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Feb 18, 2019 | 21:39 GMT

4 mins read

U.K.: London Signals a Challenge to Washington's Hard Line on Huawei

(Stratfor)
The Big Picture

Huawei has grown in strength to become one of the world's most important telecommunications companies. But as the firm strives to participate in the rollout of 5G networks around the world, some Western countries — particularly the United States — have expressed concerns that its technology could open a back door to Chinese espionage. New findings in the United Kingdom, however, appear to challenge the U.S. stance that Huawei represents a clear and present danger.

What Happened

Two trans-Atlantic allies might soon be coming to a head over Huawei. On Feb. 17, the British National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) downplayed the alleged dangers of using 5G network gear from the Chinese tech giant on the country's telecommunications infrastructure, concluding that it was possible to mitigate the risks that equipment made by the company might pose. The cybersecurity authority has yet to publish its findings, yet it has conspicuously refrained from denying reports about the conclusion. The authority's report follows recent comments by the former head of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Robert Hannigan, who said the NCSC had never discovered "any malicious Chinese state cyber activity through Huawei." Echoing his optimistic view was Alex Younger, the head of British foreign intelligence service MI6, who suggested late last week that the United Kingdom could take a softer line on Huawei than the United States.

Why It Matters

London's attitude to Huawei will represent a major blow to Washington's efforts to beat back the Chinese firm's technological advances and expansion overseas. The United States has repeatedly sought to persuade its allies to avoid using Huawei on its 5G network projects on the grounds that the company's hardware could provide a channel for the Chinese state to conduct espionage. The NCSC's findings, however, indicate that U.S. worries may be grounded more in political considerations than genuine security concerns. 

Although the United Kingdom's stance on Huawei could persuade other countries in Europe to allow Huawei to provide hardware for their own 5G networks, London's move could prompt an angry response from Washington, which has made no secret of its desire to curtail the firm's expansion overseas in parallel with the larger great power competition and trade war with Beijing. As a result, the United States could take action against any allies refusing to block Huawei or other Chinese telecommunications companies from participating in their 5G networks.

To London, alienating Beijing at a time when it is negotiating Brexit — and, thus, considering China as an important potential market — is counterproductive.

Background

The United Kingdom operates the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre Oversight Board, one of the world's most stringent monitoring programs for the tech firm. The board, which is run by Huawei's British subsidiary under the aegis of the GCHQ, has rarely identified any problem with the Chinese company in the past, apart from a report last year that raised concerns regarding two technical issues. Ultimately, the oversight board did not accuse Huawei of engaging in malicious activity, noting only that it was unsure as to whether the company had taken sufficient steps to mitigate the problem.

The United Kingdom has traditionally offered one of the more open business environments for China. And while it may be wary of Huawei, the United Kingdom has demonstrated its willingness to work with the company, as evidenced by its collaboration with the oversight board. To London, alienating Beijing at a time when it is negotiating Brexit — and, thus, considering China as an important potential market — is counterproductive.

The oversight board is expected to release a report stating that Huawei has yet to address the concerns from last year, although the company told British parliamentarians earlier this year that it has earmarked $2 billion to rectify the problems within three to five years. British concerns notwithstanding, Huawei's future in the United Kingdom is rosier than before — even if London's actions on the company are likely to raise Washington's ire.

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