LONDON – The British government announced Tuesday that it plans to allow the Chinese telecom giant Huawei to build “non-core” infrastructure for the country’s coming super-fast 5G network, although the company may be designated a “high-risk vendor” with a capped market share.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been under tremendous pressure from the U.S. government – notably from President Donald Trump – to ban Huawei from building Britain’s 5G communications network.
The British government is essentially seeking a middle path, wanting to allow Huawei to supply and build 5G but ban it from “core” systems, including intelligence, military and nuclear sites. It seeks to limit the company’s market share to 35 percent.
The plan to allow Huawei to participate in developing Britain’s 5G network was approved by the country’s National Security Council at a Tuesday meeting chaired by Johnson. The British government will now seek to legislate the proposals through Parliament. It is possible that the House of Commons could amend Johnson’s plan – loosening or strengthening Huawei’s hand. But following a landslide win in the December general election for Johnson and his Conservative Party, Parliament’s ability to challenge government plans has been weakened.
Johnson has been under growing pressure from the Trump administration to ban Huawei outright from the entire network. The United States claims that the Chinese telecom giant poses a security risk and threatens U.S.-British intelligence sharing.
The U.S. government has called Huawei a threat to national security, saying the Chinese government could tap into Huawei equipment to spy on the West or disrupt critical infrastructure.
Huawei, which has dismissed this concern as unfounded, and described Britain’s announcement Tuesday as a win.
“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,” said a statement from company Vice President Victor Zhang.
“This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future. It gives the U.K. access to world-leading technology and ensures a competitive market,” the statement added, noting that Huawei has been in Britain for more than 15 years.
The United States has been pressing key European allies to bar Huawei from their 5G networks on national security grounds. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Sunday that Britain had a “momentous decision ahead on 5G.”
On Friday, Trump himself called Johnson to talk about Huawei.
The American pressure has not won Britain over, largely because of concerns that pulling Huawei out of existing 4G networks will be cumbersome and costly. Major providers such as British Telecom are heavily invested in Huawei technology, and Britain does not want to fall behind in the coming 5G world.
The coming super-fast 5G networks are expected to power the coming “Internet of Things,” enabling industrial, transport and everyday devices to be connected, to “talk” to each other and to share data constantly, powering future technologies such as driverless cars and smart household appliances.
Supporters say 5G may usher in a “fourth industrial revolution.” Critics worry that the systems will allow for widespread spying, data harvesting and loss of privacy.
In addition to banning the sale of some U.S. technology to Huawei, Washington has also blocked Huawei from installing telecom equipment in the United States. Japan and Australia have also effectively banned Huawei from their 5G networks.
Britain has long signaled it intended to take a middle way, barring Huawei from government systems and “core” networks that contain routers and switches handling massive volumes of traffic, while allowing the Chinese equipment-maker into the “edge,” where radio antennae connect with user devices.
But the U.S. government has argued that even a limited presence is too much in a 5G network in which, officials say, the distinction between core and edge is virtually meaningless because so much more data can be processed at the network periphery.
As London neared a decision, the Trump administration stepped up its campaign to persuade its ally to bar Huawei. A high-level delegation including deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, special representative for international telecommunications policy Robert Blair and Robert Strayer, deputy assistant secretary of state for cyber and international communications policy, flew to London this month to make their pitch.
They reiterated their case that having a Chinese company that is beholden to potential Chinese government demands for access would pose not only a surveillance risk but also a threat of network disruption if a conflict escalated. They shared technical information aimed at persuading officials that the national security risks of using Huawei technology could not be adequately mitigated.
The U.S. delegation stressed that if Britain were to let Huawei into its 5G network, the U.S. government would have to reassess whether the British could sufficiently protect shared intelligence.
Also amping up the pressure is the U.S. Congress. A group of Republican lawmakers this month introduced legislation that would bar U.S. intelligence-sharing with any country that allows Huawei into its 5G network. Although it is not expected to pass – at least not in current form – the threat sends a signal that Congress does not intend to sit on the sidelines on the issue.
British lawmakers, industry lobbyists and privacy activists are themselves divided. Intelligence officials last March delivered a scathing assessment of the security risks posed by Huawei in telecom networks, saying they found “significant technical issues” in the firm’s engineering processes as well as “concerning issues” in its software.
Many European countries, including Britain, have long used Huawei gear in their 3G and 4G networks.
British officials and lawmakers wrestled with the decision for more than a year, with some signaling skepticism about a full ban. In a June speech, the head of Britain’s National Cyber Security Center, Ciaran Martin, said the country needed to consider a broad range of threats.
“The most significant attack on U.K. [telecommunications] in recent years that we know of was Russian, and we don’t have any Russian-owned or -flagged kit in our [telecommunications] networks,” he said.
Last summer, Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee said Britain should ban Huawei from the most sensitive, core operations of its 5G network. It said it saw no technical grounds for completely excluding the Chinese company’s gear, although it added there could be “geopolitical or ethical grounds for the government to decide to enact a ban.”
The British decision comes as a host of other countries, including Germany and Brazil, continue to debate Huawei’s role in their 5G networks.
In Brussels, European Union policymakers are set to unveil a set of draft guidelines Wednesday that would give E.U. countries the tools to exclude Huawei from their networks should they choose to do so.
The E.U. has been skeptical of the role of Huawei in the development of 5G networks, but it lacks the ability to ban the Chinese company across the bloc. Instead, individual capitals make the decisions, giving Beijing greater leverage to pressure countries.
The possibility that Huawei could expand its role in European networks has unsettled U.S. security experts. U.S. intelligence agencies may restrict the information they share with their European counterparts, for instance – even in the case of the British, with whom they have a closer relationship than with any other foreign power.
“I would imagine it would have a dampening effect on the willingness to share certain things,” Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. Army Europe, said of the British decision.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has publicly rejected the idea of banning any company “simply because it’s from a certain country,” and she is seen as reluctant to alienate either China or the United States, two large buyers of German cars and machinery. But German intelligence officials and some members of Merkel’s own party have pushed for a tougher stance against Huawei, sparking a fiery debate that has delayed a final decision.
Germany’s Foreign Office, Interior Ministry and intelligence services “all emphasize the risks of Huawei,” while “the Federal Chancellery and Ministry for Economic Affairs are against a ban,” researchers with the German Council on Foreign Relations wrote in a recent report.
In December, China’s ambassador to Berlin, Ken Wu, warned there could be “consequences” for Germany if it excludes Huawei. Speaking at a forum hosted by the newspaper Handelsblatt, Wu noted that Germany sells millions of cars a year in China, the world’s largest auto market.
“Could we say one day that the German cars are not safe because we are able to manufacture our own cars?” he said. “No. That is pure protectionism.”
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Nakashima and Whalen reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.