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China has begun to hit back following the UK Government’s decision this week to ban mobile providers from buying new Huawei 5G equipment after Dec. 31. With Huawei equipment banned from the UK 5G network by 2027, the decision is likely to delay network roll-out, but the much bigger impact is for international relations.
Beijing is predictably incandescent about the decision. Take the example of China’s Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming who asserts “it has become questionable whether the United Kingdom can provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries”.
The UK decision could have big blowback for its relationship with China, especially in a wider context of cooling ties over issues such as Hong Kong, and the ambassador warned that “if [Britain] makes China an enemy, China will become an enemy.” One specific area where Beijing could now hit London hard is over post-Brexit trade relations with the two sides having hoped to have secured a big bilateral trade deal in coming months.
The key reason why the UK Government made its U-turn, only months after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s January decision to approve a limited role for Huawei in building the UK’s 5G mobile network, is pressure from dozens of Conservative MPs, not to mention the Trump administration. These parties urged Johnson to review this decision as a priority and the latest salvo came a few weeks ago when Washington placed additional U.S. sanctions against Huawei which restrict the firm from using U.S. technology and software to design its semiconductors.
The U.S. Department of Commerce has said that Huawei has flouted regulations implemented last year that require the firm to obtain a licence in order to export U.S. items. It asserts that the firm got around this rule by using U.S. semiconductor manufacturing equipment at factories in other countries.
The impact of these U.S. sanctions meant Johnson had little choice but to back down, especially as he already faced a potentially big, embarrassing defeat in the House of Commons on this issue. The U-turn was therefore effectively forced upon him by the Trump team and the growing band of China ‘hawks’ within the UK Conservative Party, and adds to a brewing post-Brexit potential crisis in Beijing-London relations.
While China is furious, the UK U-turn has been warmly welcomed not just in the United States, but also other ‘Five Eyes’ countries, especially Australia. Five Eyes, of course, is one of the world’s most successful intelligence gathering and sharing partnerships which had been placed under stress over Chinese participation in 5G networks.
The alliance’s origins stem from the remarkable intelligence relationship that the U.S. and UK enjoyed in the Second World War which was institutionalized in the 1946 BRUSA (later UKUSA) Agreement. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as former UK dominions, began representing themselves in the intelligence pact in the late 1940s and 1950s.
This close cooperation amongst the Five Eyes countries bonded by decades of strong security, economic, political and cultural ties, with their geographical spread across the globe meaning that members neatly divide intelligence-gathering responsibilities by region. The UK, for example, leads on the Middle East, and Europe too.
Yet, in recent years, the mutual trust that is the foundation of these exchanges has been challenged by several developments, including the Edward Snowden leaks during the Obama administration. Most recently, there have been divergences over the use of Huawei 5G technology.
Washington and Canberra have been most vociferous in their opposition with both banning the Chinese-headquartered telecoms firm from supplying equipment to their 5G networks. Australia led the way, in 2018, under then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, when it became the first country to ban Chinese firms from the national 5G network, followed by a de facto U.S. ban on Chinese 5G technology.
However, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK have been exploring more nuanced positions. This had threatened a serious breach on this issue whereby intelligence sharing could possibly be curtailed, creating possible gaps in collection, analysis and dissemination.
New Zealand has refused to completely dismiss the possibility of Huawei being involved in its 5G network. However, in practice that Government’s Communications Security Bureau has so far blocked providers from using Huawei in the 5G rollout.
As things stand, therefore, the UK U-turn puts most pressure on Canada which postponed a final decision on this thorny issue until after last October’s federal election. It now seems likely that Ottawa will follow London’s lead or otherwise stand out like a sore thumb from its Five Eyes partners.
While widening the post-pandemic rift between China and much of the West, Johnson’s decision will therefore ease tensions within Five Eyes given that Huawei had previously represented a significant challenge to the future of the intelligence alliance. Moreover, the UK U-turn may also now help shape the direction of policy on Huawei more widely in other allied nations outside of the five-country bloc, despite the political and economic costs of Beijing’s backlash.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics