LONDON - Britain is bracing itself for a backlash from China, after the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, will no longer be authorised to sell or install new equipment in the country’s fifth-generation (5G) wireless communication infrastructure.
British mobile providers are being banned from buying new Huawei 5G equipment after the end of this year, and they must also remove all the Chinese firm’s 5G kit from their networks by 2027. New restrictions are also being applied to the company’s broadband hardware platforms.
“This has not been an easy decision, but it is the right one for the UK telecoms networks, for our national security and our economy, both now and indeed in the long run”, Mr Oliver Dowden, Britain’s minister for digital services, told MPs in London on Tuesday (July 14).
But Huawei criticised the announcement as “bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone”. The Chinese company also claimed that the decision threatened to “move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide”.
The British move – widely trailed by British officials over the past few days in an attempt to soften the blow of the announcement – represents a spectacular reversal in British policy towards China and virtually guarantees a backlash from Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular press briefing on Tuesday: “Whether it can provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies in Britain will be a touchstone of the UK’s market trend after Brexit, and it is also a barometer of the safety of Chinese investment in the UK. China will be watching this closely.”
Mr Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador in London, has already warned that the UK will “face consequences” if it seeks to ban what is regarded as one of China’s most successful industrial leaders.
For years, Britain stood out among Western nations in its insistence that Huawei should be treated purely on the merit of its products, rather than by any political considerations. That was partly because previous British governments identified improved economic relations with China as their country’s chief objective, but also because the British claimed to have pioneered a better way of engaging with China’s high-tech companies.
Instead of treating Chinese companies with suspicion – as the US and many other Western countries have done – the British invited Huawei to establish a substantial presence, and work with government security experts on testing the company’s products and software for potential security flaws.
The hope was that by engaging with Huawei and by encouraging other Chinese companies to engage with their Western customers in addressing security concerns, not only would future hostility be avoided, but Britain could contribute to better corporate governance among Chinese manufacturers.
“We’ve never trusted Huawei and we’ve always treated them as a high-risk vendor,” Dr Ian Levy, the technical director at Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which is part of the country’s intelligence community, admitted earlier this year. Instead, the British government engaged with Huawei as a matter of principle and policy, and fundamentally disagreed with the Americans on this point.
Britain’s initial decision to allow Huawei to supply part of the country’s 5G infrastructure, taken earlier this year, represented a triumph for the Chinese company, and a major rebuff to the US.
Officially, the British continue to claim that their earlier approval for Huawei was not a mistake, and that they would have been satisfied with Huawei as a supplier.
Instead, the British government is motivating its decision to bar the Chinese company by the fact that Huawei is now subjected to US sanctions, which means that the company can no longer use US intellectual property or manufacturing equipment, and especially semiconductors which are fundamental to the telecoms industry, a sector in which China currently lags.
In short, what the British are saying is that it is not them but Huawei which has changed, by no longer being a credible supplier of cutting-edge communication equipment.
Still, it is obvious that the decision came as a result of intense pressure from the United States and is the outcome of a broader deterioration in relations between London and Beijing.
China’s recent decision to impose a national security law on Hong Kong, coupled with what are seen in London as other hostile Chinese moves have emboldened China critics within the ruling Conservative party, who have formed the so-called China Research Group, a powerful lobby of MPs who can no longer be ignored by Prime Minister Johnson.
Some of Huawei’s British representatives take comfort from the fact that the ban on the sale of equipment only kicks in by the end of this year; they hope that, should former vice-president Joe Biden be elected as US president in November, the decision may well be reversed.
But that seems to be a pipe dream, for senior British lawmakers see the Huawei decision as irreversible, and just the start of a bigger confrontation.
“Kicking our addiction to Beijing tech needs to go further”, said Mr Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the British Parliament, on Tuesday.