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Johnson set to bar Huawei from Britain’s 5G network

Gavin Cordon, PA Whitehall Editor
·4-min read

Boris Johnson is set to bar the Chinese tech giant Huawei from playing any role in Britain’s 5G network, triggering a renewed clash with Beijing.

The Prime Minister is chairing a meeting on Tuesday of the National Security Council (NSC) which is expected to end any involvement by the firm in building the 5G system.

The decision – following intense pressure from both the US administration of Donald Trump and backbench Tory MPs – marks a major U-turn by the Government.

In January, ministers announced Huawei could play a limited role in the 5G network, despite warnings that its equipment could be used by China for espionage or to disrupt the UK’s critical national infrastructure.

Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming
Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming has warned of ‘consequences’ if Huawei is excluded (Yui Mok/PA)

However, it is expected that the Government will now announce that no new Huawei equipment can be installed in the network from as early as next year.

It is also expected to announce a so-called “rip out” date by which all the existing Huawei equipment must be removed.

Details will be set out by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden in a Commons statement following the NSC meeting.

Meanwhile, it has been reported that the first of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers could be deployed to the Far East to counter growing Chinese assertiveness.

The Times reported plans were being drawn up for HMS Queen Elizabeth to take part in exercises in the region with the US and Japan, on its maiden grand voyage next year.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “No decision has been made on HMS Queen Elizabeth’s deployment.”

Some Tory MPs have been pressing for a “rip out” deadline for Huawei to be set before the next general election – due in 2024 – amid fears of a lobbying campaign by the firm to reverse the decision.

BT chief executive Philip Jansen warned on Monday that removing Huawei kit from the 5G network could take five to seven years, while taking it out of the entire UK telecoms network could require a decade.

Last week China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, urged the Government not to shut out Huawei warning there would be “consequences” if Britain tried to treat China as a “hostile country”.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson is chairing a meeting of the National Security Council (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

But Tom Tugendhat, Tory chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, has called on the Government to take the opportunity to distance itself even further from Beijing.

In a column in The Daily Telegraph, Mr Tugendhat said Mr Xiaoming’s comments signalled it was time for the UK to kick its “addiction to Beijing tech”.

He writes: “To keep power distributed and trade on the basis of law, not force, we need a new alliance. Going further than the World Trade Organisation and recognising the importance of India and Nigeria, would reinforce the interdependence of democracies against authoritarian regimes.

“We have the innovations and size that could create a market for companies that share our values. The majority won’t be British but they’ll share our values, and that will protect us all.”

Foreign Affairs Committee in NI
Foreign affairs committee chairman Tom Tugendhat has called for the UK to further distance itself from Beijing (Niall Carson/PA)

His sentiment was echoed by former Conservative leader William Hague, who wrote in the Telegraph: “What matters is that we should
not be strategically dependent on Chinese technology for the future, and that will require building up the production of alternative companies.

“It is not essential to rip everything out immediately – we just have to be able to maintain our own critical infrastructure for the long term.”

Relations between the two countries were already under intense strain after Britain offered three million Hongkongers a path to settle in the UK following the imposition by Beijing of a new national security law on the former British colony.

While many MPs have urged the Government to take a tough line with China, others fear the consequences of a prolonged stand-off as the world economy attempts to recover from the coronavirus crisis.

Ministers have indicated that they were forced to act over Huawei after the US imposed tough new sanctions banning the firm from using any American components in its products.

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) – which previously supported the decision to allow it a limited role in the 5G network – is said to have advised that the move means its equipment could no longer be considered secure.

Ahead of the announcement, Tory backbencher Bob Seely – who has acted as the coordinator of the 60-strong Huawei Interest Group of MPs – said members would be looking closely at both the proposed “new kit” and “rip out” deadlines.

He warned the Government could face a backbench rebellion when the Telecoms Security Bill comes to the Commons later this year if they tried to push the “rip out” date to the end of the decade.

He said: “If there isn’t a date after which telecoms companies cannot install Huawei kit, parliamentarians will be concerned that Huawei and China could continue to insert kit whilst lobbying hard to reverse Government decisions.”

“On the other hand, an announcement of no new Huawei kit allowed within 12 months would reassure colleagues.”