U.S. President Donald Trump has warned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson of “serious consequences” if he allows the Chinese telecom giant Huawei a role in building Britain’s 5G phone network, according to officials on both sides of the Atlantic.
The warning follows months of lobbying of Downing Street by top U.S. officials who aim to persuade the British government to shut out the Chinese company on security grounds.
Trump told Johnson Friday that giving Huawei, which has ties to Chinese intelligence agencies, the go-ahead will cause a major rift in transatlantic relations and jeopardize intelligence-sharing between Washington and London, according to U.S. officials. They say the decision, expected Tuesday, will also likely impact the prospects for a post-Brexit transatlantic trade deal eagerly sought by Britain to compensate for likely diminished trade with the European Union.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Saturday dubbed the Huawei deal a threat to “critical” infrastructure. But he indicated that if Downing Street falls into line, the U.S. will “dedicate a lot of resources” to getting a trade deal negotiated and signed by the end of the year.
The Huawei decision is also being watched closely on Capitol Hill.
In an unprecedented move, three Republican senators -- Tom Cotton, John Cornyn and Marco Rubio -- sent a letter to Britain’s National Security Council urging Huawei to be excluded from 5G development. “The company’s actions show a clear record of predatory and problematic behavior,” the senators said, adding it would “in the best interest of the United Kingdom, the US-UK special relationship, and the health and wellbeing of a well-functioning market for 5G technologies to exclude Huawei.”
US sees Trojan horse
For a year, the Trump administration has been urging Britain to ban the Chinese company from participating in the development of Britain’s fifth-generation wireless network. U.S. officials say there’s a significant risk that the Chinese telecoms giant will act as a Trojan horse for Beijing’s espionage agencies, planting ‘backdoors’ into any equipment supplied to Britain, enabling data to be swept up and intelligence gathered. The U.S. imposed its own trade restrictions on Huawei last year.
Huawei vehemently denies that it could be used by Beijing for intelligence purposes, saying that U.S. allegations are “baseless speculation.” The Chinese government says Huawei is a private company and poses no security risk to the West.
But Beijing has also made ill-disguised threats, suggesting a decision to ban Huawei could result in Britain being punished when it comes to Chinese trade and investment. Similar warnings have been issued to other Western countries, all of which have been urged by U.S. officials to shun Huawei on security grounds.
U.S. lobbying has been especially fierce among members of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing pact -- the U.S.-led Anglophone intelligence arrangement linking Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain. Australia and New Zealand, although as yet not Canada, have banned Huawei from any role in developing their 5G networks. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to make a last effort to dissuade Johnson during a visit to London this week.
In Germany, the Huawei issue has sparked a major division between Chancellor Angel Merkel, who fears Chinese retaliation if Huawei is excluded, and her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, who are opposed to offering Huawei any 5G role. Merkel’s ministries are also deeply split, with the trade and finance ministers backing Huawei’s involvement and foreign and intelligence officials highly skeptical that the risks are worth it.
Both the White House and Downing Street have sought to play down talk of a transatlantic rift. In a bland statement Friday, the White House said Trump and Johnson “discussed important regional and bilateral issues, including working together to ensure the security of our telecommunications networks.”
'Next Chinese virus'
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “The prime minister spoke to president Trump. They discussed a range of issues, including cooperation to ensure the security of our telecommunications networks.”
But behind the scenes, the lobbying has been furious and the issue risks splitting the British cabinet, with several ministers determined to block Huawei, fearing the damage that could be done to Britain’s so-called special relationship with the U.S.
The crescendo of the U.S. anti-Huawei campaign has been mirrored in London as it emerged last week that Johnson appeared set to give Huawei the green light, discounting U.S. alarm and prompting growing unease among his own Conservative lawmakers. Some have likened the political damage Huawei is causing to the coronavirus epidemic threatening to spread to the West, saying it is the “next Chinese virus.”
If Johnson does give the go-ahead, it would confirm a ‘provisional’ decision made by his predecessor in Downing Street, 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.
U.S. intelligence officials and their counterparts at Britain’s GCHQ, the eavesdropping spy agency and the country’s largest intelligence service, say restricting Huawei to the non-core ‘edges’ of the new network would make little difference to the security risk.
Johnson has come under pressure from British telecom providers and mobile phone companies, which have already been installing Huawei technology to start setting up the new network. They have warned that Huawei offers more advanced, better integrated and cheaper equipment than its commercial rivals, and banning the company would delay the rollout of 5G, costing the British economy billions of pounds.