This afternoon Boris Johnson finally approved the use of equipment made by Huawei in building parts of Britain’s 5G network. The decision is a long time coming, having initially been kicked into the long grass by Theresa May last year, but it is also important. The decision will have profound strategic implications for the UK for years to come.
Why such a big deal? 5G is the next generation of mobile phone technology. It is faster and more reliable than the 4G most of us are still using. And crucially, the technology isn’t just about improving our phones, as 5G chips will connect pretty much everything, from driverless cars, to electricity grids, to the emergency services. It’s conceivable that in the not too distant future, we won’t have to lay underground cables to connect to the internet, as 5G will be as fast and reliable as any wired connection.
What this means is that the 5G network will be a crucial piece of national infrastructure. Just as we worry about the water supply and the national grid, as our lives become dependent on 5G connectivity, it will be essential that it functions effectively and doesn’t go down.
The worry with Huawei is that it is a Chinese company that is believed to have close links to the Chinese government. So by using Huawei equipment in our 5G infrastructure, are we inadvertently handing China an enormous 'off' switch for our communications?
The hawkish argument is, in my view, a compelling one. China is a strategic rival to the West, and along with Russia is the most likely adversary in any future 'great power' dispute. If we did enter into a conflict, or even a much lower intensity disagreement like a trade war, China could use our Huawei infrastructure as leverage. Viewed through this strategic lens, this decision can be thought of in similar terms as the control of the Strait of Hormuz or the range of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.
In the case of trade disputes, we have already seen something like this in reverse: when Donald Trump imposed trade sanctions with China on US companies, Huawei itself was profoundly impacted. It found itself unable to use American components, such as Google’s Android operating system, in the phones it manufactures – a major problem for the world’s second largest phone manufacturer. And this wasn’t just a business problem for Huawei or an economic one for China – millions of Huawei handsets in use around the world may have been unable to receive software updates that keep them safe from the bugs and security holes that hackers like to exploit.
So imagine some future dispute where China itself imposes restrictions on Huawei, because it doesn’t want Britain using the company’s cutting-edge technology. This would mean that the company would be unable to maintain its hardware in the UK, leaving security holes unpatched on our 5G network.
Similarly, it’s easy to imagine something similar to what Edward Snowden exposed in the US. But instead of the US government – our ally – leaning on US tech companies to provide backdoors into their apps (which was a bad precedent, but that’s another story), it would be the Chinese government leaning on Huawei to grant access to data flowing through Huawei hardware, for surveillance purposes.
Given the great power politics then, you could be forgiven for wondering why are we even using Huawei equipment in the first place? The reality is that ultimately, whichever side of the argument you come down on, there is a real trade-off at the heart of it.
Unfortunately for the West, Huawei is arguably the best manufacturer of 5G equipment: it can provide better hardware more cheaply than its rivals. So choosing to skip Huawei would have made rolling out 5G more expensive. Similarly, given the benefits that the new technology will deliver, any delays to the 5G rollout as a result of restrictions would have put Britain at a competitive disadvantage compared to other countries happy to embrace Huawei.
And then there’s another hard-nosed reason for allowing Huawei in: if we stop Huawei here, we risk western companies getting shut out of China – which aside from the economic impact, could also impact any spy tech we’ve currently got baked into China’s vital systems.
Ultimately, Britain is caught between two powers. Banning it could have cost Britain’s relations with China, and delayed the benefits of 5G in the medium term. While the US is lobbying its allies hard to ban Huawei, meaning that allowing the technology now could impact our relations with the United States.