United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson trod a delicate line between China and the United States on Tuesday morning over the contentious issue of whether to use equipment from Chinese tech giant Huawei in the UK’s next-generation 5G wireless networks.
The administration of US President Donald Trump has tried to convince Washington’s allies to steer clear of Huawei gear in 5G network buildouts, citing the potential for the telecoms giant to include “backdoor” security vulnerabilities that could allow China to spy on Western networks – a charge Huawei has vigorously denied.
In an interview with the BBC, Johnson said Huawei’s critics should suggest alternative equipment providers, but then added he would not risk the UK’s security when upgrading the nation’s 5G communications network or “prejudice” the country’s ability to share intelligence among “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance partners: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US.
It was reported on Tuesday that Washington had stepped up efforts to try and prevent Downing Street from using Huawei technology in the UK’s switchover to 5G networks.
“The British public deserve to have access to the best possible technology,” Johnson told the BBC on Tuesday.
“I have talked about infrastructure and technology. We want to put in gigabit broadband for everybody.
“Now, if people oppose one brand or another, then they have to tell us which is the alternative.”
The US has banned its tech firms from selling components to Huawei and dozens of companies in its supply chain, citing national security concerns.
The US has also previously warned that any use of Huawei could lead to a review of intelligence sharing.
“On the other hand, let’s be clear,” said Johnson. “I don’t, as the UK prime minister, want to put in any infrastructure that is going to prejudice our national security or our ability to cooperate with Five Eyes intelligence.”
In a statement emailed to Al Jazeera, Huawei emphasised its long-standing business relations with the UK.
“We strongly agree with the prime minister that ‘the British public deserve to have access to the best possible technology’. That is why we invested more than $15 billion last year in research and development to ensure our customers receive just that,” wrote Victor Zhang, vice president of Huawei.
“Huawei has worked with the UK’s telecoms companies for 15 years, and looks forward to supplying the best technologies that help companies like BT and Vodafone fulfill the government’s commitment to make gigabit broadband available to all.”
Referring to comments made to the Financial Times (FT) this week by MI5 spy chief Andrew Parker, Zhang added:
“We are confident that the UK government will make a decision based upon evidence, as opposed to unsubstantiated allegations. Two UK parliamentary committees concluded there is no technical reason to ban us from supplying 5G equipment, and this week the head of MI5 said there was ‘no reason to think’ the UK’s intelligence-sharing relationship with the US would be harmed if Britain continued to use Huawei technology.”
The upgrade from 4G to 5G will revolutionise mobile internet capabilities, with consumers able to download a two-hour film in less than four seconds – well below the six minutes it takes on the 4G network.
But senior US officials, according to the FT, have been trying to dissuade the UK government, providing “technical information” on the firm to UK security officials on Monday.
The FT said there were growing expectations that Johnson would decide in favour of allowing the use of Huawei equipment in some “non-core” parts of the network, with a final decision due later in January.
It comes after Conservative Party politician Bob Seely called for Britain’s foreign affairs committee to open an immediate investigation into Huawei.
Seely said Huawei “to all intents and purposes is part of the Chinese state” and a deal with the tech giant would allow Beijing to access the UK’s network.
A member of the foreign affairs committee in the last parliament, Seely added it was “an extraordinarily important issue” on which the government should be listening to the US and Australia.
He told MPs during the Queen’s Speech debate that Huawei was “the subject of US investigation for fraud and commercial espionage”.
Foreign Office Minister Andrew Stephenson said a final decision would be “taken in due course”, adding: “The government will consider the full range of risks when making this decision”.