A symbol of China’s rise

The Huawei panic and US decline

A dispute over the building of the UK’s 5G network exposes the ambiguous role of military competition in capitalist progress, argues Paul Demarty.

It seems now that the government has gotten away with allowing the Chinese electronics giant, Huawei, to supply parts for the UK’s new 5G network, despite the objections raised by the United States in its new phase of Trumpian Sinophobia.

Not that getting this over the line has been without cost. Huawei has had to be designated a high-risk vendor, and fairly onerous conditions placed on the use of its equipment. It can, first of all, only be used in parts of the network deemed ‘lower-risk’, such as masts; and, secondly, it can only be used in 35% of transmitters (and transmit no more than 35% of the data).

On the face of it, this is a rather baffling compromise. Cybersecurity is all about threat modelling. There is little point constructing an elaborately secured network if the worst enemy you will ever face is a bored teenager with time to kill. At the top of the tree of potential adversaries are ‘nation-state actors’, and implicitly that handful of such actors with a substantial, organised offensive capacity in this new and worrying theatre of espionage and warfare. China is certainly among the latter group; worries about Huawei’s involvement in the 5G build-out are predicated on the assumption that Huawei is - or may, with some reasonable probability, turn out to be - an agent of the Chinese state’s espionage efforts.

The design of 5G may be sufficiently well-rounded out, such that keeping Huawei out of the data centres - trapped in ‘dumb’ equipment at the edges of the network - effectively minimises that risk. What on earth is going on with the 35% limit, however? Either the edges of the network are sufficiently secure or they are not; in the doomsday scenario here, where China hoovers up 35% of all the data that goes over 5G networks in this country, that will already be more than the spooks of the People’s Republic are capable of making practical use of; and, if there was some sort of ‘killswitch’ that turned all their equipment off (another fear knocking around), it would still cause enormous and catastrophic disruption.

It smells a little too much like the result of the kind of fatuous, market-stall haggling, in which the mind of the US president is imprisoned without chance of parole. (“They wanted 50, but I got them down to 35.”) It is perhaps unsurprising that Boris Johnson faces consternation on his own benches, given how weird these assurances actually are - though it must be emphasised that, for the spooks proper, it is not treated as a matter of serious concern (GCHQ closely monitoring the use of Huawei products, for example).

The story of the 35% has the virtue of highlighting the true significance of this whole affair, which is the complex nature of inter-state competition in contemporary capitalism. The ‘original’ meaning of the word ‘complex’ is intertwined, braided together; and it is in this strict sense that we mean it here. The competition between states is partly a military matter and partly an economic matter; but it is not in the end possible - as the ‘Manchester’ economists used to believe and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty seems to today - to separate them.

The 5G build-out was announced to much fanfare by the government of David Cameron - blissfully unaware of the iceberg he had set course for in those happier times. His colleague in number 11, George Osborne, spent the same years on a charm offensive in relation to Beijing. There were to be great trade deals, jobs created, and all that jazz. One of the things China had that Britain needed was the capacity to produce essential equipment for the 5G project.

It should be said that there was immediate pushback from those parts of the establishment closest to the securocracy and the foreign office lifers; and we may assume that, behind those worries, lurked the long arm of the US state department, even under the less bellicose reign of Barack Obama. So a contradiction opened up, so far as Britain was concerned. Getting out ahead of the chasing pack with a 5G network would give some marginal economic advantage, compared to other European powers; but there was a risk of getting out of America’s good graces, on which the scant power still enjoyed by this country ultimately rests.

Military role

Computing is an industry more closely connected than most to the military imperatives of the international hierarchy. The history of computing machines proper begins with wartime code-breaking; and so it is for wide-area networking, with the earliest ancestor of the internet being created by the defence department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa, now known as Darpa for ‘defence’) initially to maintain lines of communication in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike. This needs to be emphasised; while it was obvious enough in the cold-war days, when the only computers were massive, punch-card-driven mainframes in well-connected university labs and think tanks like the RAND Corporation, today the overwhelming cultural profile of consumer technology tends to obscure the fact that these links remain.

It was interesting that, according to unnamed US sources in The Guardian, it was not thought politic to destroy the special relationship over a few mobile phone networks, which really rather undersells things. In spite of the revolutions in communication, production and culture, brought about by the internet, and its increasing pervasiveness, availability remains a problem. Until wi-fi became common, a computer had to be tethered to a network cable to use the net; and afterwards you still had to be in range. The use of the mobile phone networks for data started a long while ago now, but was, until the roll-out of the 4G network in the first half of this decade, extremely slow, compared to the ADSL and cable connections powering most home internet connections. 5G has the potential to change all that, in cities at least; and this may represent a new step change, making practical for the first time truly pervasive networks.

This could be huge: though it is not the only missing piece in the self-driving-car story, it is surely a prerequisite for serious use of such vehicles on busy urban roads. A lot of the big promises made on behalf of the ‘internet of things’ depend on having a safe assumption of high-bandwidth connections most of the time. Great, also, are the opportunities for surveillance; and, needless to say, for intelligence and military agencies.

The US state knows this, and the UK - and the Chinese. It is hardly without interest, then, that the Chinese have done so much better than the Americans in actually getting this technology into production. Dominic Raab, during a Commons grilling, called the situation “market failure”,1 which rather makes the assumption that capitalism should ensure the triumph of the companies we like and the defeat of companies we do not, but there is something in it. Huawei - close to the Chinese state core and backed for the same strategic reasons that there is no amount of passengers Boeing can kill that will see them allowed by the US to actually go bust - outlasted major competitors in North America, and vastly outranks the few European concerns in the space.

This may in the end be a matter primarily of the dysfunction of the financialisation that has taken place in the US, running down much of its industry over decades - a common feature of declining capitalist hegemons. Even where state control is strongest, things are extremely dysfunctional. The US military budget is so bloated it is starting to look like the final reel of Akira, but it is worth remembering how colossally wasteful it is. Darpa invented the internet, of course, but - as the historian, Edward Luttwak, noted in the London Review of Books - “the funds available [to it] ... are very modest by Pentagon standards”, making up less than a half of one percent of the overall budget. Where does all the big money go?

Most of the money is reserved for the pseudo-innovations pursued by the uniformed services: the navy’s supposedly ultra-new aircraft carrier that retains an unchanged 1960s configuration; the F-35 jet fighter that offers 30-year-old ‘stealth’ as its cutting-edge novelty; the new army tank that still looks very much like the 1944 German Tiger. The dominance of this sort of pseudo-innovation is a direct result of the composition of the US armed forces as an alliance of proudly separate services, each with its own traditions, institutional culture, career paths and - most important - iconic weapons.2

China, meanwhile, is still - just about - on the upswing of industrial development, and Beijing has serious military-industrial enterprises, private and public, it can call on to get things done. It also has a domestic agenda of unabashedly increasing the level of surveillance that made sure the 5G rollout would not be messed up. No doubt the same petty departmental incentives cause havoc in China, as they do among the US chiefs of staff, but in relative terms it looks on course to beat the US to this milestone.

Communists have no truck with the ‘outrage’ of Tory backbenchers at the potential for ‘the Chinese’ to snoop on our communications, if only because there is scarcely a world power of any significance that isn’t at it (we have recently had the eyebrow-raising tale of Mohammed bin Salman himself sending malware to Jeff Bezos). We look forward to the abolition of intelligence services altogether, and the military-industrial machine that so perverts the ingenuity and effort of countless scientists and engineers.

By the same token, however, we should not imagine the worry is wholly fake, and GCHQ is monitoring Huawei merely to kill time. Nor should we imagine that the decline of the US in relative terms will prevent it from causing its own share of chaos by undermining the world’s computer systems - as indeed it already does and has - for instance with the extraordinarily ingenious Stuxnet worm cooked up between America and Israel. Britain has not yet suffered terribly in this new theatre of war; the weaponisation of cyberspace, however, continues, and true horrors await us, unless it can be decisively reversed.

The workers’ movement must take this up, as it must all matters of war and peace.


  1. . www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jan/28/boris-johnson-gives-green-light-for-huawei-5g-infrastructure-role.↩︎

  2. . www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v38/n23/edward-luttwak/platformitis. Luttwak’s outlook is basically State Department, but he has the merit of honesty in his analysis.↩︎