Huawei had been allowed to have a stake in the UK’s network – but the government is under pressure to reverse the decision.
The British government is expected to take a new and final decision on the future 5G network today, further restricting the involvement of the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei.
Boris Johnson will chair a meeting of the National Security Council later before the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden makes a statement to parliament.
British intelligence and cyber security officials were confident they could mitigate any risk posed by Huawei which critics argue is close to the Chinese government and therefore used for espionage.
But new US sanctions have prevented Huawei from using trusted American technology in chips, resulting in a review carried out by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre.
It has left the UK in a difficult position: in January the NCSC was adamant the UK needed multiple 5G providers for stability (Nokia and Ericsson being the other two), but now it is unable to verify the safety of Huawei technology and a U-turn could prove expensive and result in delays to the rollout of 5G.
Intense lobbying has taken place in recent days with domestic telecoms firms, such as BT, warning of blackouts if they’re forced to strip out Huawei technology too quickly.
Conservative backbench MPs however have threatened to vote against the legislation if Huawei isn’t evicted quick enough.
The greatest pressure though has come from the White House, which has already banned Huawei from the US network.
President Trump, and advisers, have warned that intelligence sharing between the two countries could be at threat if the UK proceeded with Huawei.
Boris Johnson’s original decision in January was said to have left the US President “apoplectic”.
In opposition, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom has issued thinly veiled threats to the UK if it sides with the US, warning last week that Britain’s reputation would be damaged.
“When you get rid of Huawei, it sends out a very wrong message. You punish your image as a country that can conduct independent policy. It means you succumb to foreign pressure and you cannot make your own independent foreign policy.”
Britain’s position towards China more generally has hardened over recent months, initially as a result of China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and more recently after the passing of a national security law in Hong Kong, which the British government considers illegal.
Following the latter, Downing Street responded by offering up to three million Hong Kongers a route to British citizenship through long-stay visas.
An ongoing integrated review of British security and foreign policy challenges is likely to focus on the threat from China over the coming decades.
The changing facts around Huawei’s security has given the government an opportunity to take a tougher line towards Beijing – Sino-British relations are strained.
Much is riding on the British decision because of the high regard other European countries hold the UK intelligence agencies. Both the US and China believe the UK approach will influence what others decide to do.
So far, of the countries in the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, the US and Australia have banned Huawei, Canada and New Zealand are considering their positions.