We may be dramatically overestimating China’s capabilities

Pedestrians wearing face masks walk past a Huawei store on a Beijing street last month. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)
Pedestrians wearing face masks walk past a Huawei store on a Beijing street last month. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

As the United States’ confrontation with China escalates, the Trump administration may be making a classic American mistake: overestimating its adversary’s technological competence and ability to control events.

The outbreak in Wuhan of the novel coronavirus shows how ragged and disorderly the Chinese police state was in the initial weeks of the pandemic. Beijing’s response was to suppress and manipulate information, at home and abroad. Trump administration officials have painted this as a Chinese plot against the West, but it looks more like a frantic effort by a one-party state to survive a domestic crisis.

When the pandemic has eventually subsided, the global economic battle between the United States and China will continue. At the center of this contest will be Huawei, the telecommunications company that is China’s technology champion. The Trump administration has been waging a multi-front war on Huawei, trying to block transfer of U.S. technology by placing the company on an “entity list” of dangerous competitors, and by pressuring Britain and other allies not to buy Huawei gear for their 5G networks.

This anti-Huawei campaign overlooks two hidden factors that may be more successful than trying to strong-arm allies: First, Huawei is an inefficient and sometimes sloppy software producer. British intelligence, which has studied Huawei systems for a decade, has found them riddled with dangerous glitches. Second, Huawei’s approach to 5G technology may soon be replaced by a much better architecture pioneered by U.S. and Japanese companies.

Kurt Campbell, the chief Asia strategist during the Obama administration, who now heads a consulting firm, explains: “As in the past — with the supposed ‘missile gap’ between us and the Soviets in the 1950s and the supposedly unstoppable Japanese economy in the ’80s — we have ‘10-footed’ Huawei. The company is not the nimble dynamo depicted in the media.”

The best evidence of Huawei’s severe shortcomings is contained in unclassified technical papers prepared by Britain’s National Cyber Security Center, part of its super-secret GCHQ signals-intelligence agency. Because Britain has been doing business with Huawei for a decade, an oversight board monitors its security practices. What the board found was astonishingly poor software design.

The latest oversight report, released in March 2019, offered a devastating evaluation. It found “several hundred” vulnerabilities in Huawei software, including “unprotected stack overflows in publicly accessible protocols, protocol robustness errors leading to denial of service, logic errors, cryptographic weaknesses, default credentials and many other basic vulnerability types.” In layman’s terms, that means Huawei’s software had as many holes as Swiss cheese.

Even after the oversight board delivered a September 2018 warning, “the product continues to demonstrate a significant number of major defects.” Overall, said the board, “there has been little improvement” in fixing “serious and systematic defects.” The board said it could give “only limited assurance” about safety and security.

And these are just the flaws caused by sloppy coding and poor cyber-hygiene. They don’t include the back doors and deliberate, malign tools that U.S. officials believe Huawei has hidden in its products.

Huawei’s defects were so severe that British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in January designated the company a “high-risk vendor” whose market share should be capped at 35 percent. The Trump administration bashed the Brits for buying any products at all from the Chinese company, but the deeper takeaway from the British decision was its fear of dependence on Huawei.

Huawei poses a threat not because it has great products, but because it has so little competition. Its 5G telecom products are cheap, low-profit items; U.S. companies have mostly stayed away, and European rivals such as Nokia and Ericsson have been sluggish. Huawei, with, one expert estimates, 80 percent of the Chinese market and approaching 45 percent of the world market, keeps increasing its share.

But every technology gets disrupted eventually, and experts say that’s going to happen to 5G. A new approach known as O-RAN (which stands for Open Radio Access Networks) will someday replace Huawei’s hardware with software-driven networks that will be faster, safer and more secure. Backing this approach is an alliance of 23 major telecom companies, including AT&T and Verizon.

Building a pathway for this new technology — and giving companies alternatives to signing long-term contracts with a fading Huawei technology — should be the real focus of U.S. policy. A bipartisan bill has been introduced by Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) to provide $750 million for O-RAN research and, in Warner’s words, to “create a ‘coalition of the willing’ of companies and countries that can help create real competition to Huawei.”

Think of Huawei as the Bell Telephone or IBM of today. A whirlwind of competition is coming, if its monopoly power can be checked.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post.

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