(CN) – Ignoring warnings by the United States and members of his own Conservative Party, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday decided to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to continue providing 5G technology within the United Kingdom, a win for China and a sign European nations may follow Britain’s example.
But the U.K. said it would implement stricter measures to guard against Huawei and allow British telecommunications companies to use 5G technology only in so-called “non-core” parts of the 5G network.
Huawei is at the center of a fierce debate over whether its pioneering 5G technology can be trusted or if it may be used by the Chinese government for a range of nefarious purposes, including cyber warfare and spying.
The U.K. already has been treating Huawei as a “high-risk vendor” and has set up a system to monitor it. Nonetheless, top U.S. officials urged Johnson to kick out Huawei from furthering developing the U.K.’s 5G network. China’s leaders, meanwhile, warned the U.K. of economic repercussions for barring Huawei.
Under this new policy, the U.K. said Huawei technology will be kept out of sensitive areas, such as nuclear and military facilities. Also, the U.K. is capping Huawei’s market share of the 5G network to 35%. The plan still needs to be approved by lawmakers.
British officials called the measures the “most stringent set of controls ever” to both ensure the “security and quality” of the U.K.’s 5G network.
“We want world-class connectivity as soon as possible but this must not be at the expense of our national security,” Nicky Morgan, Britain’s digital secretary, said in a statement.
The decision on Huawei has major geopolitical ramifications because Britain is considered by many to be the country with the most sophisticated and advanced system for vetting and monitoring Huawei technology. Thus, with Britain saying it is safe to use, other countries may feel the same and give the green light to Huawei too.
A number of European countries, most prominently Germany, are weighing what to do about Huawei after U.S. officials warned its technology may be used by the Chinese government for spying. Critics also warn that relying on Huawei now for 5G will lay the foundations for a dangerous dependence on the Chinese firm – and by extension Chinese power – in the future.
On Monday, a group of Conservative politicians warned that letting Huawei continue to build the country’s 5G network would “let a dragon nest” inside the system.
“The truth is that only nations able to protect their data will be sovereign,” wrote Tom Tugendhat, one of those Conservative critics and the former chairman of the House of Commons’ foreign affairs committee, in the Daily Mail newspaper. “Huawei’s 5G sets us on a path that undermines our autonomy and the repercussions could be grave.”
Huawei is heavily supported by the Chinese government and in the past 30 years has become a major tech player now leading the way in the roll-out of 5G technology. Its 5G technology is considered less expensive than that of competitors, among them European companies Nokia and Ericsson.
But the Chinese tech giant is accused by American officials, most prominently U.S. President Donald Trump, and many technology experts of acting as an arm of the Chinese government. Critics warn that its 5G kit is rife with problems and may become a vehicle for sinister actions by Chinese intelligence services, such as surveillance, hacking, cyber attacks and property theft.
The company insists it is independent from the Chinese government and would not turn over data it collects to the government, even though a 2017 Chinese law forces companies to cooperate on intelligence.
5G is the next phase in digital technology but it is highly contentious because its introduction will be critical for the development of the so-called “internet of things” – the world of artificial intelligence, driverless cars, robotics, remote-controlled surgery and “smart cities.”
In 2018, Huawei was banned from supplying 5G technology to the U.S. federal government. The Trump administration argued that Huawei jeopardized U.S. national security. Last year, the U.S. imposed more restrictions on companies from doing business with Huawei.
U.S. officials have warned that unless Britain bans Huawei, intelligence sharing between the two long-time allies may be put in danger.
British officials say not using Huawei would burden consumers with higher costs and put Britain at an economic disadvantage because the roll-out of 5G would be delayed.
Huawei welcomed the U.K.’s decision.
“Huawei is reassured by the U.K. government’s confirmation that we can continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track,” Victor Zhang, vice president of Huawei, said in a statement. He said allowing Huawei to remain in the U.K. market, where he said it has been supplying technology for more than 15 years, was good for competition.
Zhang said the U.K. will benefit from “access to world-leading technology” and that it was ensuring “a competitive market.”
The decision is certain to infuriate American officials.
Johnson is scheduled to meet with U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo on Thursday and Huawei is likely to be a major topic.
The prime minister’s move to allow Huawei to remain a 5G supplier in Britain is viewed as his first major policy decision since pushing the U.K. out of the European Union earlier this year. His decision comes at a delicate time for the U.K. as it leaves the EU and eyes trade deals with the EU, the U.S. and other countries around the world.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)