With its decision to exclude Huawei from Britain’s 5G network on July 14, the Boris Johnson government finally managed to put an end to the protracted debate on whether or not to allow the Chinese company’s involvement. London had been under heavy pressure from both Washington and Beijing and its decision was quickly hailed by Donald Trump and widely reported by the press. The decision looked a remarkable U-turn for the Johnson government, which in January had decided to allow Huawei’s limited role in the 5G network.
Nonetheless, the Huawei decision does not represent a strategic departure and cannot be seen as evidence of London’s willingness to join the increasingly confrontational U.S. campaign to counter China. A contour of the conversation between the two remains as follows: Whereas the Americans argue that Huawei needs to be banned because the company is under the control of the draconian Chinese Communist Party, Britain’s position is that it will have to ban Huawei equipment as a result of the U.S. sanction. It is hard to find a meeting of minds between the two partners. Yet, London seemingly succeeded in delivering a political message to the Trump administration, and a strategic message to the world, of U.S. and U.K. solidarity.
The U.K. decision clearly reflects the country’s growing concerns about China, such as the way in which Beijing has handled the COVID-19 pandemic and the imposition of the National Security Law on Hong Kong, as well as critical voices from within the Conservative party.
Nevertheless, what is remarkable is the U.K. government’s firm and clear position that its decision stems from the May 2020 U.S. sanction on Huawei, preventing the supply of chips and other parts produced based on U.S. technology. The report by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a government body in charge of making recommendations to the government on 5G, focuses on the impact of the new U.S. sanction and concludes that the risk of Huawei’s post-sanction equipment is “sufficiently high.”
Crucially, the NCSC did not change its risk assessment of pre-sanction Huawei equipment, and so the government is permitting telecom companies to continue using it until the end of 2027. In other words, while the July 14 decision was about banning Huawei, it was also about allowing it until 2027, suggesting an element of continuity rather than that of change. BT and Vodafone lobbied hard to secure a long transition period to save cost and they seem to be generally content with the result. Interestingly, BT says that it will not have to change its cost estimate as a result of the new decision.
In announcing the government’s decision to the parliament, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden did not criticize Beijing. Nor did he mention China’s National Intelligence Law, one of the major sources of concern regarding Huawei. He instead argued that “What we want is a modern and mature relationship with China, based on mutual respect.” The intention to de-politicize the issue was clear.
The gaps between the U.S. and the U.K. were evident during U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to London the following week. During the joint press conference with his counterpart, Pompeo repeated the term the Chinese Communist Party or CCP nine times in quick succession, while Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, did not mention them at all. Whereas Pompeo argued that the purpose of banning Huawei is to prevent Beijing from accessing the data set, Raab stayed focused on the importance of diversifying the 5G supply chain, leaving observers to wonder if the two countries are not seeing eye to eye.
It is undeniable that any decision on Huawei is political in nature and cannot purely be a technical assessment. London had ultimately no choice but to side with Washington. However, it is still remarkable that the U.K. government has consistently tried to keep the issue in the technical domain.
In addition to the risk mitigation strategy for Huawei, London is now making every effort to secure a sufficient number of 5G vendors. The decision to ban Huawei will leave only Nokia and Ericsson in the 5G market as major players. London believes there need to be at least three and preferably four vendors in the market to maintain the resilience of the network without saying anything on the nature of the Chinese government. In this respect, London even argues that excluding Huawei from the market could undermine the resilience of the 5G network (although it would increase security). Britain’s outreach to Japanese companies like NEC and Fujitsu is part of its diversification strategy.
This can be called the British way of dodging U.S. pressure and it could offer a lesson to other countries under similar pressure from both Washington and Beijing. For the moment, the U.S. looks content, as long as the ultimate goal is to ban Huawei. However, it remains to be seen, particularly in light of the Trump administration’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric against China, whether Washington will continue tolerating this rather superficial alignment. Mike Pompeo recently argued in his major address in California that ”We must start by changing how our people and our partners perceive the Chinese Communist Party,” causing concerns among people and countries that do not necessarily share his views on China.
Other countries, including those in Asia, are closely watching how Britain, a country often billed as the closest US ally in the world, could maintain its position and room for maneuver based on its own interest, while at the same time still manage strategic alignment with the U.S. vis-à-vis China – a challenge that many other U.S. allies and partners share.
Michito Tsuruoka is an associate professor at Keio University.