LONDON -- The U.K. will allow limited use of equipment made by Huawei in the country's 5G infrastructure, the government said on Tuesday in a decision that will likely please Beijing but irk Washington, which considers the Chinese company a threat to global security.
The closely watched decision, which will be taken as a bellwether by other countries facing U.S. pressure to ban the company, gives high-risk vendors such as Huawei a restricted role in building the U.K.'s fifth-generation telecom networks by allowing them to supply peripheral equipment like antennas.
In an attempt to alleviate security concerns, the decision bans risky vendors from core parts of the network and limits them to a minority presence of 35% in the periphery of the network. It also excludes them from sensitive locations, such as nuclear sites.
Huawei, China's largest maker of telecom equipment, is the world's biggest supplier of 5G gear, followed by European manufacturers Nokia and Ericsson.
"We want world-class connectivity as soon as possible, but this must not be at the expense of our national security," said U.K. Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan. "High risk vendors never have been -- and never will be -- in our most sensitive networks."
Morgan added: "This is a U.K.-specific solution for U.K.-specific reasons, and the decision deals with the challenges we face right now."
The chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre said: "This package will ensure that the U.K. has a very strong, practical and technically sound framework for digital security in the years ahead."
Huawei Vice President Victor Zhang welcomed the news, saying: "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."
"This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future," Zhang said in a statement. "It gives the U.K. access to world-leading technology and ensures a competitive market."
The decision by the National Security Council, which came three days ahead of the U.K.'s scheduled departure from the European Union on Friday, may help Prime Minister Boris Johnson finesse months of political wrangling as he readies the country to end 47 years of EU membership.
A central pillar of his vision for the future is a trade deal with the U.S., even though the 5G decision risks a clash with the administration of President Donald Trump. However, under its "Global Britain" approach, the government wants to strengthen economic links with growth markets in Asia, particularly China.
"The Prime Minister spoke to President Trump this afternoon and updated him on the outcome of the U.K.'s telecoms supply chain review," a Downing Street spokesperson said.
The timing of the announcement is particularly sensitive. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is due to visit London this week, tweeted on Sunday that "only nations able to protect their data will be sovereign."
Three senior Republican senators in the U.S. also wrote to members of the nine-member NSC last week, urging them to bar Huawei from playing a role in next-generation telecom networks.
"We do not want to feed post-Brexit anxieties by threatening a potential U.S.-U.K. free trade agreement when it comes to Congress for approval. Nor would we want to have to review U.S.-U.K. intelligence sharing," wrote Senators Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton and John Cornyn.
But they added that "the facts on Huawei are clear. We hope that your government will make the right decision and reject Huawei's inclusion."
British security officials have said they are confident they can manage any security risks concerning Huawei equipment if it is kept to noncore areas, such as antennas and base stations, and excluded from servers and other systems where consumer and other data is stored.
A Whitehall source said: "We have been left in this position by a market failure over a number of years. Excluding Huawei from U.K. networks at this stage would lead to significant delays and extra cost to the consumer."
"Over time our intention is for the 35% share for high-risk vendors to reduce as market diversification takes place," this person said. "We want to get to a position where we don't have to rely on a high risk-vendor in our telecoms network. We stand ready to work with the U.S. and other allies on this."
Huawei has consistently said it is a private company that is not subject to state interference and does not pose a security risk. Even so, within the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand have essentially banned Huawei, while Canada has yet to make a decision.
Germany is also considering whether to allow Huawei to participate in its 5G build-out.
China hawks argue that 5G technology, which offers transmission speeds about 100 times faster than 4G, will enable automated factories and vehicles, and create new security vulnerabilities that China can exploit.
Despite their so-called special relationship, the U.K. and U.S. have recently disagreed in several other areas. The two have clashed over British plans to levy a digital tax on U.S. tech companies and America's refusal to extradite the wife of a U.S. diplomat who was involved in a fatal car crash in the U.K.