British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears set to give the go-ahead for Chinese telecom giant Huawei to play a role in the development of Britain's 5G wireless network — a move that risks jeopardizing intelligence-sharing between Britain and America, according U.S. officials.
Despite last-ditch lobbying by the U.S. to block Huawei, British officials say it is a "foregone conclusion" Johnson will allow Huawei participation.
That would confirm a "provisional" decision made by his predecessor, Theresa May. Last year, she said Huawei should be allowed to build some so-called "non-core" parts of Britain's future 5G data network, discounting U.S. alarm.
Johnson's final decision could come as early as this week, officials say.
For a year, the Trump administration has urged Britain to ban Huawei from participating in the development of Britain's fifth-generation wireless network. 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 up data and gather intelligence.
Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have urged all Western allies to shun Huawei on security grounds. They have specifically warned Downing Street that Britain's participation in the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing arrangement — the U.S.-led Anglophone intelligence pact linking Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain — would be imperiled.
Australia and New Zealand have banned Huawei from developing their 5G networks. As yet, Canada has not.
Senior U.S. security officials flew to London last week and warned Johnson and his ministers that allowing Huawei to supply even some non-core equipment of the future 5G network would be "nothing short of madness."
But Johnson has faced strong counter lobbying from China — and also from British telecom providers and mobile phone companies. They have already been installing Huawei technology to start setting up the new network in more than 70 cities in Britain. They warn that delaying the rollout of 5G would cost the British economy billions of pounds. Ripping out masts and other equipment already in place would cost British providers hundreds of millions of pounds and could delay by up to five years the 5G network.
Last week, Johnson expressed frustration with the U.S. over the issue, saying in a BBC radio interview that he didn't want "to prejudice our national security or our ability to co-operate with Five Eyes intelligence partners," but that he wanted Britain to have "access to the best possible technology. We want to put in gigabit broadband for everybody."
Johnson added, "If people oppose one brand or another, then they have to tell us what's the alternative."
U.S. officials reportedly told Johnson that Britain shouldn't prioritize costs over security.
Johnson has some U.S. supporters.
"It is a difficult decision for a number of countries, the U.K. being one of them," said Robert Manning, an analyst at the Atlantic Council.
Manning sympathizes with Johnson's complaint that the U.S. isn't offering any alternatives to Huawei.
"On one level, this is all a fallout from America First policy. We should have sat down with our allies a long time ago to sort out what you have to worry about and what you might have some leeway on. There is a certain demonization going on, " he told VOA.
British technology experts say it is easier for the U.S. to avoid using Huawei equipment, as it is building a less sophisticated 5G network and doesn't require the advanced antenna-sharing technology Huawei has developed. They say Huawei will provide not just faster mobile data connection but easier connectivity between internet-based devices, from laptops and smart refrigerators to self-driving cars.
U.S. giants Cisco and Qualcomm are the go-to 5G equipment suppliers in America. But like Europe's Ericsson and Nokia, they can't currently provide the same advanced equipment as Huawei or at the same low price.
British intelligence agencies are split on whether Huawei poses a security risk.
Andrew Parker, head of MI5, believes U.S. alarm is overblown. He has said publicly that the security risks can be managed if Huawei has access to the less sensitive parts of the new network, and is monitored closely and its equipment screened.
He has also discounted U.S. threats to review intelligence-sharing, saying there is "no reason to think" Washington would follow through with its threat, as the U.S.-U.K. partnership is "very close and very trusted."
But U.S. officials have told VOA that Parker is wrong to think that U.S. intelligence agencies would overlook the spying fears. They also warn that a possible Johnson fudge, whereby Huawei's equipment would be allowed in less sensitive parts of the network, wouldn't assuage their concerns.
Top officials at Britain's GCHQ, the eavesdropping spy agency and the country's largest intelligence, aren't as sanguine as Parker, and remain worried about the risks of handing Huawei unprecedented access to British citizens' sensitive data.
They agree with U.S. intelligence assessments that restricting Huawei to the "edges" of the new network would make little difference to the security risk. They told Britain's Sunday Times that giving Huawei such access would be akin to "letting a fox loose in a chicken coop."
Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who when in office ruled out using Huawei for 5G development, said the nature of 5G technology made it impossible to separate the core from non-core elements of the future network. He said Huawei could be forced by Chinese law to hand over information to Beijing's espionage agencies.
"Do you want to give China the capability to materially interfere with what will become one of the most fundamental technological platforms in the modern economy?" he said in a radio interview last week.
The Chinese government says Huawei is a private company and poses no security risk to the West. Huawei has dismissed U.S. allegations that it could undermine Britain's national security as "baseless speculation."
Beijing has also made thinly veiled threats, suggesting a decision to ban Huawei could result in Britain being punished when it comes to trade and investment.
Britain hopes to pull off post-Brexit trade deals with both Washington and Beijing to help compensate for reduced trade with Europe.