It came as no surprise, and has certainly been anticipated in the pages of this publication, that the British government decided to prohibit telecom providers from buying new equipment for 5G networks from Huawei Technologies. It is undoubtedly a U-turn for the United Kingdom, which as recently as January announced that the Chinese company would be allowed to be involved in the infrastructure of the fifth-generation technology standard for cellular networks. The government gave reassurances at the time that it was able to manage the risks of Huawei’s presence in 5G.
The UK’s Reversal and Ban on Huawei
This Tuesday, however, the UK government announced that purchases from Huawei would be illegal starting from the end of this year, and telecommunication companies would have until the end of 2027 to remove existing Huawei equipment from their 5G networks.
This decision comes with its own costs. The British Minister for Digital Issues, Oliver Dowden, said that the law, expected to be passed in the fall, would delay the development of 5G in the UK by two to three years and cost up to $ 2.5 billion, as estimated by a report from the Wall Street Journal. The Journal adds that the United Kingdom is thinking of banning the purchase of Huawei equipment from the country’s fiber optic network as well. It is reported that Huawei intends to make a full review of the business it has in the UK. With this latest decision, the United Kingdom joins the other member countries of the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance, with the exception of Canada, that have made similar moves.
Why Did Boris Johnson Decide to Block Huawei in the End?
There are three main reasons that pushed Prime Minister Boris Johnson in this direction. First and foremost, it was his own party that pushed him for months to take a harder stance towards China and Huawei, which is a Chinese state enterprise in all but name. This move is part of a broader strategy to make the UK less dependent on China, and should come as a welcome surprise to European bureaucrats who warned that should the UK leave the EU, it would be powerless in front of the Asian giant.
Apparently, the British government has more courage to take on China than many EU countries, including Germany, which remain skeptical about making a similar move. This decision, for many conservative lawmakers, was not enough, as they are arguing for a shorter phaseout period with Huawei and a total expulsion of the Chinese company from the United Kingdom.
Various Key Factors Influenced UK’s Decision
Secondly, according to reporting from the Journal, the decision was preceded by a review from the UK’s National Cyber Security Center, which was made as a result of the sanctions announced by the US. President Donald Trump took credit after the announcement made by the Johnson government, adding that it was his leadership and actions that convinced Johnson to act. The US President had emphasized several times that his country will not be able to do business with any country allowing Huawei into their 5G networks, citing security concerns. The report by the National Cyber Security Center seems to prove what Trump said. The only reason that they added a longer phase out period was due to concerns that a shorter period would lead to coverage blackout for customers.
Lastly, China’s behavior with the coronavirus, its aggression towards Hong Kong, as well as China’s pursuit to territorial claims in the South China Sea, appear to have been the tipping point. Hong Kong especially is considered a sensitive matter in the United Kingdom, as it is not an abstract issue, but a clear violation of an agreement on Hong Kong’s autonomy and a defilement of the region’s democracy. The concern is that Taiwan may be China’s next target. It would have been reckless and weak to have continued with business as usual on London’s part.
Building a Coalition to Counter China
This decision can be seen as simply one more piece in the grander scheme of the West building a coalition of the willing to take on China. US sanctions on Huawei, the positioning of warships and aircraft carriers on the region for exercise purposes, EU’s more aggressive rhetoric, UK’s recent move all point to the creation of a united front going forward. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel opposed banning Huawei, however most inside her party and across the political spectrum expect her to be tougher on China. Since she will not be seeking reelection, it remains to be seen how Germany’s stance will change once her successor within the Party and in Government has been elected.
The US under Trump is expected to continue its pressure on Germany. Since France has planned restrictions with regards to where operators can use Huawei’s 5G equipment, particularly keeping it away from military and other sensitive areas. Italy’s political forces — especially the opposition parties — have intensified their criticism towards China, so logic points to the conclusion that Germany may soon follow suit.
Assessing China’s Reaction
On the other hand, China’s reaction until now has been within expectations. Its relationship with the UK will be strained further. In addition to banning Huawei, the British government has offered a path to UK citizenship for nearly 3 million citizens from Hong Kong. The Chinese ambassador in the United Kingdom voiced his government’s disappointment and pointed out that the decision has “undermined the trust between the two governments”. He said that Huawei is a company independent on the Chinese government. However, this was clearly contradicted by his later claims that “Huawei merely symbolizes how you treat China”. This response is nothing else but another evidence that validates what is a fact known for decades – that the Chinese communist party and Chinese companies are one and the same. His threat included also the fact that other Chinese firms will follow the decision closely.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman spoke of collusion between the US and the UK and warned that this decision will come at a cost. The Chinese state backed Global Times said in an editorial that it is “necessary for China to retaliate”, otherwise it will be seen as weakness on China’s part, thus, according to them, retaliation should be “public and painful”.
How Can China Retaliate?
There are several ways in which China can strike back. It can increase trade tariffs, since there is no trade deal between the countries, yet. A possibility is making it more difficult for British products to reach Chinese consumers. It could resort to harassment techniques like cyber-attacks, IP thefts and the other usual practices it has done over the decades. However, the United Kingdom should be prepared and remain unswerving in its decision.
The logical next step is a united front that includes the United States, The United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, and even Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and all freedom-loving countries that are threatened by China’s aggressive behaviors. Many security experts believe recent decisions are pointing in this direction. The UK, the EU and the US can work together in strengthening Western providers, can become less dependent on Chinese products and companies, as seen during the covid-19 emergencies. Nokia, Ericsson, AT & T are some of the companies that have made progress, either in getting 5G technology patents or have started building the infrastructure.
Through his ambassadors in Europe Trump is looking to build a wide coalition with the aim of mutual defense against Chinese aggression. Ambassador Robert O’Brien came to Europe this week to discuss issues ranging from China, to 5G, Russia, Middle East and COVID response in several meetings in Paris with his counterparts from the UK, Germany, France and Italy.
As said many times before, it is very clear this is a new cold war being fought with modern weapons. The West’s weakest point rests in its internal divisions and petty rivalries.