After months of deliberation, the U.K. National Security Council has invited Chinese telecom giant Huawei to build and operate parts of its 5G mobile-network infrastructure. American authorities had cautioned the U.K. against doing business with Huawei, citing the company’s history of unlawful activity and its potential for espionage and warfare. That led Japan and Australia to follow America’s lead in banning Huawei. But British authorities believe they can mitigate these risks by keeping Huawei out of the parts of the “telecoms network that are critical to security” and by capping the company’s U.K. market share at 35 percent. This third way between confrontation and appeasement is a fool’s errand that will jeopardize the U.K.’s national security and undermine the U.S.–U.K. relationship.
As we have previously noted, Huawei has a long and well-documented history of nefarious practices. In January 2019, the Justice Department issued indictments against Huawei for theft of trade secrets and for attempting to evade American sanctions against Iran. These findings were doubly alarming given the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) direct assistance of Huawei. FBI director Christopher Wray said at the time that “the immense influence that the Chinese government holds over Chinese corporations like Huawei represents a threat” to national security.
The British justification for this decision — that Huawei already operates large amounts of the country’s network infrastructure — in fact illustrates the Faustian bargain the U.K. is making. The more the country entangles itself with Chinese companies, the more difficult it will be to extricate itself if they prove malicious.
Limiting Huawei to “non-core” technologies will do nothing to prevent illegal activity. As it works with Western firms to implement the 5G network, Huawei will have access to sensitive information — from trade secrets to personal data — that Chinese authorities are eager to acquire. In the worst case, Huawei would have the ability to shut down mobile connectivity as it sees fit.
The only deterrent against theft and espionage is the threat of retaliation. But as Huawei’s technology begins to power an “Internet of Things,” the U.K. will grow dependent on the firm, diminishing its ability to respond to criminal activity. British authorities will be hard-pressed to shut down entire industries to penalize Huawei. By nurturing this dependency, Downing Street has given Beijing carte blanche to continue its coercive business practices, while simultaneously accelerating its pursuit of technological supremacy outlined in the “Made in China 2025” plan.
The upside to Britain — faster 5G rollout at a lower price — is dwarfed not only by the direct risks of Chinese malfeasance, but also by the risks of hindering the Five Eyes alliance, which has fostered intelligence sharing among Anglophone countries since World War II. By placing its short-term economic interest above the integrity of generations-old partnerships, Britain evinces a troubling lack of commitment to world order.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s central rationale for exiting the European Union was to restore the island nation’s sovereignty. With this decision, Johnson risks trading the subordination to Brussels bureaucrats for the tyranny of Beijing apparatchiks. The Trump administration should use all the tools at its disposal — including the trade relationship and intelligence sharing — to push the U.K. to rethink its decision. Granting Britain impunity in collaborating with Chinese firms will signal to other allies, such as Germany and Brazil, that they can follow suit. The menace of China requires holding our allies to the same standards of behavior to which we hold ourselves.