Fresh from a thumping general election victory and an anti-climactic Commons vote confirming the U.K.'s departure from the European Union, Boris Johnson's Government is struggling to make up its mind about Huawei.
Britain’s choice between telecommunications efficiency and network security has the makings of a transatlantic showdown. A team of Trump administration officials arrived in London recently to raise new security concerns. There have also been bad tidings about the future of the special relationship, with warnings that the UK’s intelligence links with United States could suffer if Huawei becomes part of Britain's 5G mix.
But I’ve also been struck by the way New Zealand’s positioning is mentioned, if ever so briefly, in some accounts of Britain’s crunch moment. The idea that New Zealand has banned Huawei lives on in a recent report in my favourite newspaper, The Washington Post. And Evan Osnos, one of the best proponents of long-form journalism going around, has taken the same line in a substantial piece in The New Yorker. In case you fiercely object to my reading choices, a similar judgment about New Zealand’s approach to Huawei can be found in Sputnik.
But New Zealand had not taken an all or nothing approach. A media release issued under the catchy title of “GCSB Statement” made no specific mention of Huawei. It simply indicated that the Director of New Zealand’s signals agency had “informed Spark that a significant network security risk was identified.” Having more on the public record about these specific risks would have been a good thing, but the responsible Minister Andrew Little was adamant that this was not a vendor-specific decision (something the US now wants from the UK), and that the GCSB was simply doing its job under the legislation it works to.
“We would never ban a particular company or a particular country”, Little told the New Zealand Herald, ‘That’s not the way it works.”
The Prime Minister would also lend her voice to this clarification. By the end of 2018 it was clear that China’s unhappiness over Huawei was a leading feature in a more strained bilateral relationship, and we are talking about New Zealand’s leading trade partner here. Early in 2019, Ardern pushed back on the contention that New Zealand had cut Huawei out of its picture. In another television interview, Ardern left open the possibility that with the right “mitigation” of the risks identified by the GCSB, there might still be a chance for Huawei to have some role in the country’s 5G architecture.
In dealings with China and the telecommunications industry this technically correct version of events may be the better message for New Zealand to emphasise. Officials can presumably say that despite what you may sometimes read and hear, Wellington is not closed for business with China’s telecom giants.
But on other occasions it may suit the Ardern Government if it is believed that New Zealand has banned Huawei. One of those other occasions is now. Just as the UK is making its big decision, Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton has introduced a bill to the US Senate stipulating that US intelligence products, “may not be shared with any country that permits operation within its national borders of fifth generation (5G) telecommunications technology of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd.” At these times employing the stiff upper lip is one option for the UK. But for New Zealand it is only prudent to be aware where you sit in the view of the world taken by Cotton and his ilk.
In response to the Ardern Government’s 2018 decision, Cotton issued a press statement praising “New Zealand for joining their Australian neighbors in blocking Huawei from their 5G network.” And in an opinion piece with Senate Republican colleague John Cornyn, Cotton has argued that “Australia, Japan and New Zealand have all banned Huawei technology, in some cases taking even more aggressive actions than the United States.” I’m guessing that for New Zealand right now, these are perfectly fine examples of a useful myth.
That may seem an odd thing to say about external accounts of New Zealand’s decision-making. Surely transparency and consistency are our friends. But ambiguity can be diplomatically advantageous even for a country like New Zealand where what you see, and what you think you see, is normally what you get. Exploiting that ambiguity may become essential in the contest for information technology supremacy between the United States and China – and let’s not forget the Huawei business is about much more than security.
This means that there will be times when there are incentives for the Ardern Government to clarify the record and those when it does not pay to do so. On some occasions the truth may set you free. But in other settings the truth can really hurt.
*Robert Ayson is the Professor of Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.
A version of this article appeared in Newsroom.com