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Explainer: Why the UK is facing a clash with China over Huawei and 5G

The Chinese tech giant’s equipment is to be stripped from the UK’s 5G network by 2027.

A Huawei sign is displayed on their premises in Reading, England.
A Huawei sign is displayed on their premises in Reading, England.
Image: Matt Dunham/AP/Press Association Images

ALL EYES ARE now on China, after the UK announced a dramatic u-turn on the use of Huawei technology in the country’s 5G network. With the decision likely to escalate tensions between the West and China, experts say the global fall-out remains unpredictable. 

Yesterday, the UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden stood in the House of Commons and announced, to largely cross-party support, that Huawei technology would be removed from Britain’s 5G phone network by 2027. 

He also confirmed that no new Huawei components from the Chinese company would be bought after 31 December. 

This isn’t the first time Huawei has found itself at the centre of controversy. It has faced repeated claims, notably from the US and Australia, that its 5G network infrastructure would be used by the Chinese government for espionage

Tensions between the US and China have been a recurring - and to some worrying – issue in global politics since the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency. But the decision by the UK government to ‘eradicate’, in the words of one MP in the House of Commons yesterday, the Chinese company from the 5G network is the latest sign of a hardening of global attitudes towards the superpower. 

Growing tensions

The decision followed an assessment of the impact of US sanctions by experts from the National Cyber Security Centre.

The restrictions imposed by Donald Trump’s administration in May removes Huawei’s access to products which have been built based on US semiconductor technology.

The National Cyber Security Centre technical director Ian Levy had said products adapted to cope with the restrictions will also be “harder for us to be confident” in their use within the mitigation measures already in place for the firm’s equipment.

Now, experts say that the scale and extent of the Chinese backlash remains to be seen. 

The decision is down to a number of factors, among them American pressure and a growing chorus of security conscious Conservative figures. Altogether, it represented a major re-think of how the UK interacts with China, says Professor Rana Mitter, an expert on Chinese history and politics at the University of Oxford. 

“This is significant,” he said. It was only a few years ago that former UK prime minister David Cameron was pursuing a “prosperity first” agenda regarding China. The entry of Theresa May into 10 Downing Street, followed by Boris Johnson, has brought a new, more China-sceptic approach to the fore. 

But yesterday’s decision is not entirely do with the politics of the Tory party. Mitter says that “there is a growing sense that China’s diplomatic initiatives are really failing quite strongly in making a diplomatic case for China’s presence” on the global stage. 

He says that the country has taken a more antagonistic approach to diplomatic relations. 

“I think it’s fair to say that both sides have fed off each other. The growing sense in the Tory party that they don’t want to touch Chinese technology has been growing for quite a while.”

“The Chinese abandoned diplomacy for confrontation and that provided more material,” Mitter says, for Conservative politicians to lobby the government. 

Many Conservative politicians may push Johnson’s government to go further in the days to come – but in the House of Commons many welcomed the new approach to China. 

“This is a pivotal moment – a moment that is overdue – for us to recalibrate our stance, our geostrategic position with China,” Tobias Ellwood, Conservative MP and the chair of the House of Commons defence committee, told Politico this week. 

“We are heading into a Cold War; there’s no doubt about it.”

While Ireland has faced its own fair share of broadband-related headaches, the Huawei issue has placed the UK at the centre of a domestic and global diplomatic storm. In January, Johnson’s government had briefly appeared able to force a compromise – labelling the Chinese company a “high-risk vendor” and capping its role in the 5G network. 

However, the move had done little to satisfy both Tory backbenchers and, reportedly, Donald Trump. 

“There’s been a change in the climate in the UK towards China in recent times,” says Dr Louis Brennan, professor of international studies at Trinity College Dublin. 

britain-china-frosty-relations Chinese President Xi Jinping with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II during a state banquet at Buckingham Palace in 2015. Source: Dominic Lipinski

The “coolness” that has fallen on the UK-China relationship, Brennan says, has been furthered by two things.

“Firstly, the coronavirus and China’s secrecy in relation to the emergence of the coronavirus. Secondly, the actions in instituting the security law in Hong Kong,” he says.

“Ultimately, it’s a matter of trust. And there’s been an erosion of trust in China in recent years.”

Experts agree that both issues helped accelerate this decision, but stress that the origins of the row lie well before both the emergence of Covid-19 and China’s decision to extend control over Hong Kong. 

But the UK is also far from alone in taking a more hands-off approach to Chinese technology. Australia and Canada have both taken a hard line against China and Huawei in recent months, with the latter’s prime minister Justin Trudeau accused of being entangled in hostage diplomacy with China after rejecting calls to release a top Huawei executive wanted in the US. 

Response

China yesterday hit out at the UK over the decision. 

Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the UK, tweeted: “Disappointing and wrong decision by the UK on Huawei.”

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“It has become questionable whether the UK can provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries.”

Huawei UK spokesman Ed Brewster yesterday described the UK’s response as a “disappointing decision”. 

“We remain confident that the new US restrictions would not have affected the resilience or security of the products we supply to the UK,” he said.

“Regrettably, our future in the UK has become politicised – this is about US trade policy and not security.”

The decision will lead to an inevitable response from China. Some say that the UK could face a barrage of anger, while others have predicted something as extreme as a cyber attack. 

Rana Mitter says the exact outcome of the row remains uncertain. 

“The ball is in China’s court. The way they choose to react will determine how they take the UK-China conversation on,” he says. 

“It depends on whether short-term thinkers or long-term thinkers gain the upper hand in China.”

With reporting from Press Association

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