The British announcement marks a significant moment in the movement away from China in the global 5G competition, especially among advanced democracies increasingly concerned that the company’s ties to the Communist government create unacceptable security risks.
In addition to intense pressure from Washington, the Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong and Beijing’s lack of transparency on the origins of the coronavirus have added to concerns in Western capitals about using Chinese technology, officials and analysts said.
Not only will Britain cease all new orders but it will phase out over the next seven years the small amount of Huawei 5G equipment installed in recent months. For slower 3G and 4G mobile phone systems, the British government said providers should remove and replace most of the older Huawei gear over the next few years.
The United States has effectively banned Huawei and other Chinese companies from its nascent 5G platforms — wireless telecommunications networks seen as the key to revolutionary advances in the way people live, work and play. For much of the past two years, the Trump administration has sought, often seemingly in vain, to persuade allies to follow suit. In May, the United States imposed an export control that cut Huawei off from a key source of semiconductors made with U.S. technology, leading British officials to doubt they could count on the security of Huawei’s equipment.
Now, with Britain joining the anti-Huawei fold, all “Five Eye” members of the world’s most powerful intelligence-sharing alliance — Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — or wireless carriers in their countries have effectively excluded or are moving to exclude Chinese firms from their 5G networks.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the British action. “With this decision, the [United Kingdom] joins a growing list of countries from around the world that are standing up for their national security by prohibiting the use of untrusted, high-risk vendors,” he said in a statement. “The momentum in favor of secure 5G is building.”
Huawei’s reversal of fortune in Britain will have major implications for countries that have not made final decisions on their 5G approach, especially Germany, Europe’s largest telecom market.
In March, the Danish telecom company TDC snubbed Huawei in awarding its 5G contract to European vendors. In June, the four largest telecom providers in Canada and Singapore did the same. And last week, Reuters reported that TIM, one of the largest wireless companies in Italy, has excluded Huawei from bidding on its 5G core networks.
Over the past year, five European countries, including Poland, Estonia and the Czech Republic, have signed agreements with the United States ensuring that 5G suppliers would not be subject to control by a foreign government without independent judicial review — a standard that effectively excludes Chinese firms.
“The writing’s on the wall in Europe,” said Paul Triolo, who heads the Eurasia Group’s global technology policy practice. “There’s no way that Huawei will remain a big supplier there.”
On Tuesday, Ed Brewster, a spokesman for Huawei UK, called the British government’s decision “bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone.”
The pullback from Huawei “threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide,” Brewster said in a statement. “Instead of ‘levelling up’ the government is levelling down and we urge them to reconsider.”
Although 27 European governments have agreed to a common approach to mitigate 5G security risks, each state may implement the upgrade in its own way. Some, like Italy, France and the Netherlands, have passed laws that enable the government to veto a carrier’s choice of a 5G provider. Others, like Belgium, ban “high risk” vendors such as Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese firm, in the core network and cap their presence at 35 percent in the periphery. Still others, such as Spain and Portugal, have yet to decide.
“The direction of travel in the biggest countries is toward a substantial reduction in Huawei’s market share, and a gradual phasing out of the company over time,” said Noah Barkin, an expert on Europe-China relations at Rhodium Group, a New York-based independent research organization.
Other major economies have taken steps over the past year to fence off their 5G systems from Chinese firms. In Japan and South Korea, government rules effectively exclude them. In Israel, Chinese companies have been absent from 3G and 4G platforms and will be kept out of 5G as well.
In India, which has not yet built its 5G system, the government last month barred two state-run firms from using Chinese gear. The order came in the wake of security clashes on India’s disputed border with China in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed.
Huawei and ZTE are far from vanquished. Two of Europe’s largest carriers, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone, make extensive use of Huawei equipment and are resistant to switching suppliers. Huawei and ZTE comprise 85 to 90 percent of the 5G market in China, which accounts for about half the global market. And they are making a concerted push to win business in Latin America and Africa.
The Chinese ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, warned London last week that excluding Huawei from 5G will “send out the very wrong message.” He stressed the growth in Chinese investment in Britain. “If you want to make China a hostile country,” he said, “you have to bear the consequences.”
But China hard-liners in Washington embraced Tuesday’s decision.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said London “made the right call” on barring Huawei. “The special relationship is stronger now, as are our joint efforts to expose the threats” that the Chinese Communist Party and its “surveillance puppet” pose “to the free world,” he said.
Some of China’s recent actions have soured European countries on Huawei.
“The coronavirus crisis and China’s very aggressive approach to shaping the narrative and capitalizing on global distraction have added to the concerns about China in Europe,” said Janka Oertel, Berlin-based director of the Asia Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The European Union, she noted, recently accused China of a concerted effort to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. In Europe “the Chinese could have scored a big win,” Oertel said. “But their actions backfired.”
The U.S. pressure campaign, which began in 2018, initially was not very effective in Western Europe. Officials perceived it as part of the U.S. trade dispute with China and bristled at what they saw as heavy-handed tactics, including threats to curb intelligence-sharing if allies did not bar Huawei.
“The Trump administration polluted the debate in Europe,” Barkin said. “Instead of a question of ‘Is it in our national interests to exclude Huawei?’ it became ‘Are we going to follow the orders of the Trump administration?’ And a lot of people didn’t want to do that.”
For a long time, European officials wanted a “smoking gun” proving Huawei was a security threat, and intelligence shared by the United States was not convincing, European officials said.
Over time, Trump administration officials moderated their rhetoric, underscoring not only the risks of surveillance but also the threat of network disruption. Officials began to refer to the Chinese Communist Party, not just the Chinese government, as a malign actor that through a new national intelligence law could compel any Chinese firm to conduct surveillance on its behalf. And they stressed their arguments had nothing to do with trade.
“We really pivoted that discussion over time,” said Robert Strayer, deputy assistant secretary of state for cyber policy. “If you fully understand the Chinese Communist Party’s intent in the way the system works in China, there’s not autonomy for those companies. You just need to understand the characteristics of modern technology, updated instantaneously with a software patch that has the vulnerability or the disruption coded into it — and you can’t inspect your way out of the problem.”
Last year, the Trump administration placed Huawei on a blacklist that banned the export of U.S. technology to Huawei without Commerce Department permission. But significantly, Huawei still was able to purchase a vast quantity of semiconductors made outside the United States with U.S. software and equipment.
So in May, Commerce tightened the export ban, blocking overseas shipments to Huawei of foreign-made semiconductors made with U.S. technology. The extension of the ban to Huawei-designed chips was key. It meant that Huawei’s main semiconductor factory, Taiwan-based TSMC, could no longer produce semiconductors for the firm.
This measure was “deliberately more targeted at Huawei’s future ability to source hardware, particularly chips and things that would more affect 5G,” said Ciaran Martin, who heads the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC), an arm of the British GCHQ spy agency. As a result, the center revised its earlier assessment that the security threat by Huawei could be mitigated. That paved the way for Tuesday’s decision.
In a blog post Tuesday, NCSC technical director Ian Levy said, “We think that Huawei products that are adapted to cope with the [Commerce rule] change are likely to suffer more security and reliability problems because of the massive engineering challenge ahead of them, and it will be harder for us to be confident in their use within our mitigation strategy.”
The decision also was influenced by mounting pressure from the Conservative Party in Parliament. The 5G debate in Europe reflects a changed geopolitical reality, said Bob Seely, a Conservative lawmaker. “The relationship between the U.K. and China, and the world and China, and the United States and China, is fundamentally changing,” he said. ‘The government is now realizing that the China they want is not the China they’re getting. “