Boris Johnson faced quite the conundrum. Get a cheap technological boost from China, or remain in close cooperation with US intelligence? Those were the stakes set by Washington and Beijing, and the British PM made his choice this morning … America first, or at least second.
The news will please the Trump administration, which has not just repeatedly warned about the security risks of Huawei’s integration into Western 5G, but has also sanctioned the company. The US had pressured the UK by saying that its communications infrastructure would be so insecure with Huawei even as a limited partner that sharing intel might become impossible:
The United Kingdom announced Tuesday that Huawei would be banned from its high-speed 5G telecommunications network, in a decision that will anger China but please the United States.
The role of the Chinese tech giant has become a central theme in London’s increasingly uneasy relationship with Beijing.
The U.K. has faced months of pressure from Washington, which says Huawei is a security risk because the company could be used by the Chinese government to spy on the West. Both China and Huawei have repeatedly denied this.
“There’s no such thing as a perfectly secure network,” Media Secretary Oliver Dowden told the House of Commons, but he said that the U.K. had to make sure its system was “as secure as it possibly can be.”
This doesn’t come cost-free, either. It presents a major setback to the UK’s development of 5G and a cost approaching £2 billion, mainly from replacing existing equipment over the next few years:
It’s a major reversal for the U.K., which in January gave Huawei restricted access to the country’s next-generation mobile networks. Under previous guidelines, mobile network operators were required to reduce the share of Huawei kit in noncore parts of their infrastructure to 35% by 2023.
But that decision was complicated by new sanctions imposed on Huawei by the U.S. in May. These restrictions mean the Chinese firm will no longer be able to source key chip equipment from trusted American suppliers. The U.K.’s National Cyber Security Center initiated an emergency review of Huawei shortly after the U.S. curbs were introduced.
Dowden said the move will delay the U.K.’s rollout of 5G mobile internet, which promises super-fast data speeds and increased network capacity. Banning procurement of new Huawei gear and reducing the Chinese vendor’s market share to zero by 2027 would result in an “accumulative delay” of up to three years and cost as much as £2 billion ($2.5 billion), he warned.
Huawei went on a PR offensive immediately, attempting to curry favor with British consumers:
“This disappointing decision is bad news for anyone in the U.K. with a mobile phone,” said Ed Brewster, a spokesperson for Huawei U.K. “It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide.”
Huawei urged the government to reconsider the move, adding it was “confident” the new U.S. restrictions “would not have affected the resilience or security of the products we supply.” Brewster said the company “will conduct a detailed review” of what the decision means for its business in the U.K.
The move from Johnson was widely expected. Johnson and Trump are mainly sympatico on issues of security, but in this case the trouble with comms infiltration was undoubtedly too serious to ignore. The question remains whether Johnson can sell the delay and cost to the public, especially since the Tories largely created the costs and delay by ignoring the obvious problems by allowing the Huawei partnership in the first place. They could have chosen up front to exclude China from participating in its 5G network when the Trump administration first started raising alarms about the security risks, but instead thought they could get cute with limits on use of their equipment.
Having finally scored a win in the UK, the Trump administration will now try to get the EU to see the light. After Brexit, however, Trump’s influence might actually hurt that effort:
The head of France’s cybersecurity authority has ruled out a total ban on Huawei, and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, Huawei’s largest customer in Europe, has argued firmly against any blanket ban on individual vendors.
But since the European Commission published its toolbox there have been significant geopolitical developments, including the spread of COVID from China, hardnosed diplomacy by Beijing that has angered some EU governments, the imposition of China’s new security law in Hong Kong and the U.S. chip-tech sanctions.
A senior EU diplomat said some countries were now worried the Commission guidelines did not go far enough to limit dependence on Huawei, and the distinction between ‘core’, meaning critical parts of 5G networks that Huawei should be excluded from, and ‘non-core’ was “not as robust as we thought”.
“EU member states do seem to be increasingly doubtful about Huawei,” the official said. “The standard view is heading towards giving maybe just a very small role to Huawei [for 5G].”
A lot is likely to depend on the view Germany takes. If Berlin decides to give the go-ahead for Huawei to play a significant role in its 5G network, even if only in ‘non-core’ areas, it would provide cover for smaller, less influential countries to adopt a similar approach.
The problem is that the EU still sees its economic future as dependent on engagement with China. The coronavirus outbreak has oddly strengthened that viewpoint, CNN’s Luke McGee reported last month, and their skepticism of Trump as a counterweight might be part of their reluctance to change gears:
The logic goes something like this: the EU’s current priorities are managing its recovery from coronavirus, both economically and strategically; becoming a serious geopolitical player; strengthening Europe’s economy; and being a world leader on the climate crisis.
It’s widely accepted in Brussels that expanding relations with China plays into each of these. Officials believe that Chinese engagement is essential if the world is to understand the virus and learn the right lessons from the outbreak. China’s vast wealth and willingness to invest is obviously a very attractive prospect to struggling EU economies. If the climate crisis is ever going to be brought under control, a good place to start is the world’s largest polluter. And by treading a careful path between the US and China, Europe creates a unique role for itself on the international stage, giving it diplomatic autonomy from Washington.
However, the pandemic has also refocused attention on other issues involving China that European leaders had been willing to overlook, including the incarceration of up to a million predominately Muslim Uyghurs in the country’s western Xinjiangb region, industrial espionage and the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong.
Inconveniently, this reminder has come just months before the EU and China were scheduled to meet at a centerpiece summit in September to cement their future relationship. Perhaps mercifully, Covid-19 has postponed that meeting.
“The pandemic has been a wake up call for member states that were sleepwalking towards the China summit in September, blinded by the shine of Chinese money,” said Steven Blockmans, head of foreign policy at the Center for European Policy Studies. “The coverup in Wuhan and spreading misinformation has undermined China’s position as to how reliable a partner it can possibly be for Europe.”
This puts Europe in a tight spot. On one hand, it must engage with Beijing; on the other, it must more adequately acknowledge that China is a systemic rival that cannot be fully trusted. For the time being, the EU is sticking with this position.
A month later, the UK’s reversal might change some minds. More likely, though, the US is explaining the same issue that sold the Brits on the change. Germany and France cooperate extensively with the US on intelligence, and if that access gets threatened by their choice of comms vendors, the outcomes could be catastrophic. In fact, the very issues that the EU sees as requiring engagement with China would be threatened by a lack of reliable intelligence on Beijing.
Economic engagement is one thing; even the Trump administration wants to remain engaged with China on trade, albeit with vastly better security and access conditions. It’s quite another to invite a hacking fox into the digital henhouse, especially one with quite a long track record of stealing the eggs.