It may not please large segments of the Conservative party, but Boris Johnson’s Huawei decision is a realistic attempt to carve a compromise between legitimate security concerns about the Chinese company and the need for a fast and affordable rollout of 5G networks in the UK.
The decision to designate Huawei a “high risk” vendor is a statement of the obvious, when accompanied by a warning from the National Cyber Security Centre, an arm of GCHQ, that “the Chinese state (and associated actors) have carried out and will continue to carry out cyber-attacks against the UK and our interests”.
But this is a company that has been supplying mobile phone technology for 15 years in the UK and is already subject to having its code monitored by a special agency. Britain’s spy agencies have long believed that the risks of using Huawei can be mitigated by the other measures spelled out in the report, and it would be a bold politician who were to say the intelligence community was wrong.
Huawei will be excluded from supplying kit to military bases and nuclear sites – although these are restrictions the company is already subject to – and other elements of the critical national infrastructure. Its market share in mobile phone antennas and base stations, where it is the market leader, will be capped at the current 35%, when that figure had been expected to rise.
The fact is that ministers have to balance two realities: that Huawei kit is cheaper and more advanced, against a more notional risk that China will exploit Huawei for global surveillance. There is no doubt that China would have the capability to try, if not now then in the future; the question becomes whether it can be defended against. Capping Huawei’s market share and restricting the technology’s application helps with that.
What is less clear is what the response of Donald Trump’s White House will be. The US administration is deeply hostile to Huawei, seeing it as part of a wider geopolitical conflict between Washington and Beijing.
But will it do real damage to the fabled “special relationship”? Three Republican senators wrote on Tuesday morning that they might want to review intelligence sharing between Washington and London, but to do that, they will probably need legislation, which has to get through Congress, which is not fully under their party’s control. The reality, also, is that the US benefits from Britain’s intelligence capabilities.
Trump, of course, has plenty of capacity to surprise. But in the run-up to the decision some US officials were careful to separate the Huawei decision – a security matter – from the looming post-Brexit trade talks. Both Washington and London want a trade deal, so it would be a potentially damaging act for both sides to link the two issues.
Until now, despite all the pressure, the US has not offered the UK any viable alternative, to the frustration of British officials who were told that London should “prioritise security over cost”. But that would mean higher phone bills in the the future (US bills on some estimates are $50 (£38) a month more than their British counterparts).
It is not an attractive alternative, which is why deploying some Huawei technology in high-speed mobile phone networks makes sense.