Can solar power inverters made by Huawei threaten Taiwan’s national security and disrupt its power supply? Taiwan’s national security officials and some lawmakers think so, as they increasingly choose to take no chances with the Chinese tech giant.
Taiwan’s Apple Daily, owned by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, claims that Huawei equipment is being used in a Taiwanese military project to install solar panels and related environment control systems on some of the force’s compounds in Taipei and Kaohsiung.
One subcontractor of the project, New Green Power Co, is reportedly affiliated with Huawei, which has also installed solar panels on the Legislative Yuan complex in the island’s capital near the office of President Tsai Ing-wen.
Power inverters bearing the Huawei logo can be seen on the array of solar panels on the parliament building as well as on a military academy campus in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung.
Because the power inverters are connected to these sensitive venues’ intranets, the Chinese-made devices may expose the management systems of the Legislative Yuan complex and the military academy to Chinese hackers, Taiwanese lawmakers fear.
Lawmakers with the island’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party believe Huawei’s inverters may create a “security loophole” and even give Chinese hackers a backdoor to manipulate Taiwan’s power supply systems.
They quoted building technology engineers with the National Taiwan University as saying that in some cases changing the transmission frequency of power inverters could potentially disrupt electricity grids, sending them into safety mode and triggering cascading blackouts.
They also argued that these Huawei devices might have backdoor software built in to collect data such as information about power generation and consumption back to the company headquarters in Shenzhen or even directly to Beijing.
They also claimed that since Huawei has failed to demonstrate that its operations are wholly independent of the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese government, Taiwan must take precautions against the company’s products and solutions, especially when used in government and military facilities.
Legislative Yuan Secretary-General Lin Chih-chia said on Tuesday that he had ordered Huawei power inverters to be removed and promised a fresh review of the parliament building’s IT and control systems to rid them of any products or components made in China.
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has also vowed more stringent checks of its procurement protocols to exclude any products from “a potential adversary.” Taiwanese papers alleged earlier this year that the military was still using Huawei routers and switchboards at some of its barracks, with many soldiers and commanders seen using their Huawei and Xiaomi smartphones in their dormitories.
The self-ruled island, claimed by Beijing as a renegade province to be reunified with the mainland, is among the first countries to fully pull the plug on Huawei’s products. It blacklisted Huawei, its domestic rival ZTE and surveillance equipment manufacturer HikVision last year to bar them from bidding for government contracts.
Taiwan’s leading chipmaker, TSMC, stopped taking new orders from Huawei this month after Washington slapped fresh sanctions on the company that bars the sale of any components containing American ingenuity.
The US-led boycott has gained momentum in Europe after Britain decided this month to dial up its scrutiny of Huawei and ban local carriers from procuring 5G telecom gear from the company.
Taiwan is also seeking to comply with Washington’s anti-Huawei mandate, with the island’s military leading the way to lock Chinese tech firms out while at the same time seeking to buy more American-made weapons.
Taiwan has now made several rounds of sweeping checks to identify and purge Huawei products used in its government systems and in the island’s backbone wireless networks. It won’t be easy to fully purge Huawei’s wares, however, considering telecom products often integrate subsystems and know-how from a number of suppliers.
Taiwan’s government also faces legal challenges against its bid to bar private sector companies from using Huawei products, which are often cheaper than rival firms.
The Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party’s lawmakers have asked what the government and telecom operators should do with products from non-Chinese companies that contain Huawei or other Chinese-made parts or are assembled in the mainland.
Prof. Wong Kam-fai, a deputy dean of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Engineering, told Asia Times that governments could and should proactively set up rules and laws to regulate the industry and allay security concerns.
At the same time, he said it would be a stretch to suggest that some of Huawei’s power inverters could potentially disrupt the entire power grid, as some have suggested. He said Huawei would always face more scrutiny from governments given the now heightened sensitivity about its products and operations.
“If Huawei can still strike deals with foreign governments or firms under these circumstances, then commercial deals should be seen as commercial deals as respective partners must have done their own assessment and come to the decision to work with Huawei,” he said. “In that case, no one should be paranoid about the risks or Huawei’s Chinese origin.”
That all said, Huawei will still be able to continue operations in Taiwan, including handset and other consumer product sales in stores in Taipei and distributors across the island, though the Chinese tech giant’s business-to-business revenues reportedly dried up long ago.