to foreign policy, it does not make or define it.
Analysts warn against forecasting a new “Cold War.” A portrayal of Sino-US rivalry as between a strict authoritarian China which breaks international rules and denies basic individual liberties, and a freedom-loving US with an idiosyncratic brand of democracy, aversion itself to established rules and partnerships, and preference for asserting extraterritorially of American laws, is overdrawn. It is important nevertheless that Five Eyes is not remade as an instrument for new Cold War, that draws NZ into its wake.
NZ asserts an independent foreign policy. That does not imply ‘a lone shag on the rock’ approach to international relations. But it does mean thinking independently, and displaying evenhandedness in judgements while avoiding rose-tinted spectacles or hidebound prejudice.
Criticism of China in authoritative NZ strategic documents about Beijing’s neglect of rules based behaviour may conceivably be justified (China is itself an intensely self-interested state). Evenhandedness surely requires however that regret is also registered about equivalent and sustained neglect by whomsoever. NZ’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement 2018 is resolutely silent about US infractions.
Huawei has leapfrogged the US and others in development of the 5G network and its various applications. It provides cutting edge systems for broader global technological change that is irresistible. Commercial rollout will begin in earnest next year. Many want to share in that (after all Huawei is active in 170 countries). No American private company is rolling out 5G.The US itself cannot provide an alternative.
Thwarting Huawei effectively risks decoupling the world technologically. This is potentially dangerous for the US itself; and for those who comply with US prohibition. For NZ there are of course cyber security considerations involved, just as there were previously when the US itself capitalised upon the leading global role of its telecommunications companies in the past to extend spying, including upon allies. We learnt then to live with certain hard facts of life. That same pragmatism applies now. Accepting the inevitability and crucial utility of Huawei must however involve explicit insistence upon transparency and sharing of intellectual property.
There are undertones here with NZ’s non-nuclear policy. Concerned lest NZ’s behaviour became contagious, Washington recast NZ’s status to one of an American “friend but not an ally.” Successive NZ governments navigated strategic, political and economic pathways in Asia as well as globally. We learnt to live successfully with America’s disfavour. We eventually established a different security partnership with the US, which NZ values.
NZ stuck resolutely then with the courage of its convictions, sustained by nimble diplomacy and by its attributes of soft power (displayed conspicuously in the response to the recent Christchurch tragedy). This same sensible expedient approach should guide NZ now. Weighing carefully the balance of NZ interests, we should approve the Huawei 5G rollout with a strong proviso about transparency and intellectual property sharing, while confirming to the US that NZ desires to sustain intelligence sharing. That last decision rests of course with Washington.
Terence O'Brien is a former diplomat and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.
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