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Huawei crackdown

UK weighs Huawei 5G ban as anti-China sentiment grows

Coronavirus and new US sanctions reignite debate over high-speed network

There is a growing push in the U.K. to reevaluate the country's dependence on China, including in 5G technology and pharmaceuticals.   © Reuters

LONDON -- Calls within the British government are growing to shut out Huawei Technologies from ultrafast 5G networks here as China faces increasing pushback over the coronavirus pandemic and security.

The National Cyber Security Center recently launched an emergency review of Huawei's role in the U.K.'s mobile networks, after the U.S. Commerce Department announced a further crackdown May 15.

"Following the U.S. announcement of additional sanctions against Huawei, the NCSC is looking carefully at any impact they could have to the U.K.'s networks," a spokesperson for the agency had said.

The NCSC previously concluded that security risks associated with Huawei products were manageable. The British government said in January that Huawei can supply up to 35% of nonsensitive parts of 5G networks, rebuffing American pressure to lock the company out over espionage concerns. At the time, the U.K. concluded that replacing the Huawei parts already in its mobile networks would cost too much.

The government now appears to be changing its tune in light of the U.S. sanctions and the growing criticism of China's initial response to the novel coronavirus. The U.K. death toll of nearly 40,000 is the highest in Europe, and the country is still struggling to bring the outbreak under control after a roughly two-month lockdown.

Criticism has been especially pronounced within the ruling Conservative Party. Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, in April launched the China Research Group -- a body modeled after the European Research Group of prominent pro-Brexit lawmakers. Some lawmakers are pushing the U.K. to curb its dependence on China in a wide range of fields, including health care.

"The Huawei policy may have been arguable pre-corona but I don't think it is anymore," the Financial Times recently quoted former Brexit secretary David Davis as saying. "That may not be rational but the zeitgeist has changed."

China's new national security legislation for Hong Kong has also hardened opinions on Beijing, especially given the city's past as a British colony.

Huawei has pushed back against such developments. "As a private company, 100%-owned by employees, which has operated in the U.K. for 20 years, our priority has been to help mobile and broadband companies keep Britain connected," Vice President Victor Zhang said in a recent statement.

Europe is a key market for Huawei. The region accounts for nearly 50 of the company's 90 or so 5G contracts. Huawei also announced in February that it would invest more than 200 million euros ($224 million) to build a new plant in France.

Many European countries see British policies on Huawei as a litmus test of sorts, given the U.K.'s close relationship with the U.S. If London decides to block Huawei products after all, others in the region could follow suit.

The U.K. was one of the first countries to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the two countries remain close economically. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces growing pressure to get tough on China, which could delay the move to 5G here and further complicate bilateral relations.

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