Should Colombia ban Huawei from 5G networks?

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HUAWEI pavilion at HDC Congress, Lisbon. Ph: Creative Commons

My home country of Canada just banned Huawei after pressure from other members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing community (Australia, New Zealand, US, UK) to do so. Canada banned the telecommunications giant over concerns for national security.

“In a 5G world, at a time where we rely more and more in our daily lives [on] our network, this is the right decision,” said Francois-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. Beijing responded and warned that “banning Huawei’s equipment and services will lead to significant economic loss in Canada and drive up the cost of communications for Canadian consumers.”

Huawei has been associated with a number of scandals, including the notion that it operates as a tool for the Chinese security state to collect signals intelligence on millions (and potentially billions) of users through backchannels.

Huawei still operates in Colombia, as China is attempting to pierce through US influence in the country. Should Colombia reverse its policy, and follow suit with its Western allies who have banned Huawei? Let us weigh the pros and cons, starting with the arguments for banning Huawei.

Domestically, banning Huawei would serve to protect Colombians’ privacy rights. Huawei, while it emphasizes its existence as a private, multinational company, remains under heavy regulation by the Chinese state.

In China, the relationship between the state and private businesses is highly intricate. Telecommunications and electronics companies like Huawei, which have a high degree of importance to national security and foreign policy, are given little leeway by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to maneuver.

Huawei, in particular, has been accused multiple times of sharing user data and metadata with the CCP, and of serving the security interests of the Chinese state. Still, given China’s business environment and the new ideological war between China and the West, credible concerns remain over whether Huawei users’ data and metadata are protected.

Banning Huawei would, therefore, help ensure that Colombians’ privacy rights are protected.

Moreover, banning Huawei’s 5G equipment could serve as a signal to Western allies. Five Eyes allies have also decided to extend the ban on Huawei to fellow tech giant ZTE. A great number of other Western partners, including Italy, Denmark, France, and the Czech Republic, have either restricted access to Huawei, or repeatedly expressed concerns over Huawei’s data-gathering capacity under China’s National Intelligence Law.

The Colombian government moving ahead with partial restrictions or a full ban would signal Colombia’s commitment to the rules-based international order and to the coalition forming by Western countries against the People’s Republic of China, specifically on security and commercial issues.

Such a commitment made by Colombia could open the door to further trade and cooperation on security issues with the West.

The Colombia ban could also create a domino effect for other bans and restrictions for Huawei and other Chinese companies, or, at the very least, help spark a conversation in Latin America over China’s growing influence in the region.

China has recently extended its infrastructure investment project, named the Belt and Road Initiative, to Latin America, and has built security partnerships with Argentina, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Venezuela, Cuba, and others.

The United States and other Western partners have already expressed concern over this influence, and the ban could reassure allies while initiating a debate with Latin American nations over Huawei and Chinese foreign policy.

Still, material benefits would need to be provided to Colombia and other Latin American countries, otherwise the ban would be a net loss, and would alienate the region’s second-largest trading partner without reparations.

There are other concerns and limitations surrounding the potential decision by Colombia to ban or restrict Huawei. Primarily, the ban would alienate China, which is Colombia’s second-largest trading partner.

As was seen with other countries who banned Huawei, mostly the United States, Canada, and Australia, the ban could start a trade war or an intelligence conflict between the two nations. As a result, Colombian industries, and ultimately regular Colombians, could be hurt.

China could up its intelligence operations (including cyber attacks) within Colombia, spurring further great-power competition with the West, potentially causing deaths and misery reminiscent of the Cold War.

Furthermore, China has a large stake in the Colombian economy. Beyond trade, it is looking to include Colombia into its BRI project, helping finance roads, bridges, energy projects, and other initiatives that would be necessary to propel Colombia into the first world.

Unless the West is willing to finance these projects – which, for now, nothing indicates that it would be – Colombia would stand to lose economically from the ban.

There is already growing apathy within the Colombian public against US-Colombian security cooperation. The ban could be seen politically as another instance of the Colombian government siding with US-Western security concerns over the welfare of the Colombian people.

China is also financing the Bogotá metro and other public transportation projects throughout the country, and would most likely halt the projects as a result of this ban.

Huawei, despite the concerns associated with its cybersecurity infrastructure, provides cheaper products for Colombians wanting high-quality smartphones. American, Korean, and Japanese brands are extremely expensive to import to Colombia, and end up costing about double the price sold in the West, despite the average Colombian earning about 10 times less.

Therefore, banning or restricting Huawei access could deprive Colombians of cheaper smartphone options, and could ultimately restrict telecommunications overall if locals are unable to afford any other brands.

One argument against the ban would be to simply let the free market run free and let Colombians choose. If Colombians are aware of the security concerns, they should be able to make their own decision as a consumer, rather than that decision be forced on them by their government.

Regardless of whether or not Colombia should ban or restrict Huawei, the chances of such a policy being pursued are incredibly slim.

Chinese economic and security influences has permeated further and further since 2012, and the two countries are too economically, financially, and commercially intertwined for the Huawei ban to be viable, unless the West makes very significant changes in policy towards the region, leaning more heavily on economic statecraft rather than security cooperation.

While there are legitimate reasons for Colombia to ban or restrict Huawei, it is unlikely that it will do so, given the economic losses it would incur as a result.