Boris Johnson has paved the way for Chinese firm Huawei to have a limited role in the UK’s 5G network, in a move that sets up a diplomatic clash with the US.
The National Security Council chaired by the Prime Minister in Downing Street for less than 90 minutes on Tuesday decided that “high-risk vendors” should be permitted to play a peripheral role in the network.
But advice issued to telecoms operators by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said such vendors should be barred from all safety-related and critical networks.
Huawei Statement Regarding UK 5G Decision from Victor Zhang, Vice-President, Huawei. pic.twitter.com/PGyvJN1Vns
— HuaweiUK (@HuaweiUK) January 28, 2020
They will also be excluded from security critical “core” functions, and sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases.
High-risk firms will also have their presence limited to no more than 35% in the periphery of the network, known as the access network, which connects devices and equipment to mobile phone masts.
The decision sets the PM up for a clash with many Tory MPs as well as the US, where President Donald Trump’s administration has lobbied against the UK allowing Huawei access.
As it takes on China in a trade war, the US has warned that British sovereignty would be put at risk by the move, and has issued threats over an impact on intelligence sharing.
Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang welcomed the UK’s decision for the company with close ties to the Chinese state.
“Huawei is reassured by the UK Government’s confirmation that we can continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track,” he said.
“This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future.”
Culture Secretary Baroness Morgan vowed that upgrades would “not be at the expense of our national security”.
“The Government has reviewed the supply chain for telecoms networks and concluded today it is necessary to have tight restrictions on the presence of high-risk vendors,” she said.
“This is a UK-specific solution for UK-specific reasons and the decision deals with the challenges we face right now.
“It 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.”
NCSC chief executive Ciaran Martin said the guidance would ensure the UK has a “very strong, practical and technically sound framework for digital security in the years ahead”.
“High-risk vendors have never been – and never will be – in our most sensitive networks,” he added.
“Taken together, these measures add up to a very strong framework for digital security.”
In its evaluation, the NCSC said that without Government intervention, commercial factors could cause the UK to become “nationally dependent” on Huawei within three years, which would be a “significant national security risk”.
But it said placing “backdoors” in Huawei equipment would not be the “lowest risk, easiest to perform or most effective means for the Chinese state to perform a major cyber attack on UK telecoms networks today”.
If they do not come sooner, clashes with the US are likely to arrive with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who is in London on Wednesday and is due to meet Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
Mr Pompeo had made a last-ditch plea to ministers to reject Huawei when making the “momentous” decision, which he said threatens UK sovereignty.
The immediate reaction from Washington was negative, with senior Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney claiming Mr Johnson had “chosen the surveillance state over the special relationship”.
By allowing Huawei into U.K. 5G network, @BorisJohnson has chosen the surveillance state over the special relationship.
Tragic to see our closest ally, a nation Ronald Reagan once called “incandescent with courage,” turn away from our alliance and the cause of freedom. @UKinUSA
— Rep. Liz Cheney (@RepLizCheney) January 28, 2020
“Tragic to see our closest ally, a nation Ronald Reagan once called ‘incandescent with courage’ turn away from our alliance and the cause of freedom,” she said.
Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik blasted the move as “wrong, dangerous, and a grave shortsighted mistake”.
Among the Tories issuing stark warnings ahead of the decision was former party leader Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, who said it was “utterly bizarre” to be considering giving Huawei the green light.
Senior MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the last parliament, said the decision left “many concerns” and “does not close the UK’s networks to a frequently malign international actor”.
1. As the UK’s 4G networks rely on Huawei, achieving zero presence today would be near impossible so the reduction to 35% is welcome. But will this reduce over time to wean operators off the Chinese provider or will 35% be an enduring figure? 2/8
— Tom Tugendhat (@TomTugendhat) January 28, 2020
But Confederation of British Industry policy director Matthew Fell said: “This solution appears a sensible compromise that gives the UK access to cutting-edge technology, whilst building in appropriate checks and balances around security.”
How the UK would react to US warnings was predicted as having international significance, with the Trump administration urging allies in the Five Eyes intelligence community including Canada, Australia and New Zealand not to use the company, arguing it is a security threat.
But Mr Johnson told reporters on Monday: “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have technological progress here in the UK, allow consumers, businesses in the UK to have access to fantastic technology, fantastic communications, but also protect our security interests and protect our key partnerships with other security powers around the world.”
The implementation of 5G is expected to bring with it download speeds 10 times faster than what 4G currently offers.