In January 2020, the UK had given a go-ahead to Chinese telecom giant Huawei to participate in its 5G network – with restrictions and conditions. The Trump administration conveyed its displeasure to the Boris Johnson administration. Not just the US President, but senior officials of the US administration are supposed to have said that this decision would impact economic and security relations between the UK and the US.
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, ties between the UK and China have steadily deteriorated. As a result of increasing strains with Beijing, and the imposition of strong US sanctions against Huawei, London began to rethink its approach towards Huawei’s role in its 5G network.
First, it was decided that Huawei’s participation would be reduced to zero by 2023. In May, Britain had also proposed a multilateral grouping of 10 countries, D10 (G7+ India, South Korea and Australia), which could work collectively for reducing dependence upon Chinese technologies.
UK-China ties after the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong
London further hardened its stance vis-à-vis China after the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, which, according to the UK, is a violation of the ‘one country two systems’ arrangement safeguarded by the ‘Basic law’ of Hong Kong and the Sino-British joint declaration signed in 1985. According to the Boris Johnson administration, the National Security Law will impinge upon not just the autonomy of Hong Kong but freedoms and rights of the residents of the former British colony, guaranteed by the 1985 declaration (these rights were to remain in place for a period of fifty years from 1997 – the year in which British left Hong Kong and handed over sovereignty to China).
Decision regarding Huawei
On July 14, 2020, on the recommendation of National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the Boris Johnson administration decided that Huawei will be removed from the 5G network by 2027. It was also decided that the purchase of 5G kits from Huawei will not be allowed after the end of December 2020.
China reacted strongly to the UK’s recent announcement, while it was welcomed by US President Donald Trump. China stated that the UK’s decision will exacerbate tensions, while the US President stated that the Johnson administration took this decision as a result of pressure from Washington. A top official in Boris Johnson’s administration stated that this decision was not driven by US pressure. Said the British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab:
But I think that decision was made not because the US said it was a good decision but because the leadership in the UK concluded the right thing to do was to make that decision for the people of the UK.
Interestingly, some media reports suggest that British officials have stated that the recent ban on Huawei was imposed with a view to placate Trump, and the UK could revise its decision, if the mercurial US President is voted out in November 2020.
Britain has already begun to look for alternatives to Huawei for developing its 5G network. On July 16, 2020, just two days after the decision was taken to remove the Chinese telecom giant altogether by 2027, British officials are supposed to have met with their Japanese counterparts and sought assistance for developing Britain’s 5G network. Two companies which were discussed as possible alternatives to Huawei were NEC Corp and Fujitsu Limited.
It would be pertinent to point out that in recent months Britain has been aiming to strengthen trade ties with Japan, and is also looking to secure a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Japan. Both countries have also been at the forefront of pitching for diversifying global supply chains.
While it remains to be seen whether Britain and Japan can work together for developing the former’s 5G network, the London-Tokyo relationship has witnessed an upswing in the aftermath of Covid-19. Both countries have already begun to take steps for reducing economic reliance on China. It would be interesting to see if Britain sticks to its announcement of removing Huawei from its 5G network by 2027, in case Donald Trump loses in 2020. While Britain is seeking to strengthen ties with countries wary of China’s increasing economic dominance, the former would not likely to be perceived as a mere appendage of Washington.