What to Watch: Transatlantic Takes on the U.K. Huawei Decision
After the United Kingdom’s announcement that it will allow Huawei into parts of its 5G telecommunications network, the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program and Alliance for Securing Democracy are weighing in on the implications of the decision from a transatlantic perspective.
After the Decision, What Key Questions Should Be Asked Next?
Julie Smith (Director, Asia and Future of Geopolitics programs – Washington)
Today the United Kingdom announced that it would not ban Huawei from building at least some elements of its next-generation telecommunications network. As a “high risk” vendor, Huawei will be excluded from critical networks and sensitive locations such as military bases and nuclear sites. However, the company will be allowed to build “non-core” elements of the country’s 5G network. The decision attempts to thread the needle between pressure from the United States to ban Huawei and pressure from China to keep the door open. But it also raises important questions. First, how will the United States respond? The Trump administration threatened to alter intelligence-sharing agreements if the United Kingdom went with Huawei. It is not clear whether the president will follow through or declare victory because of the new limits the United Kingdom has put on Huawei. Second, how will the U.K. decision affect other European countries, notably Germany, which plans to make its own decision on 5G in the coming months? Berlin will no doubt be monitoring U.S. responses closely.
Political Ripple Effects Across Europe
Andrew Small (Senior Fellow, Asia Program)
The United Kingdom’s decision on Huawei’s presence in its 5G networks will clearly have political ripple effects. If it appears that the United States is willing to live with one of its closest allies including Huawei in the network edge, there is a risk that others—not least Germany—will see this as a “compromise” model to replicate. But U.K. officials were at pains today to stress that others should not necessarily follow their country’s example. The sheer level of resources and expertise the United Kingdom devotes to the task of risk mitigation for high-risk vendors is not one that other countries are willing or able to match, and there are still serious doubts among other Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States—as to whether even this will prove effective.
The 5G debates elsewhere in Europe have also moved on considerably in recent months: away from narrow, technical questions around backdoors and “smoking guns” to take into account a wider array of considerations about Europe’s digital sovereignty and industrial future, and the systemic challenge that the Chinese party-state poses. The fallout from the United Kingdom’s decision—and especially the United States’ reaction—will be watched closely, but there is still every prospect that the rest of Europe can treat the country as a unique case.
Squaring an Impossible Circle: The Security Risks of 5G
Lindsay Gorman (Emerging Technologies Fellow, Alliance for Securing Democracy)
Today’s decision to allow Huawei into parts of the United Kingdom’s 5G telecommunications networks opens the door to increasing influence, interference, and theft by the Chinese Communist Party. After two years of deliberations and warnings from U.S. officials, the United Kingdom is trying to “hedge” its bets: its solution will keep Huawei out of sensitive military and nuclear facilities but allow it to operate in 35 percent of national networks. It is trying to square an impossible circle. The United States threatened to restrict intelligence sharing with the United Kingdom if it allows Huawei access into any part of its network, a move that would have serious implications for their “special relationship” and the broader Five Eyes intelligence partnership.
But the risks of authoritarian telecom are not limited to intelligence collection and espionage. The world is entering an era in which influence and control are not just about hard military power, but also about strength in cyberspace. The 5G networks underpin the future of every major industry, from self-driving cars to smart refrigerators to virtual personal assistants. Economic espionage and intellectual-property theft, internet disruptions over geopolitical disputes, and the collection of personal data are all on the table. Why the United Kingdom would trust a company that helps police forces in Xinjiang surveil and detain the Uighur population to ferry its own country’s information is a head-scratcher.
What the United Kingdom (and Others) Should Consider
Kristine Berzina (Senior Fellow, Alliance for Securing Democracy) and Nada Kovalcikova (Program Manager, Alliance for Securing Democracy) – Brussels
The United Kingdom’s decision to allow Huawei in its 5G network, even if with a limited role, ignores the technology’s transformative nature as well as U.S. security warnings. Government decisions on 5G infrastructure investments should minimize the role of high-risk vendors. Now that Huawei will be in the United Kingdom’s network, it will be especially important for the country to diversify the rest of its supply chain.
If the United Kingdom and other European countries want to preserve security in strategic technological areas, they need to push for clear standards for suppliers. This is the approach the European Commission is taking on 5G and, more broadly, through the adoption foreign investment screening mechanisms for strategic sectors. European countries and their allies should support these critical standards to mitigate potential longer-term security risks. Such a united approach would also send an important sign to the United States that its security concerns are taken seriously.
As other European states ponder their 5G decisions, they should ask themselves several questions. What are the security risks and how equipped are they to mitigate them? How reliant will they grow on this technology across all areas of their economies—basically, how is 5G different from 4G and earlier technologies? And to what extent are the United States’ warnings truly a matter of security rather than part of President Donald Trump’s trade agenda with China?
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.