This increasingly muscular posture towards Beijing culminated in last week’s arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver, over alleged breaches of US sanctions with Iran. Meng, the daughter of the Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei, was granted bail on Wednesday ahead of efforts to extradite her to the US.
As the spy bosses sat down to savour Nova Scotia’s famous lobster that evening with a glass of local wine, their recent clash with Russia was seen as a template for the power of working collectively.
The British delegation led by MI6 boss Alex Younger – a man who signs official documents in green ink with a single letter “C” – had detailed evidence of the brazen attacks in Salisbury, where Moscow had used a military-grade chemical weapon on UK soil.
In the aftermath the British went public and the Five Eyes co-ordinated the largest ever expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from NATO and partner states. All agreed this would significantly degrade Russia’s intelligence capability.
That episode reminded everyone that espionage and foreign interference continues to be a pervasive threat. Some believed since 9/11 that mission had been obscured by the fight against terrorism and so at their own pace each had concluded the greatest emerging threat was China’s Communist Party.
They also knew that to contend with this challenge there was no other group of nations that enjoyed such shared knowledge, cultural affinity and technical expertise.
Not all agreed to speak publicly about China when they returned home, but all were determined to act. And the Five Eyes network would include allies like Japan and Germany in the conversation.
This coming in from the cold was viewed as a countermeasure to China and its many proxies, who have long argued fears over its rising power and influence were a fiction, or worse still, signs of xenophobia.
Rare public speeches
Since that July meeting there has been a series of rare public speeches by intelligence chiefs and a co-ordinated effort on banning Huawei from 5G networks.
It began with one of Malcolm Turnbull’s last acts as Prime Minister.
The Sunday before he was deposed Turnbull rang US President Donald Trump to tell him of Australia’s decision to exclude Huawei and China’s second largest telecommunications equipment maker ZTE from the 5G rollout.
Australia’s statement on the rules it would apply to building next-generation wireless networks was released on August 23 and largely lost in the leadership maelstrom.
Huawei was not named but it ruled out equipment being supplied by “vendors who are likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government”.
Mike Burgess put Huawei back on the national agenda when on October 29 he became the first Director-General of the Australian Signals Directorate to make a public speech in the organisation’s 70-year history.
Listening attentively from the head table that night was the Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Duncan Lewis, and his counterpart at the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Paul Symon.
All three men were at the meetings in Canada. Again, Burgess never named Huawei or ZTE but said the stakes with 5G “could not be higher” as it “will underpin the communications that Australians rely on every day”.
Lively first Twitter post
The man who runs an agency that unlocks electronic secrets had a poacher’s view of the threat: “Offence informs defence and defence informs offence. Or to put it another way, to catch a thief, you will need to think like one (or perhaps, be one).”
Since then he has given a TV interview and opened a Twitter account with a lively first post: “Hi internet, ASD here. Long time listener, first time caller.”
Burgess has even dabbled in some light trolling of Huawei. On November 21 when a Huawei executive boasted of successfully separating the core and access parts of a 5G network in New Zealand he tagged the ASD boss on his post.
To the surprise of most Burgess replied; “Thanks for sharing. In my business I’ve never seen anything ‘fully isolated…’.”
Seven days later New Zealand banned Huawei from supplying 5G equipment to mobile phone company Spark.
Then on December 6 the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, David Vigneault, who had hosted the annual Five Eyes gathering, used his first public speech to warn of an emerging threat.
“CSIS has seen a trend of state-sponsored espionage in fields that are crucial to Canada’s ability to build and sustain a prosperous, knowledge-based economy,” he said. “I’m talking about areas such as AI [artificial intelligence], quantum technology, 5G, biopharma and clean tech. In other words, the foundation of Canada’s future growth.”
No one was in any doubt he was talking about China. A formal ban on Huawei and ZTE from Ottawa is expected within weeks.
A day after the Canadian spy boss spoke, the head of MI6 was on his feet at his old Scottish university, St Andrews.
In a speech described as “rare” he warned that “much of the evolving state threat is about our opponents’ increasingly innovative exploitation of modern technology”.
The United Kingdom posed a particular problem for the Five Eyes as, 15 years earlier, British Telecom had struck a partnership with Huawei and that example was routinely used to counter arguments it posed a threat.
In answer to a question Younger took direct aim at Britain’s Huawei problem.
“We need to decide the extent to which we are going to be comfortable with Chinese ownership of these technologies and these platforms in an environment where some of our allies have taken a very definite position,” he said.
On the same day the BT Group announced it was stripping Huawei’s equipment out of the core of its existing 3G and 4G mobile operations and would not use its technology in the 5G network.
But no country has been more aggressive than the United States, represented at the Canadian meetings by Gina Haspel. The newly appointed director of the Central Intelligence Agency was battle hardened by a life spent in the shadows. She shed some light on that in a bruising Senate confirmation hearing in May saying she had “excelled in finding and acquiring secret information that I obtained in brush passes, dead drops, or in meetings in dusty alleys of third world capitals”.
Well before her arrival at the helm of the CIA, the US has been focused on Beijing and the proceedings against Huawei’s Meng are just one front in its efforts to bring China to heel.
Washington’s sharp focus on Beijing plays into Trump’s obsession with trade wars but it would be wrong to think it’s solely driven by the President. Over the last two years Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the departments of Defence, State and the security agencies have come to the conclusion China is a strategic threat.
US prosecutors have filed charges against Chinese hackers and, in an audacious sting in April, American agents lured Chinese Ministry of State Security deputy director Yanjun Xu to Belgium where he was arrested for orchestrating the theft of military secrets.
There is also speculation further indictments are imminent over a concerted Chinese hacking campaign known as “Operation Cloud Hopper”, which is believed to have penetrated networks across the globe, including Australia.
In addition the White House used its bi-annual report on China last month to say Beijing had “fundamentally” failed to change its behaviour around cyber espionage, giving it unfair access to intellectual property, trade secrets, negotiating positions and the internal communications of business.
The report added weight to revelations in The Australian Financial Review the same week that China had diverted internet traffic heading to Sydney and its peak security agency had overseen a surge in attacks on Australian companies.
This industrial-scale cyber theft is just part of a form guide which convinced the Five Eyes intelligence chiefs that Beijing would not hesitate to recruit Huawei to its cause and the company would have no choice but to comply.
All the evidence before the spy bosses at the dinner in Canada pointed to a rising superpower mounting the most comprehensive campaign of espionage and foreign interference that any had witnessed.
The Communist Party was aggressively exporting a worldview that was hostile to democracy and actively sought to undermine it.
A new Great Game was afoot and the West had been slow to act. But it is acting now.