A Closer Look at Britain’s Huawei Reversal

Signs at the Huawei offices in Reading, England. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
Parliament will vote in the fall on a proposal to ban purchases from the Chinese telecom firm and to remove its existing equipment.

The British government has announced plans to bar Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from building and operating its 5G network infrastructure, reversing course after breaking with U.S. policy in January.

The plan would ban purchases of new Huawei 5G gear at the end of the year and give British firms until 2027 to remove the company’s equipment from their networks. The minister for digital affairs, Oliver Dowden, cited new U.S. sanctions announced in May as the rationale for the pivot, saying that “the situation has changed.”

Security officials have long cautioned that the Chinese Communist Party could use Huawei as a platform for espionage and cybertheft. The U.S. Department of Justice has issued three indictments against the company for racketeering, sanctions evasion, and theft of trade secrets. In January, British authorities said they could mitigate these dangers by keeping Huawei out of parts of the “telecoms network that are critical to security” and by capping the company’s U.K. market share at 35 percent. Washington opposed the decision and warned that Huawei’s presence in Britain could compromise intelligence-sharing between the two countries.

Early this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the U.K. to reconsider its decision, but made little headway until the U.S. announced export controls barring Huawei from purchasing any computer chips manufactured or designed with U.S. equipment. At the time, Huawei’s deputy chairman characterized the U.S. sanctions as an existential threat to the company, saying, “We will now work hard to figure out how to survive.” Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre responded by commencing a reassessment of the country’s 5G policy. Minister Dowden suggested in his speech to the House of Commons that the U.S. sanctions undermined Huawei’s ability to build out the network.

In the backdrop, Beijing’s obfuscation of the coronavirus outbreak, as well as its increasing belligerence toward Hong Kong, appears to have raised alarm among senior British officials. In April, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “There is no doubt that we can’t have business as usual” in the U.K.–China relationship. The Huawei decision is seen by some as marking the beginning of a more combative stance by London toward Beijing.

But while U.S. officials including Secretary Pompeo touted Britain’s decision, the practical impact of the new policy is uncertain.

The Henry Jackson Society’s Matthew Henderson, who served as a British Diplomat in Asia, argues that the policy does not go far enough quickly enough to address the threat posed by Huawei. “This is very unsatisfactory,” Henderson tells National Review. “It does not address in a reasonable timeframe the drastic clear-out of Huawei equipment that needs to be done.”

The proposal allows the U.K.’s four mobile-network providers — Vodafone, BT, EE, and Three — to use Huawei equipment in their 5G networks for the next seven years. British telecom firms already provide 5G service to most British cities and many large towns, with much of the network relying on Chinese equipment. Because each “generation” of mobile has a roughly ten-year life cycle, 6G will likely be in the late stages of development by the time companies finish “ripping and replacing” Huawei gear.

Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute went further, arguing that the British announcement constitutes a diplomatic signal, not a meaningful policy pivot. He expects Britain to delay action against Huawei or else renege on the new policy altogether. “Wait until they see the price tag for the 5G rollout” without Huawei equipment, Scissors says. He believes that the British 5G network will ultimately end up including a nontrivial amount of Huawei equipment.

Scissors cites continual delays by the U.S. Commerce Department in enforcing sanctions against Huawei as evidence that tough talk against China by Western politicians often amounts to precious little in the policy realm. Since first announcing sanctions against Huawei in 2019, the Commerce Department has granted five “temporary general licenses” to the company, effectively delaying enforcement.

For their part, British MPs do not seem especially eager to move forward with Huawei restrictions. Parliament will vote on the proposal in the fall, a timeline that Henderson argues “gives the Chinese side more time to get angry and everyone else more time to get worried.” He suggests that hawkish MPs such as Bob Seely and Sir Iain Duncan Smith might oppose the proposal on the grounds that it is too accommodative to Huawei.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, it is clear that British public opinion has turned against the CCP. A poll conducted by the Henry Jackson Society found that 74 percent of British adults blame Beijing for the coronavirus pandemic. In the same poll, 40 percent expressed opposition to Huawei’s partaking in the U.K.’s 5G network, while only 27 percent approved.

For years, Western policymakers have denounced Chinese malfeasance while eschewing policies that reduce economic ties to Beijing. With a rising tide of public opinion moving against the CCP, that status quo may no longer be sustainable. The uncertain fate of Huawei provides a harbinger for the future of relations between China and the West.


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