The reign of the United Kingdom’s Theresa May, a woman whose time in power has been, it is safe to say, a mixed success, is coming to an end. One of her final tasks as prime minister was to meet with President Donald Trump about her decision to include Huawei in the United Kingdom’s 5G network. While the government has at least promised to exclude Huawei from providing “core” parts of this network, the Daily Mail—a UK newspaper—understands that Everything Everywhere has not followed that rule in its 5G rollout. In an interview with the BBC on the first day of his visit, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was comparatively noncommittal on the subject of Huawei, emphasizing that the United States “doesn’t have a veto” on British policy. While it is of course important that the UK exercise independence in its policymaking, one cannot help but wonder about the wisdom of its current course.
It is worth remembering that the Chinese government has been carrying out interference campaigns in other democracies, including Australia and New Zealand, and there is no reason to assume it lacks similar intentions with regards to the UK. A recent report from the Henry Jackson Society notes that “Huawei is alleged to have a special relationship with the PLA, which allows it to take part in procurement tenders. It also alleged to have a relationship with state sponsored hacking groups.” These suspicions are only exacerbated by Huawei’s refusal to turn over internal corporate documents to the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Select Committee for fear of violating China’s state-secret laws. As the committee noted, “It is strange the internal corporate documents of purportedly private sector firms are considered classified secrets in China. This fact alone gives us a reason to question their independence.”
Given the obvious threat that the organization potentially poses, one cannot help but wonder why the soft touch from May? The answer may lay in the myth that China’s rise is inevitable, a conventional wisdom that has become a truism among London’s financial classes. As Sun Tzu said, “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” In this sense, the “truth” that China’s rise is unstoppable has led to a soft form of appeasement. Indeed, at a recent event in Parliament, Tobias Ellwood spoke of how “China is on the rise, there is no turning back.” He is correct, of course, but is its rise to the top inevitable? Far from it. China finds itself afflicted by a rapidly aging population, slowing growth, and a chronic lack of allies around the world. We need not view it as an unstoppable colossus, merely another great power, one to be viewed not with fear or hostility, but with caution.
Another possible explanation is anxiety about the status of a post–Brexit Britain. The Cameron government sought to establish the UK as “China’s best partner in the West.” The current reality does not reflect these ambitions. The UK still lags behind a number of other European countries in its trading relationship (in 2018 Germany accounted for around 5.26 percent of Chinese imports compared to the UK’s 1.21 percent) and will likely be much less attractive partner for China’s ambitions in the West after it leaves the European Union. There have also been a number of diplomatic incidents that have made that relationship more difficult. Theresa May’s delay of a decision on the construction of the Hinkley Point power station was a particular source of irritation for Beijing, which demonstrated this with May’s relatively pomp-free visit in 2015. In the face of such circumstances it is understandable that the government is keen to avoid further alienating the world’s second-largest economy, not to mention sacrificing access to low-price 5G technology.
Such a sacrifice would not come without its challenges. With its potential to enhance innovation in artificial intelligence technology, industrial automation, and much more, 5G is certainly a game changer, and Huawei has convinced the world that 5G cannot be built without it. Of course, this myth has been perpetuated by those who have a stake in Huawei’s subsidized prices (after all, nineteen U.S. cities have 5G programs without Huawei in them). The rest of the EU, while expressing caution at its potential risks, has not outright banned Huawei’s network technology. The company has already been banned from the 5G networks of Australia and the United States over security concerns; still, President Trump has fed the idea that this is about technology primacy, unhelpfully saying that the U.S. ban might only be a temporary measure for the current trade war.
Despite this, it is crucial that the UK reconsider its policy. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has proven its flagrant disregard the sovereignty of other nations with its interference in the politics of others and is clearly learning to use trade as political leverage. Allowing such a regime access to our own networks doesn’t conjure up an image of a lamb being led to the slaughter, so much as a lamb volunteering for it. While the government’s confused position is hardly promising, the response to former Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson’s (alleged) leak of the plan to use Huawei equipment indicates that there might be hope in a leadership change. If this can be made an issue during the leadership contest, then some hope is possible. Williamson is currently backing Boris Johnson, who also happens to be the bookies favorite to win. While Boris has been relatively quiet on the topic of Huawei, he would be wise to take a position of strength on this issue.
For the sake of political and economic stability it is vital that the West is able to cultivate a strong and cooperative relationship with the PRC. That does not mean that the West needs to sacrifice its interests in the face of a rising China. This is especially true of the UK. Its current situation with Brexit has left it in need of new trading arrangements, and courting the world’s second largest economy will no doubt be a vital step in securing our future prosperity. If the Chinese want their companies to be able to play a role in the development of our infrastructure, then they must respect the UK’s security concerns. So long as Huawei cannot confirm its own independence from Beijing, then it cannot be allowed to play a role in the UK.
Chuck Cooper is a research assistant at the Henry Jackson Society’s Asia Studies Centre.