British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to defy U.S. President Donald Trump and allow Huawei to supply components for Britain’s 5G wireless network on a restricted basis.
Mr. Johnson has come under intense pressure from Mr. Trump and other U.S. officials to ban Huawei equipment from the next generation of cellphone networks. In a call last Friday, Mr. Trump pressed his case, and on Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ramped up the rhetoric. “The U.K. has a momentous decision ahead on 5G,” he wrote on Twitter. He also quoted British Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, who said, “The truth is that only nations able to protect their data will be sovereign.”
The United States has been waging a global effort to get countries, including Canada, to ban Huawei equipment. Canada has yet to decide, and last week, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the government’s decision would be based partly on economic and geopolitical considerations. So far, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have banned Huawei, while the European Union and other countries are considering restrictions.
The British government is expected to announce its decision Tuesday after a meeting of the National Security Council, which consists of the Prime Minister, senior cabinet ministers and security service representatives. The NSC is expected to approve the use of Huawei equipment in non-core parts of the wireless network, such as antennas and base stations. Those parts are considered less critical than the core network, which manages the flow of data. There have also been reports the government will limit Huawei’s share of the equipment market to encourage other suppliers.
Mr. Johnson told reporters on Monday that the government would find a way to balance security concerns with the needs of consumers. “The way forward for us, clearly, is to have a system that delivers for people in this country the kind of consumer benefits they want through 5G technology … but does not in any way compromise our critical national infrastructure, our security or jeopardize our ability to work together with other intelligence powers around the world,” he said during a visit to a school.
Britain’s cybersecurity experts have long had a different view of Huawei than their U.S. counterparts, who consider the Chinese company a security threat. The United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) determined last year that the risks associated with Huawei’s technology could be managed. The NCSC has been examining Huawei’s equipment in a special evaluation centre that was set up in 2010 and includes representatives from the company, British intelligence agencies and telecommunications providers. That work has raised concerns about Huawei’s engineering and security capabilities, but the NCSC and other experts believe the problems can be handled.
“I think, ultimately, common sense should prevail,” said James Sullivan, a cybersecurity expert at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based think tank that specializes in defence and security issues. Separating Huawei from core components “would be a practical and realistic decision and adheres to the principles of cyberrisk management. … A complete ban on Huawei as a 5G vendor is not the golden ticket to preventing Chinese influence in supply chains. Nor will it reduce the cyberthreat from a range of hostile actors.”
But there are considerable political risks for Mr. Johnson. Britain is about to leave the EU, and Mr. Johnson has been keen to use his good relationship with Mr. Trump to begin talks on a trade deal. Defying the President could have unpredictable consequences. “It throws up broader questions about the U.K. relationship with the United States after Brexit,” said Malcolm Chalmers, the RUSI’s deputy director-general.
“Because the U.S. has chosen to make this a test of alliance solidarity in such a public way, it has become a symbol of whether the U.K. and other European allies are able to maintain some degree of independence in their approach to the challenge of China. … It’s hard to be entirely in line with U.S. policy, which is shifting often in ways that don’t involve much consultation with their allies.”
Several members of Mr. Johnson’s cabinet and caucus are also leery about Huawei and support a ban. “Sovereignty means control of data as much as land,” Mr. Tugendhat said over the weekend.
U.S. officials have also indicated that if Britain allows Huawei equipment, it could threaten the exchange of intelligence information. However, the head of Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency, Andrew Parker, has said there was “no reason to think” that using Huawei technology would harm intelligence sharing.
Several British telecom companies, such as BT Group and Vodafone, have lobbied to permit Huawei equipment in non-core areas. A total ban would jeopardize the rollout of 5G and increase costs to consumers, they argue. It would also leave the country reliant on Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia. It’s believed Mr. Trump suggested to Mr. Johnson last week that the U.S. and the U.K. could work together and build another supplier, but British officials believe that would take too long.