Boris Johnson’s government has put itself on a collision course with the US after approving the limited use of Huawei technology in the UK’s 5G telecoms networks.
The UK National Security Council gave the go-ahead to Huawei on Tuesday but has limited the Chinese company to a market share of 35 per cent and will exclude its equipment from the sensitive network “core”.
The decision came despite repeated warnings from the US that allowing Huawei equipment into the UK 5G rollout would put Britain at risk from spying by the Chinese company.
However, in a concession to White House concerns, ministers have agreed to work with partners in the Five Eyes alliance of the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to develop alternative telecoms suppliers. The ultimate aim is to have “no high-risk vendors in the system”, according to officials briefed on the meeting.
The NSC has also stipulated that Huawei will be banned from sensitive sites such as nuclear power stations and military bases. In a statement, officials said the measures taken would enable the UK to mitigate the potential risks posed by the supply chain and to combat the range of threats, “whether cyber criminals, or state sponsored attacks”.
Nicky Morgan, UK digital and culture secretary, said that world-class connectivity “must not be at the expense of our national security”.
“High-risk vendors never have been and never will be in our most sensitive networks,” she added. “[This decision] not only paves the way for secure and resilient networks, with our sovereignty over data protected, but it also builds on our strategy to develop a diversity of suppliers.”
Ciaran Martin, head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, a branch of GCHQ, said he had issued advice to telecoms network operators “to help with the industry rollout of 5G and full fibre networks”.
The decision sets up a confrontation with Washington, which has consistently warned that allowing the Chinese company to play a role in 5G infrastructure would compromise British sovereignty. US officials have said that Huawei equipment could be used by Beijing as a “back door” to spy on UK communications.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who is due to arrive in London for talks with Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, on Wednesday, said ahead of the announcement that the NSC faced a “momentous” decision. Senior administration officials have threatened that a post-Brexit trade deal could be compromised if the UK went ahead with Huawei technology.
While the US has also warned that the deal could prevent intelligence-sharing between Britain and its Five Eyes partners, Andrew Parker, director-general of MI5, told the Financial Times earlier this month he had “no reason to think” this would be the case. Of the Five Eyes nations, Australia has already bowed to US pressure by completely banning Huawei from its 5G networks but Canada and New Zealand are yet to reach a decision. It is thought they may follow Britain’s lead.
Huawei welcomed the UK government decision, saying it would keep the rollout of 5G technology on track.
“This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future. It gives the UK access to world-leading technology and ensures a competitive market,” said Victor Zhang, Huawei vice-president.
A number of senior Conservative MPs expressed concerns about the prospect of a Huawei deal in the House of Commons on Monday.
Iain Duncan Smith, former Conservative party leader, said it was “utterly bizarre” to be considering giving Huawei the go-ahead, while Tom Tugendhat, former chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, warned that the UK would be “allowing the fox into the hen house” if it struck a deal with the Chinese company.