By Jamie Dettmer
British officials are bracing for fierce Chinese government reaction and possible retaliation to Britain’s decision Tuesday to block Chinese tech giant Huawei from playing any role in the development of Britain’s next generation 5G phone network.
Britain’s culture minister, Oliver Dowden, told the House of Commons of the decision to banish Huawei from the network, saying any of the company’s components already installed will have to be removed from the network by 2027.
The major policy U-turn is prompting fears in Downing Street that Britain may become the target of a possible China-sponsored cyberattack similar to one that struck Australia last month amid heightened tensions between Canberra and Beijing.
Chinese officials, including Beijing’s ambassador to London, have maintained a chorus of warnings in recent months, threatening serious consequences if Huawei, one of China’s flagship companies, is excluded from participation in developing Britain’s 5G network.
A Trump victory
Tuesday’s announcement is seen by analysts and diplomats as a big win for the Trump administration which, along with other Western allies, has been lobbying Britain for more than a year to block Huawei from Britain’s 5G wireless network on security grounds.
In January, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to allow Huawei a role in the development of the fast-speed network, limiting the company’s participation to just 35%. But U.S. officials — as well their Australian counterparts — continued to lobby London to block Huawei altogether.
U.S. officials say there is a significant risk that the company, which has close ties to the Chinese intelligence services and was founded by a former Chinese army officer, will act as a Trojan horse for Beijing’s espionage agencies, allowing them to sweep up data.
Dowden told British lawmakers: “We have not taken this decision lightly and I must be frank about the decision’s consequences for every constituency in this country; this will delay our roll-out of 5G.” The British government acknowledges the move will delay the rollout of 5G in the by two to three years and increase costs by at least $2.5 billion.
Acting on the guidance of Britain’s National Cyber Security Center, Johnson accepted that U.S. sanctions imposed on Huawei in May had become a “game changer.” Previously the center, a department within Britain’s intelligence agency GCHQ, said the security risks posed by Huawei could be safely managed and mitigated, a view not shared by U.S. intelligence agencies. But the imposition earlier this year of new U.S. restrictions on Huawei altered the picture, the center warned.
Britain’s cybersecurity chiefs concluded the U.S. sanctions, which block Huawei from using components and semi-conductors based on any American intellectual property, will mean the telecom giant will have to use “untrusted” parts, increasing security risks.
Responding to the government’s announcement, Huawei UK spokesperson Ed Brewster said: “This disappointing decision is bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone. It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide.” He added: “Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicized, this is about U.S. trade policy and not security.”
That view was not shared by former British Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, who has been at the forefront of a campaign to block Huawei. He says that it is impossible to separate Chinese firms like Huawei from the Chinese government. “Across the free world, more and more countries are now recognizing that they face a particular threat now from Chinese government intentions,” he said.
Big blow for Huawei
Britain’s decision is a big blow for Huawei. Europe accounts for 24% of the company’s sales and the British decision could have knock-on effects elsewhere on the continent, where other governments are currently assessing how much access to give Huawei.
British officials say the decision is bound to worsen already sharply deteriorating relations between the two countries. Chinese officials, including Beijing’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, have underscored for weeks that there will be repercussions in the event Huawei is excluded.
Tensions have been escalating between London and Beijing quickly over a Chinese security clampdown on Hong Kong, a former British colony transferred to China in 1997. To Beijing’s anger, Britain announced Hong Kong residents would be allowed to move to Britain to escape the crackdown. The two governments have clashed also over Britain’s backing of an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus.
According to press reports, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison briefed Johnson recently on a massive cyberattack Morrison says was launched on his country last month. The incident, say Australian officials, targeted “government, industry, political organizations, education, health, essential service providers and operators of other critical infrastructure.”
Australia and China’s communist government have been at loggerheads since Australia became the first nation to call for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.
Critics have long alleged Huawei has close links to the Chinese Communist government and its equipment could be used for espionage purposes. The company denies the claim, describing Huawei as a private company “fully owned by its employees.”
An ‘intimate part of the Chinese state’
Former British intelligence chief Richard Dearlove disputes that description. On Sunday, he said Huawei “is not an ordinary international telecommunications company. It is an intimate part of the Chinese state.” Dearlove added that a ban on Huawei would amount to “a reset of the whole of our relationship with the Chinese leadership.” He has long lobbied for Huawei’s exclusion, along with dozens of lawmakers from Johnson’s own ruling Conservative party.
Last week, Ambassador Liu warned Johnson of the consequences of excluding Huawei, saying at a virtual press conference, “You cannot have a golden era if you treat China as an enemy.” A ban on Huawei, he said, would have many repercussions, including inflicting damage on Britain’s reputation as “a business-friendly, open, transparent environment.” Among other possible consequences, he said, China could disinvest from Britain’s energy sector.
Two studies, by British research groups and set for publication this week, warn that a major disruption in Britain’s trade relations with China sparked by a ban on Huawei would depress the British economy.
Cambridge Econometrics says hundreds of thousands of British jobs depend on trade with China and that the relationship directly supports more than 100,000 jobs in sectors such as education and tourism. The study was commissioned by the China-Britain Business Council, a trade promotion association.
Clive Hamilton, an Australian academic and co-author of “Hidden Hand,” a groundbreaking new book examining Chinese influence operations and networks in the West, says he expects “Beijing will react angrily” to Huawei’s exclusion.
Hamilton’s book, co-authored with Marieke Ohlberg, a China scholar from Germany, has figured prominently in a fierce political debate raging in Britain about the future of Anglo-Chinese relations. The book has been cited by lawmakers who have been urging for Huawei to be banned from Britain’s 5G network.
In the book, Hamilton and his co-author accuse the CCP of intensive grooming of British politicians, business people and academics and warn that “so entrenched are the CCP’s influence networks among British elites that Britain has passed the point of no return, and any attempt to extricate itself from Beijing’s orbit would probably fail.”
Asked by VOA whether Tuesday’s decision to exclude Huawei would suggest that such a judgment is premature, Hamilton responded in an email exchange that he “expects the CCP’s powerful friends among Britain’s elites to re-emerge and lobby hard to give priority to economic relations and give way to Beijing on other issues.”
Hamilton added, though, that the coronavirus pandemic, and increasing “public awareness of the nature of the CCP regime,” is hardening attitudes towards the Chinese government. “The pandemic, its origins in Wuhan and the early Chinese government handling of it have changed the international dynamic in ways that are still playing out.” He says the Chinese communist government has taken “a big reputational hit in many countries around the world. In Britain, the damage has been compounded by the events in Hong Kong, which looms large in Britain’s political consciousness for historical reasons.”
“Elsewhere in Europe, the picture is mixed. China retains warm ties with several nations in East and Central Europe and with Italy and Greece. But it is losing friends in nations like France and Sweden. Germany is the key, and it is wavering,” he added.