Huawei, the battle for cyberspace and a plot you couldn't make up

A truly bizarre sequence of events has unfolded around the telecoms giant, ensnaring a Chinese businesswoman, two Canadian citizens, Iran and North Korea

(FILES) In this file photo taken on January 13, 2014 Michael Spavor (L) and former US basketball player Dennis Rodman (R) arrive at Beijing International Airport from North Korea. Ottawa on December 13, 2018 identified the second Canadian questioned in China as Michael Spavor, and said he has been missing since he last made contact with Canadian officials. / AFP / WANG Zhao
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It reads like the plot of a poorly conceived spy thriller. A Chinese executive, Huawei's Meng Wanzhou, is arrested in Canada at the behest of the US, allegedly for violating Iran sanctions. With China and the US having agreed a detente in their trade war and with Beijing wary of further hostility, Canada is sucked into a tussle between the world's two superpowers, despite the fractious relationship between its prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and US President Donald Trump. Beijing says Ottawa will "bear the full responsibility" for Ms Meng's "unreasonable, merciless and very evil detention". Subsequently, two Canadian citizens are detained in China, one of whom – businessman Michael Spavor – is famed for facilitating meetings between North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and American basketball star Dennis Rodman.

It has been two weeks since Ms Meng, chief financial officer of the world's second-largest smartphone maker, was arrested in Vancouver airport, but the situation grows murkier by the day. Currently out on bail, she is due back in court on February 6; her extradition to the US could take months, prolonging the misery of detained Canadians Michael Kovrig – a former diplomat – and Mr Spavor. All three find themselves at the mercy of forces greater than themselves as the most 21st-century of wars unfolds around them.

Ms Meng might be in the dock, but it is the company her father started that is on trial. Huawei is widely viewed by US officials as a national security risk, with fears that Beijing will deploy it as a tool to spy on its rivals. As expected, the company denies such accusations. On the advice of the US, Japan, the UK, Australia and New Zealand have all either stopped buying from Huawei or imposed bans on the company. But it remains big in Europe, Asia, Latin America and, ironically, Canada.

In September, former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt predicted that the internet will split in two within a decade, one branch led by China and the other by the US. It was a reminder of how the struggle for global dominance has shifted from missiles to algorithms. Cybersecurity is the new battlefield and the weaponry sits in the pockets of us all. Both the US and China are trying to lead the introduction of 5G, a radical network upgrade expected to transform smart cities, driverless vehicles and artificial intelligence. Whoever wins this battle will leap ahead in cyberspace, with profound implications for us all.