China’s economic expansion in Latin America has concerned regional watchers for years. Beijing’s massive investments and growing diplomatic ties are slowly shifting regional dynamics and undermining democratic norms. Yet China’s potential involvement in developing the region’s 5G technology would give an unparalleled boost to its regional influence.
Previously postponed due to the coronavirus, 5G spectrum auctions in Latin America are now restarting. Countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia will soon have to decide which supplier will be entrusted with building its 5G network.
All these nations are currently considering Huawei, a Chinese firm that constantly boasts about its low prices. Huawei’s cut-rate prices are possible only because of subsidies, grants, and preferential policy support from the Chinese government.
However, Huawei is not just a telecommunications firm. It is, in fact, the Chinese Communist Party’s (“CCP”) apparatus to seek world data domination. By law, the CCP has the power to request any kind of information they want from Huawei.
Latin American countries must be made to understand the implications of allowing Huawei to develop their 5G networks. From a human rights perspective, it means these countries would be 1) collaborating with an authoritarian regime and 2) on-boarding Chinese tools of oppression. Technology has enabled China’s mass surveillance state, its oppressive censorship, and its ongoing genocide against religious minorities. Civil society organizations and political opponents in Latin America could soon find themselves targeted by similar surveillance means.
Venezuela is already receiving financial and technological support from Chinese companies to implement surveillance and tracking methods, and there are growing concerns that the regime in Cuba is receiving technology from Huawei to censor its political opponents and human-rights activists.
Huawei’s presence in Latin America also presents key challenges to the private sector. Because the internet services all industries, it offers opportunities for the theft of intellectual property, trade secrets, and new technology.
Huawei has long stolen technology from other companies and even paid employees bonuses for obtaining ill-gotten materials.
China’s intelligence law compounds this problem, mandating that all Chinese companies turn over information to the CCP whenever requested, regardless of whether the company is independent or a state-owned entity. At all points, then, a Huawei built network leaves the private sector facing serious exposures and vulnerabilities. The actual level of economic espionage will vary from country to country, but in every case it will undoubtedly cut into manufacturing capabilities, technological advancement, and will erode national security.
Huawei’s threat does not stop there. Government agencies would also be using its 5G networks in some capacity. That would raise the risk of China accessing classified government information and the communication channels used by security services. If Beijing were to have this kind of access, then it would inevitably leave a nation’s sovereignty vulnerable and open to serious manipulation.
Proponents of Huawei argue that U.S. criticism of their networks is simply a ploy to promote American technology. But the reality is that no American company is competing with Huawei. Moreover, America is not the only country highlighting Huawei’s risks. The UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Sweden, amongst others, have independently found Huawei too risky to develop their next-generation technology.
But in Latin America, countries are still hesitating to impose restrictions on this high-risk company. Recently, Brazil backtracked from its earlier decision to officially ban Huawei; now it will permit the company to participate in its bidding process. Brazilian officials apparently believe there are ways to protect confidential information while using Huawei equipment. There isn’t; 5G networks share channels and connections in a way that would make this impossible.
Huawei’s low prices come at a great cost in terms of sovereignty and security. Latin American countries should shun 5G providers with a track record of lying and stealing from their clients. Instead, they should protect their independence from foreign interests and stand up against China.
Ana Quintana is a senior policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.
Andrea Leal is a lawyer from Monterrey, Mexico, and a member of the think tank’s Young Leaders Program.