The telecommunications giant that came to symbolise China’s economic rise and the risks of its unique brand of state-linked corporations will no longer have a role in building Britain’s 5G network or that of any Five Eyes partner.
The sudden u-turn by Britain’s security services on Monday, over national security concerns, is part of a much broader geopolitical play involving the US and Australia. Canada has effectively locked out the Shenhzen-based company through its major carriers signing contracts with Nordic firms Ericsson and Nokia. New Zealand’s former national telecommunications carrier, now known as Spark, opted for Samsung over Huawei for critical components in March.
Australia was the first of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network to formally ban the company’s participation in the generation-defining technology in 2018. 5G is 20 times faster than current mobile networks and will effectively connect smartphones, cars and household devices, creating unprecedented levels of data and opportunities for surveillance.
The final push into a major player in the Five Eyes network looked promising as recently as January when the UK government approved the limited use of its technology in its 5G rollout, only for that decision to be suddenly scuppered by Britain’s security services. It is inconceivable that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will now go against that recommendation.
Australia has made its position on its own situation known to the UK government but maintained it was a decision for Britain if it wanted to use the cheaper and more advanced Huawei technology.
The US has been less subtle. Its decision in May to ban Huawei from using US software in the tiny semi-conductors that make up the network effectively forced Britain’s hand. That software had previously given the UK confidence the network had been built with enough western intellectual property to allow 5G to operate securely. Given the stakes, a product made entirely in China was deemed too great a security risk. At its core is a suspicion that the state-linked company could be asked by the Chinese Communist Party to use its technology to spy on the citizens or governments of another nation.
There are also broader geopolitical plays to consider. The UK had wanted to avoid starting a dispute with China at the same time as it took on Europe over Brexit but the politics of the coronavirus and the imposition of extraordinary new national security laws on Hong Kong have fundamentally altered its perceptions of Beijing. The UK is now a lot closer to the assessments of China’s intentions made by Washington and Canberra than it was in January.
Cui Hongjian, director of the European Study Institute of the China Institute of International Studies, told Chinese state media on Monday that the diplomatic space between the economic opportunity of China and Britain’s old allies was narrowing.
Cui said the British ban on Huawei was uneconomical, but it could guarantee the “political security” or the “political correctness” of the British government. “For some time to come, the UK will stick to such thinking,” Cui told The Global Times.
The cost of the British decision is likely to surge into the billions. 5G sits on top of 4G, rather than replaces it. Huawei was a key builder of its 4G network and no two providers are compatible. Excluding them from 5G will mean replacing the old technology with the product of another company.
Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang said the company remained open to discussions with the UK government as it prepares a decision and timetable before Westminster rises on 22nd July.
“We believe it is too early to determine the impact of the proposed restrictions, which are not about security, but about the market position,” he said.
In banning Huawei from using US software and intellectual property the Trump administration is also constraining the reach of some of its largest companies in the world’s biggest market, China.
“The US is effectively setting its own house on fire in order to take out Huawei,” said one source with knowledge of the negotiations who declined to be identified due to the commercial and political sensitivities of the situation.
The US software used in the semi-conductors is two to three years ahead of the rest of the world. Now China has a huge incentive to develop its own in an attempt to dominate the markets that it still has a chance in.
Having lost the UK, Europe is now the battleground. Germany has stopped short of banning Huawei, as have Portugal and Spain. Guillaume Poupard, the head of French cybersecurity agency ANSSI said France would not institute a total ban but for operators that are not currently using Huawei, “we are inciting them not to go for it”.