US President Donald Trump on the phone in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump on the phone in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Britain’s decision to ban Huawei from its 5G network came as a direct result of pressure from Washington, according to media reports. 

The UK government privately told the Chinese technology giant that it was being banned from Britain’s 5G telecoms network partly for “geopolitical” reasons after US President Trump and his security team turned up the heat on London, The Observer reported.

There was also the issue of a volte-face in the advice from British intelligence to the country’s politicians – the risk of using the Chinese tech giant’s equipment could no longer be mitigated. This was directly attributable to Washington’s campaign against Huawei. On the surface, Forbes journalist Zak Doffman observed, this may look like a victory for Washington, but it’s not that simple – Huawei is far from defeated.

The clear implication in London is that the Huawei decision was about politics rather than security. The British cyber team charged with defending the country from the threats associated with Chinese equipment have only changed their view because, at Washington’s’s insistence, US components inside Huawei equipment are being replaced by (likely) Chinese equivalents. A change in the political winds – there’s a US election now just a few months away – and both the lobbying and the supply chain restrictions could easily fall away.

This context behind the UK’s “materially” changed security report, that the change was fabricated by the US, is critical. Absent the latest sanctions, the UK advice would not have changed and the reason driving the UK’s reversal would not exist, explains Doffman. The confirmation from top chip supplier TSMC that it will stop supplying Huawei in September in compliance with American regulations appears to imply that were those rules to soften or change, or were the firm to successfully apply for a license to supply, then it would return to doing business as usual.

Even the structure of Britain’s newly announced reversal is all about the detail. The decision to bar purchases of 5G equipment from next January leaves a sizeable procurement window wide open, and is designed to restrict the acquisition of standalone 5G kit rather than LTE-to-5G upgrades, explains Doffman. The long grace period (until 2027) before a rip and replace is mandatory, and the silence on existing 3G and 4G equipment already deployed, have left many options on the table. If a week is a long time in politics, seven years is a lifetime.

Trump personalizes victory

Trump was quick to take credit for the UK decision, personalizing the victory, and it’s true that the president has campaigned long and hard to persuade his key defense and intelligence ally to toe the Washington line.

During a press conference at the White House last Tuesday, Trump insisted, “I did this myself, for the most part.” He added that he was trying to force other nations not to use Huawei, reported The Observer.

But Washington’s relationship with Beijing is starkly different to London’s, explains Doffman. The US can brush aside economic threats from China – neither can live without the other. A UK facing up to the harsh realities of a post-Covid Brexit is not in such a fortunate position. China issued further threats of “retaliation” in the wake of the Huawei decision. And that carries some weight in a country reliant on Chinese investments in infrastructure and technology, and with a huge install base of Huawei equipment.

Huawei’s UK PR chief, Ed Brewster, stressed during a charged BBC Newsnight interview that the company’s mission in the UK continues. R&D investments and the decision, announced after the 5G reversal, to open new flagship stores should tell you all you need to know about where Huawei stands on its UK future.

“We know that millions of people here in the UK love our products,” the company said on announcing the £10 million ($12.5 million) investment. Hawkish US politicians come and go, this Chinese giant is playing a much longer game.

The group of UK politicians that has lobbied its government hard for tougher sanctions on Huawei knows there is a risk of further changes as this story runs through November’s US election and whatever fallout is seen from inquiries into the origins of Covid-19 and Beijing’s alleged misinformation. There is also a much wider technology stand-off, one that has now dragged TikTok into the mix, Doffman explains.

The US is rapidly approaching a decision point as to just how far it wants to take this, before the implications on its own technology sector become much harder to sell back home. The headlines might be filled these days with news of new investments into India, but China is China, and it’s not going to be easily displaced as the world’s center of tech manufacturing and the world’s hottest consumer market.

Stepping back from the battle between the US and Huawei, it looks like the UK has left the door ajar for further twists and turns, Doffman concludes. The decision is solely based on US lobbying and sanctions, and the UK does not want to be left holding the check should Wasgngton change its tone.