Can the U.S.-U.K. Special Relationship Weather the Huawei Storm?

Boris Johnson breaks with Trump, opening Britain’s doors to a Chinese telecommunications giant that Washington fears is an espionage threat.

Huawei CEO Richard Yu addresses a press conference in London on April 6, 2016.
Huawei CEO Richard Yu addresses a press conference in London on April 6, 2016. Jack Taylor/AFP via Getty Images

In one of the first serious clashes between new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Donald Trump, the United Kingdom defied the White House this week with its decision not to ban equipment made by the Chinese technology giant Huawei from being used in its 5G high-speed wireless network.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a sharp warning about China during a visit to London on Thursday, expressing U.S. unease at the British decision even while touting strong ties between the two countries as Britain prepares to exit the European Union. U.S. officials and lawmakers fear Huawei’s role in building its 5G network could be used as a bridgehead for Chinese spy agencies to infiltrate Western communications infrastructure.

“We were trying to make the case, as we made the case with every country in the world, that we think putting Huawei technology anywhere in your system is very, very difficult to mitigate and therefore not worth the gamble,” Pompeo said during an event with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. 

But the Huawei debate could pose significant roadblocks to the national security side of the so-called “special relationship” between Washington and London, currently led by two like-minded conservative populist leaders. Johnson, pushing through a Brexit deal with the EU after three messy years of negotiations, is banking on swiftly clenching a new U.S.-U.K. trade deal to ease concerns over Britain leaving the EU common market. 

“Here’s the sad truth: our special relationship is less special now that the U.K. has embraced the surveillance state commies at Huawei,” Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The Chinese Communist Party has infected Five Eyes with Huawei, right at a time when the U.S. and U.K. must be unified in order to meet the global security challenges of China’s resurgence.”

A U.K. government official said members of the Trump administration conveyed their disappointment at the decision to their British counterparts “reasonably candidly.” But the official defended Britain’s decision, stressing that while it doesn’t go as far as the White House wanted, it does address “in a very serious way” the concerns both governments have about the security of the 5G network. 

In a decision announced this week, the British government will ban Huawei services and hardware from Britain’s “core” national security networks, which U.K. officials argue minimizes the security risk to sensitive intelligence, including that which it shares with the United States. In addition, Huawei’s presence in the “non-core” network—on which most of the British public will operate—has been capped at 35 percent. 

“We have not considered any options that would have put our national security interests at risk,” the official said. “Huawei never has been and, post this decision, never will be in our most sensitive networks. The security of our intelligence sharing is wholly protected.” 

Some U.S. lawmakers seem to disagree, however, with several top Republican senators warning they would review long-standing intelligence-sharing pacts with the British government. 

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat from Virginia and former CIA operations officer, said she reacted to the news that Britain would not ban Huawei from its 5G network “with a deep sigh of concern.” 

“I think it’s one more indicator that the time is now to act. And we need to act today because we needed to act yesterday,” she said in an interview. 

Some lawmakers and U.S. officials have expressed concern that the United States is too little, too late in launching a campaign against Huawei, given how many years it takes to lay the groundwork for 5G infrastructure and how few viable alternatives there are from Western companies. Spanberger has co-sponsored a bill that would require the administration to publish an unclassified strategy on securing 5G infrastructure. 

Trump has put the U.K. and other European allies in a tricky position on Huawei because European providers—Nokia and Ericsson—have lagged far behind in moving to 5G, which will provide the significantly faster connectivity necessary to realize the potential of new developments in artificial intelligence and big data. For Britain in particular, the U.K. has had Huawei in its networks since 2003. 

The British prime minister has committed to providing fully 5G services across the country within the decade. Building a Huawei-free network—which would include replacing some of the existing hardware and software—would add “delays of years” and “very considerable” costs, said another U.K. official.

“It’s the opportunity cost as well as the immediate cost of vendors,” the second U.K. official said. 

Still, some experts say the cost of embracing Huawei is still too great. “It’s important to note that Huawei gets its foot in the proverbial door via very attractive pricing that is the result of subsidization by the Chinese government,” said Terry Dunlap, a former cyberoperator at the U.S. National Security Agency and co-founder of the cybersecurity firm ReFirm Labs.

“Their strategy is long-term, slowly over time adding more and more pieces of communications gear until the eventual switching costs you would face from a non-subsidized replacement option become huge,” he said. “We cannot be penny wise and pound foolish. There’s too much at stake.”

During his visit to London, Pompeo downplayed concerns that the Huawei decision would harm bilateral ties, saying he was “confident that as we work together to figure out how to implement this decision that we’ll work to get this right.”

But some U.S. lawmakers said otherwise, casting doubt on the sanctity of the deep intelligence ties between the two countries, part of the “Five Eyes” partnership of intelligence communities between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Marco Rubio of Florida, and John Cornyn of Texas have called for the U.S. director of national intelligence to carry out a review of U.S.-U.K. intelligence-sharing practices in the wake of the decision.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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