The fallout from the United Kingdom’s decision to include Huawei in the country’s 5G rollout rippled through the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance. Photo: Courtesy of RS Kingdom

The political mood in the United Kingdom has drastically changed since January, when London decided to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to have a part in the development of the periphery of the next-generation networks within the country. According to the UK press, the government is studying plans that could lead to a ban of the Shenzhen-based company’s products from the country’s fifth-generation (5G) telecom networks.

The reasons behind the renewed analysis of the Huawei role in the United Kingdom are rooted in recent measures put in place by Washington. More specifically, in May, the US imposed new sanctions to prevent the acquisition of semiconductors that Huawei designs in overseas foundries using American technologies.

This move could severely impact the Chinese company, which has been on the front line of the US-China tech rivalry for years, seeing its ambitious projects hit by the harsh strategies implemented by President Donald Trump’s administration.

To understand the degree of the impact of these recent sanctions, the UK National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) conducted in-depth research into whether Huawei could be forced to use untrusted technology to cope with the restrictions, consequently putting under threat Western networks. Apparently, the issue will be further discussed in coming weeks. However, if London really opts for the ban, there will be several significant consequences.

Telecommunication companies in the United Kingdom will certainly have to deal with a higher level of complexity. First, they will have to look for alternative suppliers such as Nokia, Ericsson or Samsung Electronics.

Second, they will have to replace Huawei equipment in their networks, but this won’t necessarily be easy, especially in the short term. It is reasonable to argue that British multinational telecommunications companies such as BT and Vodafone, for example, would need some years to avoid damage to their customers from blackouts on every generation of telecommunications, from 2G to 5G, across the country.

However, if fears related to the ability of Huawei to respect its commitment in the UK are the only reason for a hypothetical ban, the stockpiles that the Chinese company has been building should partially reassure London. Indeed, the company began stockpiling US chips in 2018, spending $23.45 billion to protect its operations from the increased tensions with the United States.

Even if no official decision has been made yet by the UK, inevitably, the current situation could be linked to the context of the antagonism between Washington and Beijing, within which the US sponsored diplomatic campaigns with its allies to promote the idea of a tech decoupling from China.

In addition, considering the UK’s fundamental role within the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, the US has not hesitated to show its disappointment after the conclusion to involve Huawei in the UK’s 5G supply chain. London, nonetheless, initially surprised the international community with its coherence and pragmatism, pushing back against American pressure in January.

But now the UK position in line with the US will obliges us to read the changing scenario of the UK-Huawei relations using different lenses to identify the political vectors behind it. Is the UK independently pursuing a different strategy toward Huawei, or is the US influencing this shift to test its ally’s loyalty? If Washington is successfully “directing” London behind the scenes, how will British relations with China mutate?

Probably it is too early to answer these questions and to draw a conclusion, but what London does to handle the situation will say a lot about its capability of acting strategically to reshape its leading role, prioritizing advantageous partnerships, or, alternatively, it will show a preference for respecting diplomatic constraints to placate Washington.

But what constitutes a win for the US in the tech minefield creates, at the same time, frictions between the UK and China, wiping out the efforts that have been made over the recent years.

However, it is important to highlight that, because of the US-China confrontation, not only the United Kingdom but many other countries will be called to stand together if they don’t want to get caught in the middle of a tug-of-war, dangerously boosting the gradual creation of a more polarized global system.

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Federica Russo

Federica Russo is an Italian freelance writer whose articles have been published by The Diplomat, Asia Times, OBOReurope, Asia Power Watch, Cultural Bridge and other platforms where she is focused on Chinese engagement in the global scene and corporate boards' dynamics. She is a researcher at Wikistrat.