Britain Walks Post-Brexit Tightrope With Huawei Decision

The UK government seems to have balanced competing interests of the economy, national security and relations with America. But the full US response remains to be seen.

Expert comment Published 4 February 2020 Updated 14 October 2020 2 minute READ
Mike Pompeo meets Boris Johnson in London on 30 January. Photo: Getty Images.

Mike Pompeo meets Boris Johnson in London on 30 January. Photo: Getty Images.

In the face of multiple competing pressures, most especially intense pressure by the US president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the UK government has carved out an independent choice on the role that Huawei will play in its 5G mobile networks. Announced just days before the UK exited the European Union, a move designed to allow the UK to reclaim its sovereignty, this was a model example of a sovereign decision, but one that carries risk and will create ongoing uncertainty.

The government’s assessment is that this will bolster Britain’s economic competitiveness through a rapid rollout of its 5G mobile network while staving off pressure from the United States and economic retaliation from China.

Britain’s decision treads a cautious line. The effort to balance the drive for competitiveness, the imperatives of national security and, especially, to appease while not appearing to appease America, has meant that the UK faces multiple pressures just as it seeks to forge an independent political future. So far, the UK government has handled these pressures artfully.

After months of intense scrutiny that at times looked like prevarication, and at other times looked a lot more contentious, the UK has decided to restrict Huawei’s access to a maximum of 35% of the market share of what it argues is the non-core part of its 5G mobile networks, and to enforce a total ban on Huawei’s access to the core.

But no one should rest easy with the current choice. The UK has been divided internally on this decision, even among those on its National Security Council who have had privileged access to the intelligence offered by GCHQ. As the UK’s decision loomed, Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, cited Huawei’s connection to China’s intelligence services and its police state in Xinjiang and asked ‘is the risk worth it?’.

This division created latitude for the Johnson government to stake out its own position. But it also suggests that when it comes to national security, the case is not clear.

The US response is more puzzling. Donald Trump and Pompeo have been coming down hard on the UK. But in the lead up to the UK’s decision, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin struck a much more nuanced tone, at least on the public record.

Despite weeks of pressure by Trump and Pompeo leading up to the announcement, the UK’s Huawei decision has so far failed to make headlines in the US, or garner much of an official response.

In an oped published in the Financial Times just days after the UK’s decision, acting US Assistant Secretary of Defense David Helvey took a strong line on China, calling for transatlantic unity and stressing the comprehensive nature of the competition that China presents. But he refrained from any specific mention of the UK’s announced decision.

Given the previous US threat that allowing Huawei access would compromise future US–UK intelligence sharing and undermine the prospect for a free trade deal, this relatively muted response is surprising. Few among US national security experts have diverged from the view that Huawei presents a singular threat to national security.

This suggests one of two things: either that, even among those in the US who agree about the threat that Huawei presents for national security, opinion differs on how to deal with this threat; or, that America has conceded to the UK’s choice, even if it is a different position to its own.

What comes next is less certain. Now that Boris Johnson’s decision has been announced, the US has good reason to lay low. Restricting US–UK intelligence is a hollow threat: the US is a major beneficiary of this relationship and any attempt to unravel it would be costly for both parties.

The same is true of a future US–UK free trade deal, from which the US will most certainly reap substantial benefits, politically as well as economically.

The risk for the United States, of course, is that if it does not follow through, future threats to retaliate against the UK’s sovereign choices will become increasingly meaningless. And President Trump is not just any president. The current quiet could quickly be reversed if he sees a reason to make an example of the UK to signal to other countries currently debating their position on Huawei that proceeding will carry significant penalties.

The question remains whether in forging ahead, but with elements of caution, Britain has made the right decision. If the measure of success is political independence befitting the moment of Britain’s historic exit from the European Union, then the answer would appear to be yes. National security is an entirely different matter, and on this the debate is not over.