WASHINGTON - The British government’s decision to ban Chinese tech giant Huawei from its 5G telecom network beginning in 2027 is only the “opening salvo” of what is to come, according to a leading expert on U.S.-British relations.
Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, thinks there is a “higher than 50% chance” that Huawei’s exit date will come two or even three years ahead of the announced date.
The same hardline lawmakers in the governing Conservative Party who pushed for the rejection of Huawei consider seven years to be too long a period to completely disengage from the company, Gardiner said in a telephone interview, adding that these lawmakers may be able to push through legislation that would shorten the timeline.
He pointed to statements made Tuesday by member of parliament Iain Duncan Smith immediately after the decision to cut Huawei out of the nation’s 5G plans was announced.
“The head of [British Telecom] said ‘seven years, yes, but we can do it in five.’ So now let’s bring it forward to five and make sure it happens quickly; there’s no reason why they can’t,” Duncan Smith said in the House of Commons.
The former cabinet minister also urged the government to remove Huawei equipment from existing 3G and 4G infrastructure to prevent a scenario where the company’s software keeps getting upgraded, posing a continuing threat. “If they’re a risk in 5G, why are they not a risk to us generally?” he asked.
Duncan Smith continued his urging with an op-ed the next day, in which he wrote, “Removing Huawei makes sense. Waiting seven years to do it does not.”
Much of the concern about Huawei has centered on fears that its technology could be used by China to spy on countries that install it. In his op-ed, Duncan Smith wrote that “the bigger problem is the aggressive behavior of China and its crackdown on dissidents in China and elsewhere. We have become far too dependent on this powerful communist state and the free world needs to come together to resolve this issue.”
He added: “End [Huawei’s] involvement earlier, in 2025 at the latest.”
Gardiner, who predicted that Britain’s action would influence decision-making in other European capitals, believes the vision put forth by Duncan Smith could very well be realized. The cabinet is expected to introduce legislation, known as the Telecom Security Bill, to legalize the terms guiding the nation’s 5G network.
Duncan Smith and “about 60” like-minded lawmakers in the Conservative Party, along with supporters in the opposition Labor Party, could attach amendments to the bill to advance the deadline for British companies to divest from Huawei, he said.
Gardiner added that the legislators could set a date as early as 2024, when the next general election is due.
Roger Garside, a former British diplomat whose postings included Beijing, told VOA from his home in London that he was “profoundly relieved that the British government is coming to its senses over Huawei.”
“There has been a fundamental failure under successive British governments to appreciate the threat posed to our fundamental interests by the [People’s Republic of China]. Now we appear to wakening from that dream state.”
Beijing, for its part, says it is “seriously evaluating the situation” before responding to the British decision. Huawei’s executives have denied they are obligated to share information with the Chinese government.
Gardiner said British leaders were fully aware of the risk of retaliation when they made their decision, which he sees as a severe blow to both Huawei and its Communist Party backers, especially given “the vast inroads” the company had made in “the upper echelon” of British society and “vast amount of resources” Beijing poured into lobbying for Huawei to remain in Britain.
He credits the sea change in British public opinion to a “perfect storm” created by China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its response to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Had Margaret Thatcher, his former boss, “still been with us today, I’m in no doubt she would be standing up to Beijing, standing up for the rights of the people in Hong Kong,” he said.