This was the week Britain broke not only with Europe but also with the United States. Its exit Friday from the European Union had become inevitable after Boris Johnson’s electoral landslide last month. But the Johnson government also decided to defy Washington and this week approved the use of Chinese technology as part of its 5G network.
The long-term consequences of both decisions are far from clear. The future relationship between Britain and Europe will be determined in negotiations that are likely to last for months, if not years. The impact of allowing Huawei technologies into its next-generation cellular network also will take time to digest. But there are reasons to worry that it will have major consequences — not just for London’s relationship with Washington but also for how the increasing U.S.-China competition in digital and other technologies will unfold.
On Tuesday, Britain announced that it would allow Huawei to supply “noncore” technologies, such as antennas and base stations, as part of its 5G network, while capping its overall share of the market at 35%. The decision was not unexpected. Huawei technology has been an integral part of Britain’s 3G and 4G networks, and the British government has worked closely with the Chinese company to ensure the security of its communications infrastructure. Its incorporation into 5G will both help reduce the cost to consumers and enable the deployment of the super-fast technology sooner than if Huawei were banned as part of the 5G rollout.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have technological progress here in the U.K.,” Boris Johnson said in explaining his decision, and “allow consumers, businesses in the U.K. to have access to fantastic technology, fantastic communications.”
Indeed, 5G will be transformative for society, fueling the “internet of things,” self-driving cars, smart cities and so much more. Countries left behind in the race to deploy the new technology will suffer economically and in other ways.
At the same time, 5G also poses critical challenges to the security of these networks and the infrastructure that is increasingly reliant upon it. Although a private company, Huawei is closely connected to the Chinese government, which has practiced little restraint when it comes to penetrating foreign networks, stealing government records and proprietary data. In the wrong hands, the very transformative nature of 5G would bestow great power and could create massive vulnerabilities.
That is why the Trump administration has pressed its allies and partners not to allow Huawei to participate in the construction of any part of their 5G networks, claiming that it would make them vulnerable to Chinese interference, if not control.
Washington has been particularly concerned about Britain, with which it has had a close intelligence relationship for more than 80 years. London’s decision brings that relationship, which stands at the core of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership (which also includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand), into question. While British intelligence officials have maintained that they can secure sensitive communications even with a limited Huawei role in 5G, the White House has rejected that argument and warned that doing so would affect America’s ability to continue sharing sensitive intelligence.
Yet, the fallout of Johnson’s decision is unlikely to be limited to London’s intelligence relationship with Washington alone. While Australia decided last year to exclude Huawei technology from its 5G network, Canada and New Zealand were waiting on London’s decision and may now follow its lead, thus splitting the Five Eyes coalition in two. As pressure mounts not to be left behind in the 5G race, other nations, including Germany, France and others in Europe, may now follow in London’s footsteps and opt for Huawei.
Washington’s concerns about the vulnerability of networks to Chinese interference and spying are well founded. 5G technologies are far more integrated than previous generations of cellular networks, and Chinese firms, even if privately owned, operate in a different environment than U.S. and other Western firms.
But the Trump administration’s reliance on threats was wrongheaded. One reason is the lack of near-term, affordable alternatives to Huawei’s technology. It’s hard to convince a country to forgo something that’s cheap and works if the alternatives are neither. True, Huawei benefits from state support, but that suggests similar coordinated support to develop non-Chinese alternatives might have been useful — and still could be, as London stressed in announcing its decision.
Another reason is that threatening allies just doesn’t work. It backfires. It would have been far better if the administration had sought to work with its allies and partners to develop rules on what technologies are acceptable, offered combined support for non-Chinese technology development and drawn up standards for securing networks from outside interference.
The way to win the technology competition with China is by working with — rather than against — allies and partners. Britain’s decision makes it more urgent than ever that Washington do so now.
Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.