This article appears in the Witness section of the spring 2020 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

The rise of China is one of the most striking geopolitical shifts of the 21st century. For Western governments, the change in global power dynamics presents both an opportunity and a risk. This is the context in which Boris Johnson decided to allow Huawei, the Chinese provider of 5G telecoms, a continued role in UK infrastructure.

Huawei is the world’s largest telecommunications equipment vendor, occupying every step of the network chain between our laptops and phones through to the data centres hosting the content we want to access. The worry is that Huawei, despite its protestations to the contrary, is effectively a branch of the Chinese state. This would mean that granting the company access to the UK could facilitate espionage. Cyberwar is a pressing concern. In 2018 it emerged that hackers allegedly affiliated with Beijing’s main intelligence service engaged in a cyber-spying campaign in the US and other countries.

Others, however, point out that the UK urgently needs to improve its connectivity, and that Huawei has only been given peripheral access to UK telecoms infrastructure. The company will not be able to access areas near military bases or nuclear power plants. There will also be a cap on the proportion of Huawei kit allowed in any given network. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre has said that the company poses a threat to national security. But it also stated that Britain could deal with the risk. The US remains staunchly opposed, but Australia and New Zealand have granted access to the company.

Beyond the geopolitical implications, the anxiety over Huawei points to a fundamental shift in the way that wars are fought and power secured. Many suspect that China plans to use business ties in foreign countries to leverage political influence. As Richard Seymour noted in our Autumn 2019 issue, the internet has created “new vectors of cyberwar in which geopolitical opponents, hacktivists and jihadists have landed blows on Washington.”
Global power is shifting, in more ways than one.