Boris Johnson’s plan to let Huawei Technologies Co. help build the U.K.’s fifth-generation mobile networks is under threat from mounting opposition to the Chinese company in his ruling Conservative Party, government officials say.
The government had hoped to win over Tory rebels with an information campaign about Huawei ahead of an as-yet-unscheduled vote in Parliament on the company’s involvement in the country’s 5G infrastructure. But two people familiar with the government’s thinking now believe that a hardening of positions among rank-and-file Conservative MPs will make it difficult — if not impossible — to get the legislation passed.
China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has triggered calls from prominent Tories for a rethink of the U.K.’s push for closer ties to China after former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese President Xi Jinping promised a “golden era” in 2015. Even Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said at a televised press conference on Thursday it can’t be “business as usual” with China once the pandemic is over.
That’s put the spotlight firmly back on Huawei. Johnson’s government decided in January to give the company a limited role in 5G wireless networks and fiber, while capping its market share and restricting it from the network core which sees and controls sensitive information.
The go-ahead came after the U.K.’s security services said risks associated with Huawei — the U.S. and other countries say the company is an arm of the Chinese Communist Party and could enable spying — can be managed. Huawei has repeatedly denied that its equipment poses a security risk.
“We hope the U.K. side can uphold principles of freedom and openness, maintain policy independence and provide Chinese companies with an open, fair and nondiscriminatory business environment,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a briefing in Beijing on Friday. “This will help Chinese companies maintain confidence in the U.K. market.”
British and Chinese reassurances haven’t persuaded a group of senior Tories. They include former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who led a rebellion over a relatively minor piece of telecommunications legislation in the House of Commons last month to warn ministers of the strength of feeling about Huawei. The government, which has an 80-seat majority, passed the bill by just 24 votes.
“I think the mood in the parliamentary party has hardened,” Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview. “And I think it’s a shared realization of what it means for dependence on a business that is part of a state that does not share our values. That has become clearer.”
Asked if he agreed that the government won’t get its legislation through, Tugendhat replied: “Yes.”
It’s a view also shared by Damian Green, de facto deputy in former Prime Minister Theresa May’s government.
“We need to devise a proper, realistic exit strategy from relying on Huawei, which will be difficult for some of our telecom providers so they need to know the government is determined to drive down Huawei’s involvement to zero percent over a realistic timescale, because that will affect everyone’s procurement decisions,” Green said in an interview.
William Hague, a former Conservative leader and foreign secretary who now sits in the House of Lords, said Wednesday the U.K. cannot be dependent on China as it’s demonstrated it does not “play by our rules.”
Separately, the British government paid Chinese firms $20 million for two million coronavirus home testing kits that didn’t work, the New York Times reported on Friday.
A similar rethinking of China relations is visible in the U.S. Republican Party, as the Trump campaign on Tuesday sent out a fund-raising email that accused China of “lying” about the outbreak and saying it must be held accountable.
But whereas the U.S. had already banned Huawei from its 5G networks, the U.K. planned to push ahead with a company that is already present in all four of the country’s next-generation networks rolled out to date.
“The new 5G networks which the U.K. government agreed we should help build out will give the economy a huge boost and create jobs by making it easier to get online or set up a business no matter where you live,” a Huawei spokesman said in an e-mailed statement. “We remain focused on working with our customers — the telecoms operators — to build a better connected Britain.”
If the government’s plan is defeated, new laws would still be required to ban the Shenzhen-based vendor explicitly, a significant U-turn for Johnson. A blanket ban would in turn incur billions in costs for the country’s telecom carriers, who would have to rip out their existing Huawei equipment, and delay the U.K.’s 5G rollout by more than a year, the industry has said.
“Our position has not changed,” a government spokesman said in an email Thursday. “We are clear-eyed about the challenge posed by Huawei, which is why we are banning them from sensitive and critical parts of the network and setting a strict 35% cap on market share.”
Under the U.K.’s policy, that 35% cap will be imposed on Huawei’s share of the non-sensitive section of the next-generation networks, such as antennas, masts and even fixed-line fiber-to-the-home components.
Merely complying with the cap within the three-year deadline is set to cost BT Group Plc 500 million pounds ($623 million), the company has said, as it needs to rip Huawei equipment out of its 4G network, which undergirds its early 5G systems.
High-risk vendors, a category including China’s ZTE which is already banned from the U.K., are also to be “excluded from sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases.”
The cap will be kept under review and could be reduced over time, the government has said. The cap is roughly in line with Huawei’s current overall market share in 4G, and Huawei said it was expected and reasonable.
Duncan Smith’s group has been trying to ban operators from using any equipment from so-called high-risk vendors beyond December 2022.