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Interview

Former UK spy says hard to lock Huawei out of 5G network

Britain is set to make a decision as early as Tuesday on China tech giant

The U.K. is considering whether or not to exclude Huawei equipment from the country's 5G network.   © Reuters

LONDON -- Ahead of a U.K. government decision on whether to further restrict the use of Huawei Technologies equipment in the country's 5G infrastructure, a former deputy in Britain's secret service said it would be difficult to lock the Chinese tech giant out of the system.

Parliament is expected to announce as early as Tuesday a U-turn on its Huawei policy, having agreed in January to allow the company -- categorized as a "high risk vendor" in Britain -- a limited role in building the network. That decision came despite U.S. pressure to completely exclude Huawei.

The U.K. should "do what they've already agreed to do," Nigel Inkster, an expert on cybersecurity and currently a senior adviser to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a recent Nikkei interview.

He added that if countries entered a "technologically bifurcated world," they would have to choose between a Chinese communication system or a Western one. This would lead to "very undesirable consequences for productivity (in) communication, but also innovation and creativity."

But his comments come against a backdrop of growing calls from lawmakers to lock Huawei out of the network. Many U.K. politicians are angry at Beijing's imposition of its national security law on the former British territory of Hong Kong.

"We cannot put Huawei into the 5G system," Iain Duncan Smith, a long-standing member of parliament and former leader of the ruling Conservative Party, told Nikkei. "We need to have a process to try and reduce our dependency on China dramatically over the next few years, and starting with telecoms, we need to move to things like nuclear, we need to look at our dependence on battery technology, all these areas."

The U.K. government's current policy is to limit Huawei products to 35% of the British 5G mobile network supply and banning the use of core parts.

Nigel Inkster, a former director of operations and intelligence for MI6, talked to Nikkei via video conference.

Inkster, who spent 31 years with MI6, latterly as director of operations and intelligence, and is well versed in Chinese affairs, pointed out two reasons why it would be hard to completely shut out Huawei from U.K. networks.

The first reason is "the cost of stripping Huawei components out of U.K. networks." As they are already used in existing networks, Inkster said, "Who is going to pay for it?"

BT Group, the biggest telecoms company in the U.K., estimates that even under the current U.K. policy, it would cost 500 million pounds ($629.48 million) over five years to replace equipment made by Huawei that is already in use in the networks. If the country takes a tougher stance on Huawei, the costs would grow, with the result that telecom companies might have to seek financial support from Westminster.

The second reason is the difficulty of finding alternative devices, according to Inkster. Noting that Huawei and other Chinese telecom equipment makers are good at delivering products on a massive scale, Inkster said, "There are really no other companies around the world who can deliver at this scale."

But as Huawei-made parts are inextricably used in a wide-range of telecom equipment, it might already be too late to completely remove them.

Regarding Huawei components used in non-core parts of 5G networks, the risks to the U.K. are "manageable," Inkster said, in support of the British government's current stance.

On the future possibilities for 5G, Inkster said the technology "enables much higher levels of artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous systems and so on, [and] confers enormous economic and geostrategic advantage."

The technology will influence innovation and Britain's economy. "That's what this struggle is all about" for the U.K., Inkster added.

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