Features

Britain opens itself up to China

But in the case of its embrace of Huawei’s telecoms gear, is that wise? Emily Hohler reports.

945-Hammond-634
Hammond: "quite prepared to grovel" to China

On 24 April, news was leaked that the UK government had decided to allow non-core parts of the UK's 5G network to be built by the Chinese telecoms equipment maker, Huawei. Robert Strayer, US deputy assistant secretary of state for cyber policy, warned allies that if they used "untrusted suppliers" to build new telecom networks, Washington would have to "reassess the ability for us to share information".

Britain's decision is significant because it is a member of the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing alliance led by the US, completed by Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Huawei is already blocked from developing 5G networks in the US, Australia and New Zealand, and Canada is considering it too. Japan and Taiwan are similarly unconvinced by Huawei's denials that it is "controlled by the state or that its kit could be used to spy", says the Financial Times.

Justifiable concerns

Britain, however, has "long-argued that such threats can be managed without banning Huawei outright" and this is sensible. Blocking Huawei does "relatively little" to eliminate the risk of cyberattacks because hackers usually gain access to networks via flaws in software coding. Hence Russia's ability to "cause mayhem" despite its lack of a commercial role in Western telecoms networks.

A ban would also carry "geopolitical costs. If an open system for global commerce is to be saved, a framework has to be built for countries to engage economically even if they are rivals." A ban by a few American allies "risks splitting the world into two blocs" (Huawei says it has signed 40 5G contracts, more than half in Europe). Britain has had a system for vetting Huawei's systems and software since 2010. This should continue. And if Huawei falls short of Britain'shigh standards, "it is easy to switch firms".A "u-turn is always possible".

Really, asks Charles Parton in the FT? "When its equipment is embedded? At what financial cost? And at what political cost with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?" There's also the fact that experts, including the head of the Australian equivalent of GCHQ, say it's "not safe to distinguish between core and periphery". On top of that, Huawei's technical performance is "lamentable". "Its deficiencies are ripe for hackers to exploit."

Maybe, but other major suppliers, including Cisco Systems and Nokia, have been found to have backdoors or software vulnerabilities too, says Leonid Bershidsky on Bloomberg. The difference is that they are expected to deal with these issues as best they can, at their own pace. That is no longer the case with Huawei, which is "held to impossible standards".

It's about values, says Edward Lucas in The Times. "On most fronts Britain is quite prepared to grovel." Philip Hammond has just flown to Beijing to seek a role for British firms in reviving China's "faltering" Belt and Road initiative. In "any bilateral negotiations, a country of our size will start from a position of weakness. But the danger is not just of a hard-pressed and isolated Britain being bossed around by China's Communist Party. Our stance also costs us support among our closest friends and neighbours, which want to take a tougher line. In short, we abandon our principles and allies in order to put ourselves at the mercy of a dictatorship."

Recommended

Inflation is the easiest way out of this – just don’t expect politicians to admit it
Inflation

Inflation is the easiest way out of this – just don’t expect politicians to admit it

The UK government borrowed £34.1bn in December, a record amount for that month. Britain's debt pile now amounts to 100% of GDP. How are we going to pa…
22 Jan 2021
Inflation looks likely to take off this year – but there’s one key risk
Inflation

Inflation looks likely to take off this year – but there’s one key risk

With the world’s governments spending money hand over fist, inflation looks certain to take off at some point. But China could change all that. John S…
19 Jan 2021
Why we won’t see a house-price crash in 2021
House prices

Why we won’t see a house-price crash in 2021

Lockdown sent house prices berserk as cooped up home-workers fled for bigger properties in the country. And while they won’t rise quite as much this y…
18 Jan 2021
A beginner’s guide to inflation – everything you need to know
Inflation

A beginner’s guide to inflation – everything you need to know

One of the most frequently mentioned topics in the news these days is inflation. But what exactly is inflation and how does it affect the economy and …
18 Jan 2021

Most Popular

Why we won’t see a house-price crash in 2021
House prices

Why we won’t see a house-price crash in 2021

Lockdown sent house prices berserk as cooped up home-workers fled for bigger properties in the country. And while they won’t rise quite as much this y…
18 Jan 2021
Inflation is the easiest way out of this – just don’t expect politicians to admit it
Inflation

Inflation is the easiest way out of this – just don’t expect politicians to admit it

The UK government borrowed £34.1bn in December, a record amount for that month. Britain's debt pile now amounts to 100% of GDP. How are we going to pa…
22 Jan 2021
When will the US stockmarket bubble burst?
US stockmarkets

When will the US stockmarket bubble burst?

With US stocks more expensive than before the Wall Street crash of 1929, there are growing signs of “mania”. But what will push markets over the edge?
22 Jan 2021