The United States on Wednesday again warned that Huawei posed a “real risk” to cybersecurity as United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted that allowing the Chinese tech giant some limited involvement in building the UK’s 5G network would not damage transatlantic security cooperation.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the firm was “an extension of the Chinese Communist Party” and Washington would “evaluate” the UK’s decision.
Pompeo has arrived in the UK for talks with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and the prime minister with the shadow of the Huawei dispute hanging over them.
After Raab met Pompeo on Wednesday evening, a brief Foreign Office statement did not reference the Huawei controversy.
A spokesman said: “The foreign secretary’s discussions with Secretary Pompeo this evening focused on future opportunities for economic and security cooperation between the UK and US.
“The pair discussed the US proposal for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and the situation in Iran and Yemen, and the foreign secretary underlined the need to de-escalate regional tensions.”
Huawei has always rejected claims it represents a security risk.
But speaking to reporters on the plane to the UK, Pompeo said: “Our view of Huawei has been that putting it in your system creates real risk.
“This is an extension of the Chinese Communist Party with a legal requirement to hand over information to the Chinese Communist Party.”
He added that “American information only should pass through trusted networks, and we’ll make sure we do that” and suggested the UK could “relook” at the decision in the future.
The prime minister said allowing Huawei to play a limited role in the UK’s 5G infrastructure would not “imperil our relationship” with Donald Trump‘s administration – as he faced a backlash both from Conservative MPs and US Republicans.
The prime minister defied the president by giving the green light to the Chinese firm despite US warnings that it could hamper intelligence-sharing with Washington and the other members of the Five Eyes alliance.
Johnson, who spoke to Trump on Tuesday, said the government’s decision would not damage the “extremely valuable” security cooperation with the Five Eyes alliance which includes the US.
Answering questions from the public on Facebook he said he had “interrogated” the security and intelligence agencies about the issue and whether Huawei could be allowed to play a role while preventing “any kind of risk of leaks or interference with our security”.
“There is no doubt in their mind that we can do it and we can allow Huawei into some aspects of 5G but not compromise our intelligence-sharing ability with America, Australia, Canada or New Zealand – the so-called ‘Five Eyes’.
“I’m very confident we can do that.”
Thank you to @DominicRaab for hosting me today. The #UK is an indispensable ally on a range of issues, and we continue to strengthen our two countries’ #SpecialRelationship through constructive discussions. pic.twitter.com/v4J0myBo64
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 29, 2020
The decision has caused deep unease on the Conservative benches, with discussion of a possible rebellion when the matter comes to the Commons, although the prime minister can rely on a comfortable majority in the legislature.
The upgrade to 5G is reported to be a major development for communications and digital infrastructure globally.
Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age, said: “We can do great things with 5G. The technology supports personalised medicines, precision agriculture and energy grids that can integrate all kinds of renewable energy. This will make a positive difference. But only if we can make our networks secure. Only then will the digital changes benefit all citizens.”
The UK’s National Security Council agreed on Tuesday to allow “high-risk vendors” to play a limited part in building the 5G network.
At a 90-minute meeting, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace argued against the move, according to The Times, but was said to have been a “lone voice”.
Government assurances about the decision have done little to quell what Damian Green, former de facto deputy prime minister under Theresa May, called “widespread (and) strong unease” on the Conservative benches.
Ministers have said they will legislate at the “earliest opportunity” to put the new guidance on telecoms providers into law, opening up the prospect of a potentially damaging backbench revolt.
“One of the things that frankly surprised me was the breadth of opposition to the current stance of the government on the Conservative backbenches,” Green told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We don’t know yet, when push comes to shove and votes happen, how many people will actually put their heads above the parapet – but it is very widespread.”
Senior Conservative Party MPs including former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith and former Brexit Secretary David Davis are among those to express displeasure.
Trump has refrained from a Twitter outburst on the decision but officials in Washington said they were “disappointed by the UK’s decision”.
“There is no safe option for untrusted vendors to control any part of a 5G network,” an official said.
A series of senior congressional figures spoke out to condemn the move.
Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said: “Allowing Huawei to build the UK’s 5G networks today is like allowing the KGB to build its telephone network during the Cold War.”
The European Union also unveiled security guidelines for the next-generation high-speed wireless networks that stop short of banning Huawei, in a further blow to the US campaign against the firm.
Pompeo’s two-day visit is likely to offer the first real indication of the extent of any damage to the so-called “special relationship”.
The US administration has consistently argued that giving Huawei a role in 5G could allow the Chinese a “back door” into the telecoms network through which they could carry out espionage or cyberattacks.
The UK government has acknowledged Huawei is not a “trusted” supplier, but argues that by banning it from the most sensitive elements of the network and restricting its involvement to 35 percent, it can manage the risks.
Good meeting with @SecPompeo covering the many future opportunities for the 🇬🇧 & 🇺🇸. We discussed the US Middle East peace plan, Iran & other shared priorities. I underlined our continued commitment to justice for Harry Dunn and his family. pic.twitter.com/8P09FZGVIG
— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) January 29, 2020
The clash comes at a sensitive moment in US-UK relations, just as Johnson is hoping to make rapid progress on a trade deal – and while a diplomatic fight continues to rage surrounding the rejected extradition request concerning a US intelligence official’s wife who has admitted causing a fatal collision when driving a car on the wrong side of the road, killing a British teenager named Harry Dunn.
“The foreign secretary reiterated his disappointment at the US decision to reject the extradition request for Anne Sacoolas and emphasised the importance of delivering justice for Harry Dunn and his family,” read a statement from the UK foreign office following the meeting on Wednesday evening.
The meeting comes after Dunn’s mother said she expected Raab to “not accept anything less” than the return of her son’s alleged killer after his meeting with the US secretary of state.
The prime minister appears to have concluded that honouring his general election pledge to “level up” the “left-behind” areas of the country must be the priority.
Rolling out 5G across the country is regarded as key to improving economic performance and Whitehall believes excluding Huawei would mean delays and higher costs.