US-China Huawei Row Overshadows Munich Security Conference

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US officials rally support for alternatives to Chinese firm’s 5G dominance, while Huawei hits back at new charges and ‘lawful intercept’ wiretap allegations

The US used a global security conference in Germany over the weekend to rally support for alternatives to Huawei, following the UK’s decision to allow the Shenzhen, China-based company to play a limited rolein the country’s 5G networks.

Meanwhile, Huawei hit back at allegations that it was able to carry out unauthorised wiretaps, calling the accusations “nonense”.

US officials used the conference to urge governments and business leaders to build “industry champions” capable of challenging Huawei’s dominance in the network equipment manufacturing industry, a shift from previous arguments that focused on national security.

On Saturday US secretary of defence Mark Esper told the Munich Security Conference that the country was working with vendors on new 5G technologies.

huawei, ren zhengfei
Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei. Image credit: Huawei

‘Alternative solutions’

“We are encouraging allied and US tech companies to develop alternative 5G solutions and we are working alongside them to test these technologies at our military bases as we speak,” Esper said, according to Reuters.

US officials did not, however, give details on any concrete proposals or measures being undertaken.

White House advisor Robert Blair said the administration was working with companies including Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung to develop a “partnership” with the aim of fostering competition in 5G.

“It will be very much a US-led effort but with like-minded partners around the world and we’ll have to see where that discussion goes,” Blair told journalists.  “And that’s a matter of months not years.”

Fu Ying, chairwoman of the foreign affairs committee of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress used the conference to challenge the US’ assertion that Huawei’s 5G technologies pose a threat to Western countries’ national security.

“Do you really think that the democratic system is so fragile that it could be threatened by this single hi-tech company of Huawei?” Fu said, local media reported, addressing her question to vocal China critic Nancy Pelosi.

‘Nothing to do with reality’

Huawei itself pushed back against a Wall Street Journal report last week that cited unnamed US officials as saying the company had given itself the technical ability to carry out unauthorised wiretaps.

The report came after the US levelled new charges against Huawei, an indictment the company said had “nothing to do with facts and reality”.

The Journal reported last week that Huawei had access to “lawful intercept” equipment, which is used by law enforcement officials to carry out wiretaps if given a court order to do so.

“We have no access to this equipment, we don’t know what call or information is being intercepted, we don’t know when it is intercepted,” said John Suffolk, Huawei’s global cyber-security and privacy officer, at the Munich conference, the BBC reported.

“All we do is provide one side of the box which is blind to what’s happening on the other side of the box,” he said.

Lawful intercept devices are “watched like a hawk” by mobile network operators and Huawei has never had access to them, Suffolk said, adding that the Journal article was “ill-thought-out”.

The US last year placed restrictions on Huawei that effectively ban American companies from dealing with the Chinese firm, while Huawe has responded by eliminating US-made components from its supply chain.

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