UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been offered plausible reasons to back out of his previous decision to allow the Chinese firm Huawei to play a limited role in the rollout of the UK’s 5G infrastructure, according to a former head of MI6 cited on Sunday by the Financial Times.
According to Sir John Sawers, who was Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), from 2009 until 2014, the past few months have witnessed a shift in the UK’s stance regarding the Chinese company Huawei’s potential role in the development of the country’s 5G network.
Referring to the decision taken by Boris Johnson’s government at the start of the year to grant Huawei a role in the construction of the UK’s 5G network as long as it was restricted to “non-core” parts of infrastructure and had no more than a 35 percent of market share, the British intelligence officer underscored that at the time he had approved of it, as the company’s equipment underwent thorough scrutiny by a testing facility overseen by UK intelligence services.
Furthermore, as crucial components of the equipment potentially to be used in line with the deal were to be supplied by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, assessed as a reliable supplier, this had also boosted the UK side’s confidence.
However, the latest US sanctions targeting Huawei left “reliable” non-Chinese suppliers unable to operate in conjunction with Huawei, thus undermining the ability of UK intelligence services to guarantee that Chinese-made equipment is safe to use in the country’s telecoms network.
On 30 June, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designated the Chinese tech firms Huawei and ZTE as national security threats to the United States, Commission Chairman Ajit Pai had announced.
"The FCC has designated Huawei and ZTE as companies posing a national security threat to the United States… As a result, telecom companies cannot use money from our $8.3 billion Universal Service Fund on equipment or services produced or provided by these suppliers," tweeted Pai.
The move came as part of a spate of complex earlier restrictions installed against the Chinese tech giants amid US allegations that the companies have engaged in “technology theft and unfair market competition”.
The two firms have vehemently dismissed the claims.
Pointing to the new developments, the British diplomat and civil servant claimed that allowing Huawei to infiltrate the UK telecoms market under the current conditions posed newly-emerged security risks.
“There are now sound technical reasons for the UK to change January’s decision … The security assessment is now different because the facts have changed,” said Sawers.
‘Altered Balance of Security Risks’
The news comes as earlier reports claimed UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was prepared to comply with the pressure he has been under to make an about-turn regarding his earlier decision on Huawei, and start excluding the use of Huawei technology in the country’s 5G network this year, wrote The Telegraph on Sunday. The move was expected to come in the wake of a report by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)’s National Cyber Security Centre, which had concluded that in line with the altered balance of security risks, Huawei cannot be allowed access to the UK’s 5G.
The GCHQ assessment was believed to suggest that fresh US sanctions against Huawei would prompt the Chinese telecom giant to resort to "untrusted" technology.
According to the outlet, GCHQ officials were elaborating plans to stop installing new Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G infrastructure "in as little as six months", also speeding up "the removal of technology that is already in place".
An ultimate decision on the issue is expected to be taken by the National Security Council within the next two weeks, and unveiled in a statement to parliament before the summer recess on 22 July.
The potential decision to ban Huawei from the UK’s 5G network is anticipated to be welcomed by many Conservative MPs, 38 of whom had voted against Johnson’s decision on the Chinese company in March.
Boris Johnson has been under significant pressure to revise his stance on Huawei, both from within his own party ranks and from Washington since announcing in February that the UK would allow Huawei a role in building the 5G network in the country.
Washington has repeatedly warned London that allowing Huawei to participate in developing the country’s 5G network would put the US-UK intelligence-sharing agreements at risk, and threatened to downgrade bilateral security cooperation.
In May 2019, the Trump administration blacklisted Huawei over allegations that the company's hardware and software connections sent data to Chinese intelligence agencies, and could be used for spying. Both Beijing and Huawei have repeatedly denied the accusations.
The US also urged other countries to refrain from using Huawei equipment when adopting 5G network technology.
In response, the UK government underscored that the Chinese tech giant would be excluded from the UK 5G network’s "core" parts related to safety-critical areas, e.g. military bases.
In a statement on Sunday, Huawei slammed the new US sanctions as “not about security, but about market position” and that it wanted to find a way of managing them “so the UK can maintain its current lead in 5G”.
The statement went on:
“All our world-leading products and solutions use technology and components over which the UK government has strict oversight.”
Huawei UK chief Victor Zhang lashed out at those who "choose to continue to attack us without presenting any evidence", and warned that disrupting Huawei’s "involvement in the 5G rollout would do Britain a disservice".