UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has raised doubts over the decision to give Huawei a stake in Britain’s 5G network, telling Beijing that the Government will “think very carefully about how to proceed now”.
He suffered his biggest post-election backbench rebellion in March when 36 Tory MPs voted to ban Huawei from supplying any technology to the UK, and hostility to the planned deal has been fuelled by accusations that China was slow to raise the alarm over its coronavirus outbreak in December.
Before the new war of words over Hong Kong, the UK Government had already prompted speculation it was heading for a rethink after it disclosed that the Huawei contract was being reviewed.
“On Huawei, I’m not against investment in this country. This is an open market economy. But I don’t want to see our critical national infrastructure at risk of being in any way controlled by potentially hostile state vendors.”
“So, we have to think very carefully about how to proceed now.”
Many in the business community are worried that any such U-turn would deny the UK the opportunity to be a European leader in the technology at a time when the country’s economy needs a significant boost.
Much hinges on a report by the National Cyber Security Centre in the UK, which is due to be published this month. Some believe this may lead to the government backtracking on its earlier Huawei decision.
The Prime Minister said,
“I remain a sinophile. I’m not one of those who is instinctively hostile to China, far, far from it.
“But what’s happened in Hong Kong is plainly an unacceptable breach of the letter and the spirit of the Joint Declaration of principles of the basic law. It’s already having a chilling effect on free speech and civil society in Hong Kong.”
The review of the Huawei contract has been triggered by planned American sanctions against the Chinese firm which uses US semiconductors and software.
The fear is that China could develop its own components, which could be more easily exploited for covert surveillance by Beijing.
The UK telecommunications industry has made its position clear on the issue. Scott Petty, chief technology officer for Vodafone UK said any reversal of the Huawei decision would deny the UK a technological advantage.
“The UK’s leadership in 5G will be lost if mobile operators are forced to spend time and money replacing existing equipment,”
“The British government should make efforts to expand 5G coverage and invest in the next stage of this technology, instead of stripping out the equipment of the Chinese telecoms equipment maker.”