The ban puts pressure on other European nations, particularly Germany, to follow suit and take a tough stance against China and Huawei.
(CN) — In a major win for President Donald Trump, the United Kingdom is banning Chinese technology giant Huawei from its 5G network and sending a strong signal that Britain sees its future tied ever more closely to Washington, its old transatlantic ally.
On Tuesday, the British government cited security concerns and new U.S. sanctions on Huawei as it announced a ban on the cutting-edge Chinese company’s 5G technology in the U.K.
Trump took credit for the U.K.’s decision at a Rose Garden news conference later Tuesday, saying “I did this myself for the most part.” Trump called Huawei a “big security risk.” At the same news conference, Trump further intensified his clash with China by stripping Hong Kong of its preferential trading status. Trump is making toughness against China central to his re-election campaign.
This is a pivotal year for Britain as it positions itself on the global stage following its departure from the European Union in January and heads toward a potentially dramatic split from the EU at the end of the year. The EU and the U.K. are in tough trade talks over their future relationship, but those talks are not going well, leaving open the possibility the U.K. and EU may not strike a deal before 2021 and break ties in acrimony.
Britain’s Huawei ban carries with it geopolitical implications as the nuclear-armed former imperial power sides with the U.S. in its ever more combative stance against China, which many experts warn is turning into a new Cold War. The ban on Huawei follows other recent actions taken by the U.K. infuriating China, including an invitation to allow Hong Kong citizens to emigrate to the U.K. and pledging to send a new warship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the contested South China Sea next year.
Enraging China poses the risk of Chinese retaliation and that could further damage a U.K. already suffering from economic uncertainty due to Brexit and reeling from Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak, which has caused more than 45,000 deaths in Britain and economic shocks.
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian shot back at the U.K.’s Huawei decision.
“It’s a litmus test for the direction where the U.K. markets would go after Brexit, and whether the U.K. businesses in China will be provided with an open, fair and non-discriminate environment,” Zhao said.
China’s ambassador to the U.K., Liu Xiaoming, called the Huawei ban “disappointing” and “wrong,” saying trust between China and the U.K. had been undermined.
He added: “It has become questionable whether the U.K. can provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries.”
Major British companies are doing business in China, including oil giant BP, alcohol maker Diageo, pharmaceutical colossal GlaxoSmithKline, InterContinental Hotels and Jaguar Land Rover.
After Brexit, Britain’s leaders have said they want to use their new freedom to strike trade deals around the world, including with China. But this week’s developments give the sense that the U.K. under the leadership of Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a Trump ally and ardent pro-Brexit politician, is ready to turn its back on China and even Europe in order to forge an even closer relationship with the U.S.
Britain is simultaneously in talks with the EU and the U.S. on securing post-Brexit trade deals, but it may be difficult to strike deals with both the U.S. and EU due to an array of conflicts.
Besides banning new Huawei 5G technology starting in 2021, the British government gave its telecommunications companies until 2027 to rip out existent Huawei 5G technology, a major reversal from a January decision to partially bar Huawei from the U.K. A large and influential group of hardline Conservatives are pushing Johnson to speed up the removal of existent Huawei 5G technology and even take out Huawei kits related to earlier internet systems, such as 4G and 3G.
Britain’s ban on Huawei likely was based around intelligence-sharing considerations. The U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are allies in the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence-pooling cooperation. The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, reported Canada is the only member not to have banned or restricted Huawei. The U.S. is pressuring its allies to bar Huawei to safeguard the sharing of intelligence. New Zealand too has not banned Huawei but restricted its presence.
The U.K.’s ban puts pressure on other European nations, particularly Germany, to follow suit and take a tough stance against China and Huawei. Huawei has become an important technology provider in Europe and its kits are widely used across Europe, but its presence is increasingly challenged by wary European nations. The U.K. said its ban is expected to cost its telecommunications companies about $2.5 billion and delay the roll-out of its 5G network by up to three years.
“This has not been an easy decision, but it is the right one for the U.K. telecoms networks, for our national security and our economy, both now and indeed in the long run,” said Oliver Dowden, the U.K.’s digital secretary, in announcing his country’s new stance in the House of Commons.
Huawei is a shining example of China’s new global status as a superpower and tech leader. In only a few years, it has become a leader in the development of 5G, the next generation of the internet and one meant to usher in an era of robots, artificial intelligence and driverless cars.
But rather than acknowledging Huawei as a Chinese entrepreneurial success, many policymakers in the West, especially among hawkish right-wing circles, see the company’s expanding global presence as an espionage and cyberwarfare threat. Critics also point to China’s draconian domestic security laws, crackdown on a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, brutal treatment of Uighur Muslims in China and allegedly unlawful military expansion into the South China Sea as reasons to halt both China’s and Huawei’s global ambitions.
China and its supporters argue that the West is unfairly attacking Huawei because Western companies are losing the race to develop 5G and that the U.S. and its allies do not want China to succeed.
“I think this is clear this is not about security, this is about trade,” said Ed Brewster, a Huawei spokesman, on a BBC television news show. “This is a U.S. campaign focused on attacking our business and attacking the technology and that is because the U.S. is behind on the technology.”
Brewster dismissed allegations that Huawei works for the Chinese state.
“That’s the perception but it’s incorrect,” he said. “We’re a private technology company. The trust we’ve built up around the world is with our customers [and] the telecoms networks. We don’t work for governments, we work for the telecoms networks.”
Stopping Huawei’s growth is a central goal for the Trump administration, which declares the company a dangerous Chinese Communist Party asset. In a brazen move, the U.S. is seeking to bring to trial Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, on fraud charges. She faces extradition from Canada, where she is in custody.
Huawei is a private company, but many security experts warn it is controlled by the Chinese leadership and cannot be trusted to provide the central membrane of tomorrow’s internet infrastructure. So far, though, little evidence has been provided to show Huawei is in fact a security threat and a pawn of the Chinese state.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration continued to flex its muscles against China with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling reporters the U.S. will take steps against the popular Chinese video streaming app TikTok. The U.S. accuses TikTok of misusing data it gathers from its users, many of whom are young people making quick funny videos. At an earlier news conference on Wednesday, Pompeo said the U.S. will implement travel bans on Huawei employees and associates viewed to be helping countries violate human rights.
More battles over Huawei are coming. In Europe, Germany is expected to decide in September how it will treat Huawei.
For months, German leaders have been sparring over Huawei and key members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party and her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, want to see Huawei technology banned on national security and human rights grounds.
But Merkel has said she favors allowing Huawei 5G technology and not stifling a free market and competition. A major concern for German businesses is that banning Huawei could result in retaliation from China against German manufacturers and car companies, which are big exporters to China.
Europeans may be more in favor of allowing Huawei to continue building network systems because many in Europe also have lost trust in U.S. tech companies and the American government after the stunning revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Many in Europe are suspicious of the U.S. government’s influence, and jurisdiction, over companies like Google. Snowden revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency bugged Merkel’s cellphone and ran widescale surveillance operations on European citizens and leaders. The surveillance was done using American tech companies and platforms, investigations showed.
Politically and economically, China has threatened to retaliate if Europe excludes Huawei.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.