Johnson sets up clash with Trump by giving Huawei limited 5G role

Boris Johnson has defied Donald Trump by giving the green light for Chinese firm Huawei to have a limited role in the UK’s 5G network.

The National Security Council, in a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister in Downing Street which lasted for less than 90 minutes, decided that “high-risk vendors” should be permitted to play a peripheral role in the network.

But advice issued to telecoms operators by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said such vendors should be barred from all safety-related and critical networks and locations including military bases and nuclear facilities.

High-risk firms will also have their presence limited to no more than 35% in the periphery of the network, known as the access network, which connects devices and equipment to mobile phone masts.

The Government has promised to legislate “at the earliest opportunity” to put the new guidance into law.

Mr Trump’s administration had lobbied against the UK allowing Huawei access as the US engages in a global struggle for influence with China.

Washington was informed of the Government’s decision only after it was announced, but Mr Johnson is expected to speak directly to Mr Trump.

Senior Republicans in the US were quick to hit out at the announcement.

Liz Cheney, a congresswoman and daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, said it was “tragic” that the Prime Minister had “chosen the surveillance state over the special relationship”.

Senator and former presidential nominee Mitt Romney said: “The UK’s decision to incorporate Huawei into its 5G network is a disconcerting sign.

“By prioritising costs, the UK is sacrificing national security and inviting the CCP’s surveillance state in. I implore our British allies to reverse their decision.”

Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik blasted the move as “wrong, dangerous, and a grave shortsighted mistake”.

The US administration warned that British sovereignty would be put at risk by the move, and has issued threats over an impact on intelligence sharing due to Huawei’s close ties to the Beijing government.

But Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told MPs there would be no impact on the Five Eyes alliance – the partnership between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“I want to be absolutely clear that nothing in this review affects this country’s ability to share highly sensitive intelligence data over highly secure networks both within the UK and with our partners including the Five Eyes,” he said.

“GCHQ have categorically confirmed that how we construct our 5G and full fibre public telecoms network has nothing to do with how we share classified data.”

Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang welcomed the UK’s “evidence-based” decision.

“Huawei is reassured by the UK Government’s confirmation that we can continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track,” he said.

Culture Secretary Baroness Morgan vowed that upgrades would “not be at the expense of our national security”.

“The Government has reviewed the supply chain for telecoms networks and concluded today it is necessary to have tight restrictions on the presence of high-risk vendors,” she said.

“This is a UK-specific solution for UK-specific reasons and the decision deals with the challenges we face right now.

“It not only paves the way for secure and resilient networks, with our sovereignty over data protected, but it also builds on our strategy to develop a diversity of suppliers.”

In its evaluation, the NCSC said that without Government intervention, commercial factors could cause the UK to become “nationally dependent” on Huawei within three years, which would be a “significant national security risk”.

Insisting that the risks could be managed, it said placing “backdoors” in Huawei equipment would not be the “lowest risk, easiest to perform or most effective means for the Chinese state to perform a major cyber attack on UK telecoms networks today”.

Iain Duncan Smith
Iain Duncan Smith

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives in London on Wednesday for talks with Mr Raab, where he is likely to voice Washington’s concerns.

Mr Pompeo – who will also see the Prime Minister – had made a last-ditch plea to ministers to reject Huawei when making the “momentous” decision.

Senior Tories have also hit out at the decision, with former party leader Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, saying it “beggars belief” to allow Huawei to play a role while “We have a cyber war going on with China”.

Senior MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the last parliament, said the decision left “many concerns” and “does not close the UK’s networks to a frequently malign international actor”.

1. As the UK’s 4G networks rely on Huawei, achieving zero presence today would be near impossible so the reduction to 35% is welcome. But will this reduce over time to wean operators off the Chinese provider or will 35% be an enduring figure? 2/8

— Tom Tugendhat (@TomTugendhat) January 28, 2020

For Labour, shadow culture secretary Tracy Brabin said: ““The Tories refused to take our technological sovereignty seriously and failed to invest in home-grown alternatives to Huawei.

“As a result they’re in the ludicrous position of having to choose between the UK’s security concerns and our infrastructure needs.”

But Confederation of British Industry policy director Matthew Fell said: “This solution appears a sensible compromise that gives the UK access to cutting-edge technology, whilst building in appropriate checks and balances around security.”

The implementation of 5G is expected to bring with it download speeds 10 times faster than what 4G currently offers.