One company is at the centre of the current battle for influence between the United States and China: Huawei. But efforts by US officials to counter Beijing’s presence in Europe will be taken to a whole new level today and over the next three days.
The US national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, landed in Paris yesterday to attend bilateral meetings with his European counterparts, including Sir Mark Sedwill, currently Britain’s most senior security official. At the top of O’Brien’s agenda is getting European countries to remove Huawei technology from their 5G networks.
While some countries like France are not banning Huawei’s equipment but encouraging operators not to use it, others such as Spain will continue to rely on Huawei 5G software after the Spanish national intelligence service certified it as safe and compliant with existing law.
Meanwhile, central and eastern European nations such as Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Estonia have all pledged not to allow Huawei access to their markets, alleging fears of foreign state interference and aligning with the US position against the Chinese sphere of influence.
Back in Britain, a government statement is expected to say today that no new Huawei 5G equipment can be installed after 2021, requiring the debarring of all existing 5G software later, possibly by 2025. The move marks a drastic shift in the UK’s policy towards the Chinese tech giant, having initially allowed it to take part in the country’s 5G development in January.
The decision back then went against Washington’s warnings of “back door” spying on UK communications by Beijing and eroded trust between both countries, putting any co-operation, nay trade agreement, at risk. It also found opposition at home among rebel Conservative MPs, who have in recent days called on prime minister Boris Johnson to set the removal deadline before the next election in 2024 or face revolt.
Now Britain is set to take a harsher stance towards Huawei with plans to unite the so-called “Five Eyes” security partners – the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – to find joint ways of investing, procuring and researching a fast track for Huawei’s rivals.
However, this won’t be an easy decision for the UK government, as alternatives will come with much higher costs and delays in 5G rollout. What’s more, BT’s chief executive, Philip Jansen, told the BBC yesterday that removing Huawei from the UK’s telecoms infrastructure in under 10 years would be “impossible”, with service blackouts likely to happen if BT is forced to pull out the Chinese firm’s 5G kit too quickly.
With a no-deal Brexit looming on the horizon and post-pandemic economic recovery projected to be sluggish, Johnson’s government is bound to make many crucial decisions with very little time.