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Huawei crackdown

UK's decision on Huawei 5G ban to test its US special relationship

Washington ups pressure as London set to decide on Chinese tech giant

The U.K. is weighing the potential security risk of using Huawei 5G equipment versus the cost and delay of finding an alternative supplier. (Source photo by Reuters) 

LONDON -- The U.K. government is expected to announce this week whether it will ban Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei from the country's 5G infrastructure, a decision that will serve as a bellwether for other U.S. allies facing pressure from Washington to ban the company.

The decision by the National Security Council, which is chaired by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, could come as early as Tuesday. The U.K. is weighing the potential security risk of using Huawei versus the cost and delay of finding an alternative supplier. Banning the company completely could also threaten much-needed trade and investment from China.

Experts and officials in the U.K., moreover, have expressed doubts over Washington's claims that the Chinese company represents a security risk. In what appears be a final attempt to influence London's decision, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin met with his British counterpart, Sajid Javid, on Saturday.

While the U.S. is also pressuring other allies, including Germany, to ban Huawei, the U.K.'s position is complicated by Brexit. Johnson has promised that leaving the European Union will open up new trading opportunities with other major economies, and as such will be under huge pressure to secure new trade deals quickly. A deal with the U.S. is a top priority, and negotiations could start as early as next month.

But if banning Huawei pleases the U.S., it would likely anger China. Under its new "Global Britain" approach, the government has made it clear that it wants to strengthen economic links with growth markets in Asia, particularly China. According to law firm Baker McKenzie, the U.K. was the second-highest recipient of Chinese investment in Europe in 2019, at $3.8 billion. Europe as a whole received $13.4 billion, more than double the amount of investment as North America.

The U.S. has not been shy about threatening allies over the use of Huawei. The U.K. and U.S., along with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, are members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, and Washington has warned that using the Chinese company's equipment could jeopardize intelligence sharing in the alliance. Lawmakers in Australia -- where there is a ban on Huawei -- have also been vocal in opposing the use of the company's equipment.

Yet voices in the U.K. suggest it could defy American pressure.

Andrew Parker, the director-general of MI5, the U.K.'s domestic counterintelligence and security agency, told the Financial Times earlier this month that he had no reason to think a decision to use Huawei would affect intelligence relationships with important partners.

Similarly, parliament's Science and Technology Committee last summer said it found "no technical grounds for excluding Huawei entirely from the UK's 5G or other telecommunications networks," provided there were "restrictions on access to highly sensitive elements."

Difficulties in banning Huawei from U.K. infrastructure also stem from the fact that it is already part of British systems, and there are few competitors in the market. All four major U.K. mobile networks are said to currently use Huawei technology that is considered non-sensitive, such as antennas.

Johnson said this month that he would not jeopardize national security or cooperation with the Five Eyes, but also said, "If people oppose one brand or another, then they have to tell us what is the alternative."

The U.K. also considers itself in a good position to assess the security threat of Huawei.

In a speech in February last year, the CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre, part of the U.K.'s intelligence agency, said, "Our regime is arguably the toughest and most rigorous oversight regime in the world for Huawei."

The U.K. has been monitoring Huawei technology for several years now, after establishing the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre in 2010 in agreement between Huawei and London. Since 2014 it has had an oversight board chaired by the CEO of the cyber security center, which reports annually on its evaluations.

For its part, Huawei is keen to deepen its ties with the U.K., setting up a 5G research and development center in the country last December. It has also signed more than 60 commercial 5G contracts worldwide, more than half of which are believed to be in Europe.

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