November 29, 2020

U.K. Bans Huawei From 5G Network, Raising Tensions With China

LONDON — Britain announced on Tuesday that it would ban equipment from the Chinese technology giant Huawei from the country’s high-speed wireless network, a victory for the Trump administration and a reversal of an earlier decision that underscores how technology has taken center stage in the deepening divide between Western powers and China.

In January Britain said that Huawei equipment could be used in its new 5G network on a limited basis. But since then Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced growing political pressure domestically to take a harder line against Beijing, and in May the United States imposed new restrictions to disrupt Huawei’s access to important components.

Britain’s about-face signals a new willingness among Western countries to confront China, a determination that has grown firmer since Beijing last month adopted a sweeping new law to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, the semiautonomous city that was a British colony until 1997. On Tuesday, Robert O’Brien, President Trump’s national security adviser, was in Paris for meetings about China with counterparts from Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

Huawei’s critics say its close ties to the Chinese government mean Beijing could use the equipment for espionage or to disrupt telecommunications — a point the company strongly disputes.

Arguing that Huawei created too much risk for such a critical, multibillion-dollar project, the government said Tuesday that it would bar the purchase of new Huawei equipment for 5G networks after December, and that existing gear already installed would need to be removed from the networks by 2027.

Proceeding any faster would produce a greater risk to the security and resilience of the network, the government said.

“As facts have changed, so has our approach,” Oliver Dowden, the government minister in charge of telecommunications, told the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon. “This has not been an easy decision, but it is the right one for the U.K.’s telecoms networks, for our national security and our economy, both now and indeed in the long run.”

“This government is cleareyed about China,” he continued. “What we want is a modern and mature relationship with China based on mutual respect.”

The decision is expected to add significant costs, and delay the rollout of 5G in Britain by around two years. However the latest British security assessment has concluded that there was no need to eliminate Huawei’s role in earlier 2G, 3G and 4G networks, and the government is not seeking to discourage consumers from using Huawei products.

Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment, represents an early front in a new tech Cold War, with ramifications for internet freedom and surveillance, as well as emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics.

“The democratic West has woken up late to its over-dependence on a country whose values are diametrically opposed to it,” said Robert Hannigan, the former head of the British surveillance agency GCHQ, who is now an executive at the cybersecurity firm BlueVoyant. “Huawei and other Chinese companies present a real cybersecurity risk, but the primary threat comes from the intent of the Chinese Communist Party, as we see in Hong Kong.”

Huawei described Tuesday’s announcement as a disappointment and “bad news for anyone in the U.K. with a mobile phone.”

“It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide,” said Ed Brewster, a spokesman for Huawei U.K. “Regrettably our future in the U.K. has become politicized; this is about U.S. trade policy and not security. Over the past 20 years, Huawei has focused on building a better connected U.K.”

He said Huawei would continue to support its customers and “work with the U.K. government to explain how we can continue to contribute to a better-connected Britain.”

Until the latest turn of events, Britain had been one of the company’s most welcoming markets. Last month, Huawei announced plans to spend 1 billion pounds on a new research and development center in Cambridge.

The British experience shows the challenges nations face navigating the United States-China rift. In moving forward with the ban, Britain risks retaliation from China, one of its largest and fastest-growing trading partners, at a time when it is trying to craft a more open trade policy outside the European Union. China’s ambassador in London, Liu Xiaoming, recently warned that Britain would “bear the consequences” of treating China with hostility.

Huawei has been part of the British telecommunications system for more than a decade, and is the clear leader for towers, masts and other critical equipment needed to build new wireless networks based on fifth-generation wireless technology, known as 5G.

The technology is seen as essential infrastructure in an increasingly digital global economy. The networks will provide faster download speeds for average phone users, but offer even more important potential for commercial applications in industries such as manufacturing, health care and transportation.

ImageU.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London in January.
Credit…Pool photo by Wpa

Huawei’s technological dominance in this field is increasingly viewed as a failure of industrial policy in the West. The American authorities have spent more than a year pressuring allies to keep Huawei out of communications networks, warning the company is a proxy for Beijing and a threat to national security. The Trump administration encouraged the use of other telecom equipment makers, including Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia.

At first, countries were resistant, unconvinced that Huawei posed a grave risk. Britain argued that it had a security system in place to ensure all Huawei equipment was reviewed before being put inside its communications networks. The announcement in January stipulated Huawei would be limited to “noncore” parts of the network.

A turning point came in May, when the Trump administration announced a rule that would bar Huawei and its suppliers from using American technology and software. The decision, slated to take effect in September, could throw Huawei’s supply chain into chaos.

In Britain, the announcement came as Mr. Johnson faced increased pressure from members of his own Conservative Party to take a harder line against China, especially after the events in Hong Kong. The government announced a review of its January decision after the American punishments were announced.

“American sanctions left the U.K. with little choice,” said Priya Guha, a former British diplomat who represented the country’s interests in Silicon Valley. “There was a bit of checkmate by the U.S.”

Huawei spent the past several weeks lobbying against a ban, emphasizing its investments in Britain. Members of Huawei’s U.K. advisory board, made up of British business leaders including former BP chief executive John Browne, urged Mr. Johnson’s aides to take a more moderate approach. (A few hours before the government’s announcement on Tuesday, Huawei said Mr. Browne was leaving the board.)

Many see the Huawei dispute as foreshadowing future conflicts, with other high-profile companies becoming entangled. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was considering actions against Chinese apps, including the hugely popular social media service TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese internet company.

Last week, the American tech giants Facebook, Twitter and Google, all already blocked from the censored internet of mainland China, suspended the processing of Hong Kong government requests for user data because of a new national security law that mandates police censorship and digital surveillance. The new law could result in fines, equipment seizures or even arrests of company employees if the requests are denied.

Britain’s decision to ban Huawei will put pressure on other European countries. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is being urged to keep the company out of a new 5G network, but is weighing the economic fallout for German automakers, for whom China is a critical market. Australia has issued a ban, and Canada is considering one as well.

“If Huawei is stopped in its tracks, that does represent a very important inflection point for China’s ability to achieve its objectives,” said Nigel Inkster, a senior adviser at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London who has written a book on the technology battle between the United States and China. “That would be very consequential.”

Mr. Inkster, a former member of the British intelligence service, warned that the West risks provoking China if it feels more economically isolated. “There is a serious need to think hard and deeply about whether it is realistic to disengage from China totally in these areas,” he said.