The British government is set to end the participation of Chinese telecom giant Huawei in the building of Britain’s 5G phone network — a policy about-turn that will further deteriorate London’s strained relations with Beijing, but will please Washington, according to British media reports.
The major policy change follows a fresh reassessment by Britain’s National Cyber Security Center, or NCSC, on the eavesdropping risks posed by the Chinese company, according to Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
British officials have confirmed to VOA the newspaper report is accurate.
Previously the NCSC, a department within Britain’s intelligence agency GCHQ, said the security risks posed by Huawei could be safely managed and mitigated, a view not shared by U.S. intelligence agencies. But the imposition last month of new U.S. restrictions on Huawei has altered the picture, the NCSC warns.
Britain’s cybersecurity chiefs now conclude the sanctions, which block Huawei from using components and semi-conductors based on any American intellectual property, will mean the telecom giant will have to use “untrusted” parts, increasing security risks.
British officials are drawing up a timetable for the removal of Huawei equipment already installed in the 5G network. British telecom firms BT and Vodafone have asked the government to give them until 2030 to strip Huawei components from the existing 5G infrastructure, but officials say Downing Street wants much speedier action, even if it means slowing down the roll-out of the new network.
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, welcomed the reports, saying, “The government’s change of heart is very welcome.”
The planned policy reversal comes amid a mounting diplomatic dispute between Britain and Beijing over the introduction by the Chinese government of a new draconian security law that allows Chinese security agencies to arrest pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, a former British enclave. To Beijing’s anger, Britain announced Hong Kong residents would be allowed to move to Britain.
In January, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to allow Huawei a limited role in building the less critical parts of the country's next-generation cellular network, dealing a blow to a U.S. campaign urging allies to boycott the telecom giant.
For more than a year, the Trump administration has urged Britain and other allies to ban Huawei from participating in the development of fifth-generation wireless networks. U.S. officials say there's a significant risk that the company, which has close ties to Chinese intelligence services, will act as a Trojan horse for Beijing's espionage agencies, allowing them to sweep data up and gather intelligence.
Ahead of Johnson’s go-ahead, U.S. officials warned London that giving Huawei the green-light could jeopardize intelligence-sharing between Britain and the United States. The British prime minister sought to mollify Washington — and critics within his own ruling Conservative party — by allowing Huawei to build only 35 percent of Britain's 5G infrastructure and to exclude it from critical networks and from locations near nuclear plants and military bases.
Pressure has been mounting on Johnson to reverse his decision from within his own party, pressure that has been fueled by the coronavirus pandemic and accusations that Beijing downplayed the danger of the novel virus. A newly-formed Conservative group in the House of Commons called the China Research Group has been urging Johnson to take a robust line with China’s communist leaders on a range of issues, from Beijing’s security crackdown in Hong Kong to Huawei.
The group has attracted the support of dozens of Conservative lawmakers and around 60 had warned Johnson that they would mount a backbench rebellion, if he did not block Huawei.
Johnson recently instructed officials to draft plans to limit Britain’s reliance on China for vital medical supplies and other strategic imports in light of the coronavirus crisis. Britain is strategically dependent on China for 71 critical goods categories, including pharmaceutical ingredients and consumer electronics, according to trade data analyzed by the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank based in London.
Last month, Christopher Patten, a former Conservative minister and Britain’s last Hong Kong governor, warned Johnson publicly about Huawei, saying, “If people argue we should deal with Huawei because they’re just like any other multinational company, that is for the birds: if they come under pressure from the Communist government to do things which are thought to be in Beijing’s interest they will do it.”
With Britain poised to block Huawei, it would leave Canada as the only member of the so-called ‘Five Eyes' intelligence-sharing partnership, which includes the U.S., Britain Australia and New Zealand, not yet to have excluded Huawei from involvement in 5G development.
Huawei issued a statement Sunday saying it remains “open to discussions with the British government” and accused the U.S. of seeking to boost the market position of American companies. Company officials say an any decision to reverse its role in Britain’s 5G network is based is based on “mistaken assumptions.”
A Huawei spokesman said: “Huawei is the most scrutinized vendor in the world and we firmly believe our unrivaled transparency in the UK means we can continue to be trusted to play a part in Britain’s gigabit upgrade. It’s important to focus on facts and not to speculate at this time.”