British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has waded into the Huawei row and the fallout could threaten the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing pact.
In a television interview, he challenged opponents to suggest an “alternative” to 5G technology linked to China’s telecom giant as the United Kingdom prepares for next-generation online networks.
“The British public deserves to have access to the best possible technology. I have talked about infrastructure and technology. We want to put in gigabit broadband for everybody,” Johnson said.
“Now, if people oppose one brand or another, then they have to tell us which is the alternative,” he told the BBC.
Officials in the United States believe Huawei’s employees could end up spying for Beijing under Chinese law covering the operations of state and private organizations.
Since the UK is part of the “Five Eyes” intel group, which also includes the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the issue has become a highly controversial topic in diplomatic circles.
“[Using Huawei] would be nothing short of madness,” a US official told The Guardian newspaper in London.
So far, the US and Australia have banned their 5G providers from using the group on security grounds.
But New Zealand named Huawei as one of its three preferred 5G suppliers in November, while Canada has yet to make a decision about signing up with the privately-owned Shenzhen-based company.
Last year, then British PM Theresa May concluded that using Huawei in some “non-core” parts of the 5G network would be acceptable after a report from UK security services.
“Let’s be clear, I don’t want, as the UK prime minister, to put in any infrastructure that is going to prejudice our national security or our ability to cooperate with Five Eyes intelligence partners,” Johnson said.
The debate about Huawei has dragged on for more than a year with the UK Foreign Office revealing on Tuesday that a decision would be announced “in due course.”
Still, Johnson’s remarks came a day after a US delegation arrived in London for talks aimed at persuading his government to boycott the firm.
Washington fears that Beijing could blackmail countries by instructing Huawei to shut down 5G communications if China was involved in a conflict with a rival nation. The Communist Party-ruled government and Huawei have denied the accusation.
While a pariah in the US, the company founded by former People’s Liberation Army officer Ren Zhengfei is forging ahead of its Western rivals such as Ericsson and Nokia.
Nearly half of the group’s 65 commercial deals for ultra-fast 5G networks are with European customers, despite its alleged ties with Beijing.
Up to three-quarters of the 400,000 base stations that Huawei has sold have also been signed off after the Washington ban.
“We are confident that the UK Government will make a decision based upon evidence, as opposed to unsubstantiated allegations,” Huawei Vice-President Victor Zhang said in a statement. “[We] look forward to supplying the best technologies that help companies like BT and Vodafone fulfill the government’s commitment to making gigabit broadband available to all.”
To add to the uncertainty, MI5 chief Andrew Parker made a rare public comment when he came in from the cold. The head of the domestic security agency told the Financial Times newspaper there was “no reason … to think” that Washington would stop sharing intelligence with the UK if Huawei was selected as part of the 5G launch.
But that might not play well in the White House. As one US delegation official pointed out:
“[President] Donald Trump is watching closely.”