The British government has privately told Chinese tech giant Huawei that it is being banned from the UK’s 5G telecommunications network in part for “geopolitical” reasons following enormous pressure from President Donald Trump, the Observer has learned.
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s controversial announcement last week, intensive discussions have taken place and confidential communications have been exchanged between the government and Whitehall officials on one side and Huawei executives on the other .
As part of the high-level behind-the-scenes contacts, Huawei learned that geopolitics had played a role and felt there was a possibility that the decision could be reconsidered in the future, perhaps if Trump did not. won a second term. and the anti-Chinese stance in Washington has softened.
Senior Huawei executives have made public since Tuesday’s decision saying they hope the British government will rethink, apparently encouraged by the results of back-channel contacts.
The government’s private admissions do not match last week’s public statements from ministers, who said Huawei had been banned due to new security concerns raised by the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC), which is part of the GCHQ.
In the Commons, Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sports, said new sanctions banning the sale of components produced in the United States to Huawei – meaning the Chinese company will have to get them elsewhere – had changed the balance. security risk.
“The new US measures restrict Huawei’s ability to manufacture important products using US technology or software,” he said. “The National Cyber Security Center has examined the consequences of US actions…
“The NCSC has now reported to ministers that it has significantly changed its assessment of the security of Huawei’s presence in the UK 5G network. Given the uncertainty this creates around Huawei’s supply chain, the UK can no longer be sure that it will be able to guarantee the safety of future Huawei 5G equipment affected by the change in US rules. on direct foreign products. “
Last week’s move reversed a decision made in January when the government announced Huawei equipment could be used in its new 5G network on a restricted basis. This has led to sharp criticism from Tory MPs, including former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who has described Huawei as a branch of the Chinese Communist Party and a risk to the UK.
Tuesday’s reversal of that announcement pleased everyone except the most die-hard anti-Huawei Tory MPs. But that called into question Boris Johnson’s clear promise to provide superfast broadband to all homes and businesses in the country by 2025, and prompted the Chinese to warn of retaliation. However, Beijing’s response was more discreet than many on the British side had feared.
The move has also led to accusations that the British government is putting its loyalty to Trump – who is waging a diplomatic war against China over the coronavirus, human rights, trade, his stance on Hong Kong and Huawei at the approach to the United States. presidential elections – ahead of its pledge to put the UK at the forefront of global technological advances.
At a White House press conference on Tuesday, Trump immediately claimed credit for the UK’s decision – “I did it myself, for the most part” – and said he was trying to force other countries not to use Huawei.
Dismissing claims that the UK government was bowing down to Trump over the UK’s need to sign a trade deal with Washington after Brexit, Health Secretary Matt Hancock rejected the president’s request. “We all know Donald Trump, don’t we,” he told Sky News. “But I think it makes sense. All kinds of people can try to claim credit for the decision, but that was based on a technical assessment by the National Cyber Security Center on how we can have the highest quality 5G systems in the future.
Lord O’Neill, the economist who was brought into government as the Treasury’s commercial secretary in 2015, said the private explanations given to Huawei made the decision “more rational.”
He said: “Given that the Prime Minister continues to describe himself as a Sinophile, you would think he is trying to minimize the damage. Otherwise, the decision makes no sense. China has been the biggest contributor to global GDP over the past 20 years. So why would we want to cut it off? “
However, Conservative MPs will be furious with any suggestion that there may be another U-turn on Huawei. Several have pledged to push Johnson further to ban Huawei from the UK altogether, including existing 2G, 3G and 4G networks.
Labor MP Kevan Jones, a former defense minister who now sits on the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, said it was clear American pressure had influenced the government. “Of course, security should be the number one priority, but it is clear that this decision was made for geopolitical reasons rather than taking into account the economic costs to the UK,” he said.
This week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to London and meet with Conservative MPs including Duncan Smith who are opposed to Huawei. He should try to put pressure on other European governments during his visit.
Huawei declined to comment on its talks with officials and ministers and pointed to a statement released last week: “This disappointing move is bad news for anyone in the UK who owns a cell phone. It threatens to put Britain on the slow digital lane, drive up bills and deepen the digital divide. Instead of “leveling” the government is leveling itself down and we urge them to reconsider. We remain convinced that the new US restrictions would not have affected the resilience or safety of the products we supply in the UK. “
A DCMS spokesperson said, “We have banned the purchase of any new Huawei 5G equipment after December 31 of this year, and will remove all Huawei equipment from 5G networks by the end of 2027.
“This was a decision taken by ministers in the National Security Council, based on a technical and security analysis by the National Center for Cybersecurity, a world leader.”