LONDON – Britain announced on Tuesday that it would ban Chinese technology giant Huawei’s devices from the country’s high-speed wireless network, a victory for the Trump administration and a reversal of an earlier decision that underscores how technology was at the heart of the deepening divide between western powers and China.
In January, the UK announced that Huawei devices could be used to a limited extent in its new 5G network. Since then, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced growing domestic political pressure to take a harder line against Beijing, and in May the United States introduced new restrictions to disrupt Huawei̵
The UK’s turnaround signals a new willingness on the part of Western countries to face China. This determination has intensified since Beijing last month and passed a comprehensive new law to get a firm grip on Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous city that was a British colony until 1997. Tuesday was Robert O’Brien, the national security advisor at President Trump, in Paris, to meet with colleagues from the UK, France, Germany and Italy via China.
Huawei’s critics say Beijing, due to its close connection with the Chinese government, could use the equipment to spy or interrupt telecommunications – a point that the company strongly contests.
On the grounds that Huawei had created too great a risk for such a critical, billion-dollar project, the government said that the purchase of new Huawei devices for 5G networks would be prohibited after December and that devices that were already installed would be removed from the networks should be in 2027.
Moving faster would put the network at greater risk and security, the government said.
“As the facts have changed, our approach has also changed,” Oliver Dowden, the government minister in charge of telecommunications, told the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon. “This was not an easy decision, but it is the right one for the UK telecommunications networks, for our national security and for our economy, both now and in the long run.”
“This government is divided over China,” he continued. “What we want is a modern and mature relationship with China based on mutual respect.”
The decision is expected to incur significant costs and delay the introduction of 5G in the UK by around two years. However, the recent UK security assessment found that Huawei’s role in previous 2G, 3G, and 4G networks did not need to be eliminated, and the government is not trying to stop consumers from using Huawei products.
Huawei, the world’s largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, represents an early front in a new technical cold war, affecting freedom and surveillance of the Internet, as well as emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics.
“The Democratic West has woken up late to become overly dependent on a country whose values are diametrically opposed to it,” said Robert Hannigan, former head of the British surveillance agency GCHQ, who is now a manager at the BlueVoyant cyber security company. “Huawei and other Chinese companies pose a real cyber security risk, but the main threat comes from the Chinese Communist Party’s intent, as we see in Hong Kong.”
Huawei, which has long denied being committed to the Beijing government, described Tuesday’s announcement as disappointment and “bad news for everyone in the UK on a mobile phone”.
“It threatens to put Britain on the digital slow lane, increase bills and deepen the digital divide,” said Ed Brewster, a spokesman for Huawei UK. “Unfortunately, our future has been politicized in the UK. It’s about US trade policy, not security. Over the past 20 years, Huawei has focused on building a more connected UK.”
He said Huawei would continue to support its customers and “work with the UK government to explain how we can continue to contribute to a more connected UK.”
Until Tuesday’s announcement, the UK was one of the company’s most inviting markets. Last month, Huawei announced plans to spend £ 1billion on a new research and development center in Cambridge.