Any decision to phase out Huawei products would represent a significant win for the United States, which has lobbied for Britain and Europe to avoid Huawei on the grounds that the Chinese technology could leave allied countries vulnerable to espionage.
A British U-turn on Huawei would also add another point of friction with China. The two countries have already been clashing over Beijing’s crackdown on political freedoms and a strict new security law for Hong Kong.
Speaking at a virtual news conference in London on Monday, China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, told Johnson, “You cannot have a golden era if you treat China as an enemy.”
In January, Britain decided to limit Huawei’s market share for the country’s “noncore” 5G network to 35 percent, while labeling the company a “high risk vendor” and barring use of its equipment in “core” parts of the network, including intelligence, military and nuclear sites.
The decision was far short of what Washington had been pushing for, as it battles China for dominance over 5G, but Britain noted there are few other providers of the tech that can match the Chinese price.
Six months later, the calculations may shift.
On Saturday, the Telegraph newspaper — which has strong links to Johnson’s Conservative Party — wrote that an upcoming report from Britain’s National Cyber Security Center concluded the U.S. sanctions announced in May, which bar Huawei from using technology relying on American intellectual property, could undermine British confidence it its ability to oversee Huawei.
The Guardian subsequently reported that British officials were discussing proposals to stop installing new Huawei equipment in the 5G network in as little as six months, and to speed up the removal of technology that is already in place.
In his remarks Monday, the Chinese ambassador to Britain taunted Johnson’s government for entertaining the Trump administration’s arguments on Huawei.
“It means you succumb to foreign pressure and you cannot make your own independent foreign policy,” Liu said. “I always say Britain can only be great when it can have its independent foreign policy.”
Liu warned, “If the U.K. chooses to pay a high price for poorer quality, or less quality, it is up to you. We have to work for the best and prepare for the best. Huawei will survive and prosper. The more pressure from so-called superpower and from its allies, Huawei will grow stronger.”
He also called Britain’s offer to grant almost 3 million Hong Kong residents a pathway to British citizenship “a gross interference in China’s internal affairs.” Liu said, “Attempts to disrupt or obstruct the national security law will be met with the strong opposition of 1.4 billion Chinese people. All these attempts are doomed to failure.”
Beijing’s new security law for Hong Kong, published last week, effectively ends the freedom of speech that the autonomous region has enjoyed.
In response, Britain has promised to allow Hong Kong residents to travel to there on British National Overseas passports — a right granted when Britain gave Hong Kong back to China in 1997. China fears this could undercut Hong Kong’s position as a global financial hub and lead to a brain drain.
While tensions with China are high throughout much of Europe, Germany and France have not deviated from their plans to include Huawei in their 5G networks.
In June, German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom announced it was making 5G available to millions of people in the country in cooperation with Huawei, but it added that it excludes Huawei technology from its most critical networks. Several other German telecommunications providers had previously also said they would cooperate with Huawei on their 5G plans, even though some members of Germany’s coalition government remain critical of or outright opposed to Chinese involvement.
French authorities have taken a middle path, urging operators who do not use Huawei not to and issuing time-limited certifications for those who already do to continue their contracts with the firm.
“What I can say is that there will not be a total ban,” Guillaume Poupard, the director general of France’s National Information Systems Security Agency, told France’s Les Echos newspaper.
Poupard added that telecom companies that already use Huawei would be allowed to continue doing so for periods that would vary between three and eight years.
French firms such as SFR and Bouygues Telecom already use Huawei and are keen to rely on it as they move into 5G, and they have told French authorities they expect compensation if the government ultimately prohibits them from doing so.
James McAuley in Paris and Rick Noack in Berlin contributed to this report.