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Facing More Pressure from Washington, Britain Pushes Back on Huawei Dependence

By Adam Xu June 05, 2020

The Trump administration's campaign to keep Chinese tech giant Huawei out of its allies' 5G networks appears to be gaining ground in Britain.

Last year the British government concluded that although Huawei posed a "significantly increased risk" to British communications, the government decided to ban Huawei only from the country's so-called network "core," but otherwise allow it to attain up to 35% of Britain's 5G network market.

That position changed after months of lobbying by U.S. officials, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last month that the country was examining possibilities for completely excluding Huawei from its 5G network by 2023.

Now, British officials are trying to forge an alliance of 10 democracies to develop their own 5G technology and reduce dependence on the Chinese firm.

Experts say Britain's change of attitude is partly due to concerns that refusing to cooperate with the U.S. on Huawei will pose a threat to intelligence sharing and joint defense capabilities with its major ally.

Others caution it's unlikely that the new alliance will become a reality since telecom operators in European countries are unwilling to "rip and replace" Huawei components from their communications systems because of the high cost, and are lobbying their own governments to make sure Huawei remains an approved vendor.

'D10' club of democratic partners

The countries in the group are the G7 countries – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.S. – plus Australia, South Korea and India. The proposal includes providing financial support to tech companies within the alliance.

Justin Sherman, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Cyber Statecraft Initiative, said that Huawei's major competitors, Finland's Nokia and Sweden's Ericsson, are both unable to attract enough capital to compete with Huawei's massive 5G network infrastructure division, which gets financial support from the Chinese government.

"So there are lots of fronts on which this democratic coalition could presumably work, including more robust government investment in 5G research and development projects domestically, greater advocacy for open 5G standards in international bodies to contest the proprietary standards that Huawei continues to advance, or even the development of some kind of industrial policy to help promote 5G innovation," Sherman told VOA Mandarin.

U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who is one of Huawei's leading critics in Washington, warned the British Parliament on Tuesday that China was trying to use the telecom equipment maker "to drive a high-tech wedge between us."

He added that the U.S., Britain and other allies could team up to develop their own superior 5G technologies.

Meanwhile, the White House launched a major review of Chinese penetration of Britain's defense architecture on May 4.

Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program with Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an analysis that the British defense community understood a possible downgrade to U.S.-Britain security cooperation was "very real."

She said that the implications of this could have led Washington to withdraw RC-135 spy planes from Britain, a possible reduction in the 10,000 U.S. military personnel based in the United Kingdom, and new limits on sharing certain intelligence assets.

European telecom operators disagree

Atlantic Council's Sherman said the Trump administration's strategy is to continue pressuring firms that are doing business with Huawei, in the hopes that countries turn away from the company altogether.

That goal remains highly uncertain.

Germany, France and Italy are still vague about whether they will exclude Huawei from their 5G networks, India has allowed Huawei to participate in its 5G pilot zones since last December, and South Korea has criticized the United States' recent semiconductor ban on Huawei as "unacceptable."

Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE), told VOA Mandarin that telecom operators in Europe are reluctant to give up on Huawei.

"The telecom industry operators are very sympathetic to Huawei for natural reasons … 70% of the telecom base stations in Germany, in France, are made by Huawei," he told VOA.

Lee-Makiyama added that telecom operators in Europe are owned by financial institutions, pension funds or governments, which means they are not as interested in investing in new networks or reinvesting in high-end networks.

"5G for them is just a cost," he said.

He also pointed out that compared to the U.S. and Asian countries, the demand of European telecom users is not as high.

"Consumers are not demanding higher speed. Shareholders prefer to see dividends rather than investments in the networks," said Lee-Makiyama. "So, all in all, they are big fans of Chinese suppliers and they are lobbying very hard against their governments to make sure that Huawei continues to be allowed in the European markets."

Chuanqi Xu and Lin Yang contributed to this report.

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