The Swedish Post and Telecom Authority announced in October that China’s biggest private company Huawei is not among the companies approved for development of the future 5G network in Sweden. The decision comes after the Swedish Armed Forces and the Swedish Security Service raised concerns in pre-trials about digital infrastructure security and reflects an ongoing tension between the West and China on human rights issues.
On January 1st this year, the Swedish Government introduced an amendment to previous legislation that makes it possible to consider integrity and national security when new digital infrastructure is to be developed. The 5G network is a critical aspect of intersocietal communication and will deliver sensitive information such as exchanges between authorities, medical records and other private information. Due to the Swedish Armed Forces and the Swedish Security Service (SÄPO) fears of compromising the security of this information, the Swedish Post and Telecom Authority’s (PTS) decision will deny Chinese Huawei and ZTE to implement central digital infrastructure. The statement also put forward that the companies’ involvement must be discontinued by 2025.
According to Klas Friberg, who is chief of police at SÄPO, around 15 states have been recognized as driving operations threatening national security. China is one of them:
“China is one of the biggest threats against Sweden”, he says in an official publication from the SÄPO website. “The Chinese government carries out cyber espionage to promote its economic development and develop its military capabilities. It happens through extensive gathering of intelligence and theft of technology, research and development. This is what we must keep in mind when the future 5G networks are built. We cannot compromise Swedish security.”
Chinese companies increasingly under a magnifying glass
The changes to Swedish legislation are made amidst intense international criticism against Chinese technology companies from actors like the Human Rights Watch. Their criticism raises the issue of how Chinese companies have ties to the Chinese government and are enabling expansive mass surveillance measures. Although privacy is protected under United Nations’ resolution 68/167, the conduct of Chinese private companies is restricted by a Chinese national security law adopted in 2017, which requires them to cooperate with Chinese authorities. A review of the law by The Diplomat underlines the fact that article 14, for example, “grants intelligence agencies authority to insist on this support.”
Sweden is not the only country in the West taking measures to exclude Chinese companies due to concerns for security breaches in its digital infrastructure. Other European Union governments have been implementing security measures after diplomatic pressure from Washington alleged Huawei equipment is used by Beijing for cyber espionage. Earlier this year, United States national security adviser Robert O’Brien met up with his counterparts from the countries Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany and France to discuss hindering Huawei’s expansion in European digital infrastructure. A month later, the European Commission published a report which discusses an EU toolbox of mitigating measures addressing security risks in the rollout of the 5G network.
Rising tension between Stockholm and Beijing
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied all allegations of privacy breaches. The day after the decision was announced by PTS, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian made a rebuttal at a regular news briefing in Beijing. “Sweden should uphold an objective and fair attitude, and correct its wrong decision, to avoid bringing a negative impact to China-Sweden economic and trade cooperation and the operations of Swedish enterprises in China.”
The Chinese Embassy also condemns the Swedish Government’s behavior in an email to Svenska Dagbladet, claiming the actions are based on fabricated accusations and that it goes against principles of free market competition. According to a report from Oxford Economics which was ordered by Huawei, it is estimated that it will cost Sweden €1.1billion to restrict the competition and exclude Huawei in the 5G network equipment. The Vice Executive President of Huawei in the Nordic and Baltik countries Björn Lidén further reinforces these sentiments: “If you base a decision on assumptions instead of concrete facts I would say that you have made a bad decision altogether. One loses power of innovation and competitiveness.” Lidén said on SVT in response to the Swedish Minister of Digitization, Anders Ygeman, who also took part in the discussion.
Adding to the complexity of the situation, a surprising turn of events took place earlier this week. Despite the statements made by the Swedish Government and PTS about standing by their decision, the Supreme Administrative Court in Stockholm is temporarily annulling the restrictions against Huawei participating in the 5G auction on the basis that the company first should be able to make a legal appeal against the decision.
The economic market gambits made by China and the effects they have on Chinese international relations are prone to extend further in the foreseeable future. As Huawei has become the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer, the company has also become more prominent in providing network infrastructure in the international arena. The tension between governments in the West and Beijing are therefore likely to stick around as it is important that governments continue to consider how to best protect digital security and the privacy of its citizens.
Featured image by Tham Yuan Yuan from Pixabay