WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that could prevent Chinese companies from building 5G networks in the US.
“The president has made it clear that this administration will do what it takes to keep America safe and prosperous, and to protect America from foreign adversaries who are actively and increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in information and communications technology infrastructure and services in the United States,” the White House said in a statement.
While the executive order does not mention China by name, it is clear that one of its main targets is China’s Huawei. The order declares a national emergency concerning threats against information and communications.
Trump’s declaration gives authority to the Secretary of Commerce “to prohibit transactions posing an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States or the security and safety of United States persons.”
James Andrew Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Jerusalem Post that “people have been waiting for months for this declaration, because it effectively gives the [US Secretary of Commerce] authority to ban Huawei.”
He told the Post that the declaration mentions supplies from an adversary, “[but] everyone knows who that is.”
Lewis, who testified this week in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee during a three-hour hearing on 5G technology, said that the executive order is similar to a step taken by Australia last year. “It didn’t name China,” he told the Post, “but it speaks about an ‘untrustworthy source.’ The Secretary of Commerce has to declare a country or a company to be untrustworthy, and everyone’s assuming that they’ll do that for China.”
Lewis tries to explain the alarm the US has about Chinese companies potentially building 5G networks in the US, as well as the differences between 4G and 5G.
“4G is your smartphone,” he said. “That means all your apps, but it is not that sensitive for the most part. A parking app, or a dating app, or a reservation app for an airline or a restaurant, those are all helpful. However, with 5G, it’s going to be more than your phone. It’s going to be smart cars, telemedicine, smart factories. So 5G extends the app economy into the huge range of devices. It’s the thing that will power the ‘Internet of Things.’”
“China has subsidized Huawei to the tune of billions of dollars over the last 20 years,” he continues. “And the intent is very clearly to gain both market dominance and espionage advantage. So, the US has been worried about Huawei for a long time. Telecomm goes through cycles every 10 years or so. It’s 4G, and then a few years later it’s 5G, and so on.”
When talking about espionage and cellular networks, one usually imagines someone listening in on a phone call, or even hacking a phone. However, according to Lewis, with 5G networks, there are going to be new, more sophisticated ways of espionage.
“People are fearful that China could funnel large quantities of data from the telecommunications networks; and disruption: China could send a command over Huawei networks, saying ‘turn off your phone,’ so it’s both espionage and disruption,” Lewis said. “China has engaged in a massive espionage campaign. The majority of espionage cases in the US are from China. So, people say – here’s a country that is doing massive amounts of espionage against the US and its allies. I think Israel might be in that category too. Why would we give them another advantage in the espionage battle?”
Last month, National Security Advisor John Bolton met his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and the two discussed ways “to secure 5G networks.”
Garrett Marquis, the National Security Council spokesman, said after the meeting: “The United States is working across government and with our allies and like-minded partners to mitigate risk in the deployment of 5G and other communications infrastructure.”
Israel’s Channel 13 reported in April that Trump raised the issue of 5G networks during his last meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the White House on March 26.
According to the report, Trump expressed concerns regarding China’s role in major infrastructure projects in Israel, such as building the new port of Haifa and the fact that Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei are bidding on Israel’s 5G network. The president did not threaten or raise an ultimatum, Channel 13 reported.
Lewis then attempted to explain why it is crucial for the US to ensure its allies are not buying 5G networks from China.
“Israel is a prime target for Chinese espionage because Israel has advanced technology and the Chinese want to steal it,” Lewis told the Post. “So, the US would like to see Israel do something similar to what we did Wednesday, which is to in effect say we will not use Chinese products in our 5G networks. Most of what we see in the US is efforts to steal military technology, advanced technology, information technology - places where Israel is a leader. So there’s a great risk for espionage.”
“That’s why the Australian model is a good model,” Lewis added. “Australia didn’t say China was an adversary. They just said Australian telephone companies could not use untrustworthy suppliers. That’s all they say. You don’t have to say China is an adversary. You just have to say we’re not going to buy from untrustworthy suppliers. At the Senate hearing, you’ve heard that both parties were very strong on how US allies would face trouble if they used Huawei equipment because of the risk. I think there’s a bipartisan consensus that using Huawei will create problems in any relationship.”
“I have heard from various people that Chinese espionage is a concern for Israel because the Chinese will want to acquire Israeli technology,” he said. “They might do this by buying Israeli companies. They might do this by funding startups in Israel, but they might do it, too, by cyber espionage. China sees Israel as a place to go to get good technology, and if they can't buy it, they’ll steal it.”
Peter Harrell, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, also testified in the Senate this week.
“The US has military bases overseas and a lot of important companies, US companies, have overseas business, and the US doesn’t want its sensitive data to be transiting through compromise networks,” he told the Post. “That’s why Germany and the UK and other close military allies: if you allow Huawei [to build] networks, the US may have to curtail intelligent sharing.”
“Israel is one of America’s closest allies anywhere in the world,” he added. “[The US] shares a tremendous amount of sensitive information with Israel. US companies are in Israel. Israeli companies play an important role in the United States. Israel has a very successful and thriving hi-tech sector. So, the US wants to make sure that there aren’t compromised networks or Chinese equipment going to Israel. However, I’m not aware of a specific concern about Israel that is sort of different from concern about the UK or other top [US] allies.”
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