A British political insider says there is no longer any doubt that the London government will abandon plans to incorporate technology from Chinese tech giant Huawei in the rollout of its 5G telecommunications network.
The government will make an official announcement in the coming weeks of its plans to “sunset” Huawei’s involvement in the network, said Nile Gardiner, a onetime aide to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and now the chair of a center named for Thatcher at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
Word of the decision has already been leaked to British media outlets quoting Downing Street sources, “which is usually how it works,” Gardiner said in an interview.
For months, the British government has been under pressure from the United States to pull out of its deal with Huawei, but Gardiner said domestic considerations are at least equally responsible for the decision.
He attributes the reversal in part to strong opposition among senior members of the governing Conservative Party, as well as widespread public disillusionment with Beijing resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
“There has been a very significant rebellion against Prime Minister [Boris] Johnson’s earlier decision” to allow Huawei a 35% stake in Britain’s telecommunications market, Gardiner told VOA.
Vote to amend sought
During a parliamentary debate on the issue in March, former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith questioned Johnson’s decision and called for a vote to amend the government’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill.
Duncan Smith accused the Chinese government of spending 20 years underbidding other tech firms until Huawei could emerge as the dominant player in the telecom market. He said going ahead with the deal would make Britain “nationally dependent on Huawei,” which has been classified by British authorities as a “high-risk vendor.”
Gardiner said the revolt within party ranks has gained sufficient support that the Johnson government must amend its proposed 5G legislation or risk a parliamentary defeat when the issue next comes to a vote this summer.
While Duncan Smith and other lawmakers have warned against Beijing’s increasing involvement in British society for years, the turnaround in British public opinion has been shaped by China’s handling of the coronavirus, including early efforts to suppress reporting on the contagion.
This “has significantly hardened the view of the British government and the British people,” Gardiner said, adding that recent moves to extend China’s security control over Hong Kong have been “extremely unhelpful” to Beijing’s cause.
Analysts also speculate that Johnson’s personal battle with COVID-19, which brought him close to death in April, contributed to his new, tougher view of China. “A healthy growth is his backbone,” said Fraser Howie, a Scottish-born expert on Britain’s relations with the Asia Pacific region and co-author of Red Capitalism.
Huawei, meanwhile, has not given up on the British market. The company launched a high-profile ad campaign this week in the form of a “Dear Britain” letter published in major media outlets, touting its two-decade-long investment history in the country and reiterating its “commitment to helping bring fast reliable mobile and full fiber broadband networks to every part [of] the country.”
The ad campaign follows announcements in April and May that a prominent member of British industry had joined the company’s board, and that it had entered a “new five-year collaboration” agreement with Imperial College London, “aimed at growing the U.K.’s data science and innovation ecosystem.”
Washington, too, is keeping up the pressure. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement Wednesday denouncing “the Chinese Communist Party’s coercive bullying tactics,” citing reports that Beijing has issued threats toward Britain’s landmark banking institution, the HSBC.
“The United States stands with our allies and partners” and “stands ready to assist our friends in the U.K. with any needs they have, from building secure and reliable nuclear power plants to developing trusted 5G solutions that protect their citizens’ privacy,” Pompeo said.
“Free nations deal in true friendship and desire mutual prosperity, not political and corporate kowtows.”