As It Happens

Huawei deal could give China 'enormous leverage,' warns former U.S. Homeland Security secretary

Former U.S. homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff warns Canadians that if we think China's playing hardball now then just wait until Huawei installs our 5G network.

Michael Chertoff cautions Canada to reconsider any dealings with Chinese tech giant Huawei

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says a 5G network deal with Huawei poses a threat to Canadian security. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
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Michael Chertoff has a warning for Canada about the Chinese tech giant Huawei.

Canada's federal government is currently deciding whether Huawei can be trusted to build the next generation of Internet infrastructure across the country.

Chertoff, who was the United States' homeland security secretary under former president George W. Bush, says that decision could have major consequences for Canada's relationships with both China and the United States.

Meanwhile, Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou is due to appear in a Vancouver court where a judge will consider an extradition request from the United States.

Here is part of Chertoff's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

Mr. Chertoff, how is the United States likely to respond if Justin Trudeau agrees to allow Huawei 5G network to be a principal part of our system?

I think it's going to raise concerns about the security of your system.

We've seen stories recently, in fact, involving more back doors or problems with Chinese software and hardware.

So that's going to create some obstacles to the ability to rapidly share data because they're concerned that there'll be a compromise.

Chertoff cautions Canadians to reconsider pursuing a 5G network deal with Chinese tech giant Huawei. (Reuters)

You know that China says that Huawei is a private company — that the Chinese government is not involved with it and that there are firewalls that would protect these networks from any kind of Chinese influence. What does the United States think of that?

I think most Americans are skeptical of that for a number of reasons.

First of all, the Chinese clearly anoint certain companies as champions and support them.

And if you just look at what happened recently, with respect to Canadians being arrested in China as retaliation for the arrest of a senior Huawei official, it suggests a degree of solicitude for the company by the Chinese government that is is not consistent with the idea that they're independent.

To could give the Chinese the ability to occupy a pivotal part of your infrastructure, one that will be, as I say, the commanding heights of the next 10 or 20 years of the economy, you're giving them enormous leverage in any dispute.

You're giving them a surface area for which they can potentially take intellectual property or otherwise compromise confidential material and you have to, I think, seriously view China as a rival, if not an adversary.

The U.S. is seeking the extradition of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, but Canada appears to be bearing the brunt of China's displeasure in a situation that blurs the lines between politics and justice. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

What could they potentially do?

Well, they could either find or embed pathways in to compromise networks and allow the theft of intellectual property.

They could introduce disruption or latency into the network because it's not just the hardware and software that you first install. It's all of the updates, the patches, everything you do to them to tend to and monitor the system going forward.

It's not just a question of taking data and either misusing it or stealing intellectual property. This will actually be part of the mechanism that controls your industrial control systems and your operating systems.

So the person who dominates that, in a way, has the ability to affect everything from your power grid to your air traffic control system to your even your sensitive national security infrastructure.

As you mentioned, we have two Canadians who are detained in China, held in isolation. Two others on death row. In other matters, our trade is being deeply effected as the Chinese shut us out of the markets. All this because of this extradition request from your country for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Meanwhile, your president is busy securing a comprehensive free trade agreement with China and moving ahead and benefiting. So do you understand why Canadians might feel like we're being played here?

Well, I don't think that's a fair inference. Look, I think there are a couple of different things.

First of all, I mean obviously the security relationship the U.S. and Canada have is a very strong one. We're allies and I don't think anybody believes the U.S. is an ally of China — nor is it clear to me what's going to come out of this trade agreement.

I think what actually is demonstrated by Chinese behaviour is that when you're touching on what they view as one of their national champions, they will use any leverage they have to punish you.

And that ought to cause people to ask the question: well geez, if we give them the keys to the kingdom on our 5G network, what will they do if they don't like something we do in the future? 

But wait a second. We arrested Meng Wanzhou at your behest, at your government's behest, and we're being punished while you move ahead with getting the trade deals that we're shut out of now. So I guess the question is, you know, at some point this seems rather unfair to us.

First of all, I don't know whether the Chinese aren't going to try to punish the U.S.

But if you're asking me why the Chinese decided they were going to focus on Canada in retaliating, I think it suggests they're trying to bully Canada and it may be that they feel they can get away with it more with Canada or that they can intervene before the extradition gets done.

A demonstrator protests Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou's court appearance outside British Columbia Supreme Court on March 6, 2019. (Jason Redmon/AFP/Getty Images)

Well, maybe the United States should start pushing back at our behest a bit.

I think we may see some further developments. I would not describe your relationship between China and the U.S. as a warm and fuzzy relationship.

There are a lot of different deals going on but I would be very careful not to have the Chinese try to drive a wedge between the Canadians and the Americans, by making it seem as if they're picking on one and not on the other.

Well, President Trump has said that he may trade Meng Wanzhou for getting his trade deals. So, maybe we're being played by your country as well.

I don't know what you're referring to and I don't read Twitter as a map for what's going to happen.

I would not presume anybody knows what's going to be the next step in all this because there are a lot of balls in the air.

Is it not true that President Trump suggested that he could exchange Meng Wanzhou for a trade deal with China?

He often says all kinds of different things, which never come to pass. So I'm not going to speculate as to what was in his head. But I'm not going to presume that this has any realistic prospect of happening.

Written by Kevin Robertson and John McGill. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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