The United Kingdom’s Policy U-Turn on Huawei

As a biographer of Winston Churchill, British prime minister Boris Johnson is quite familiar with Churchill’s views on the United Kingdom’s position in the 1956 Suez crisis, during which the country at first challenged the Eisenhower administration’s policy, and was then forced to backtrack. “I would never have dared,” said Churchill, “and if I had dared, I would never have dared stop.” On Huawei, Johnson has dared both to challenge and to stop.

In their last visits to the United States in March before the pandemic prohibited transatlantic travel, British ministers continued to insist that Britain’s decision on Huawei was immovable. Senior government officials dismissed concerns from their U.S. counterparts that giving Huawei no more than a 35 percent share of the UK 5G “non-core” market would still allow China to infiltrate a critical Five Eyes intelligence partner. Despite repeated private and public U.S. threats to curtail intelligence-sharing by the Trump administration and senior members of Congress, London shrugged. When other Five Eyes partners, such as Australia, noted that the United Kingdom’s plan to “keep China out of the most sensitive part of the network” revealed a misunderstanding of how 5G functions, London noted that it had full confidence in its ability to monitor Chinese activity.

On May 22, Prime Minister Johnson dared to stop and announced that he had asked government officials to develop a plan that would reduce Huawei’s access to the UK market to zero by 2023 at the latest.

Why the U-turn? There are three plausible explanations.

First, the timing of the decision may be directly linked to China’s abysmal handling of the pandemic. From its non-transparent handling of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, its aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, Britain’s overreliance on Chinese-manufactured protective personnel equipment, to most recently Beijing’s decision to violate the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Basic Law over Hong Kong, government and public attitudes toward China have shifted quickly and drastically. Indeed, a recent poll shows 64 percent of British people hold China responsible for the spread of Covid-19. The United Kingdom has traveled a very long way from former prime minister David Cameron’s pronouncement of a new UK-Chinese “Golden Era.”

Second, the initial decision on Huawei did fundamentally challenge what makes the U.S.-UK special relationship special: intelligence sharing and joint defense capabilities. Despite substantial U.S. threats, it appeared initially that the United States was not willing to take the steps it had outlined if the United Kingdom allowed Huawei to remain in its telecommunication system. But that changed on May 4 when the White House launched a major review of Chinese penetration of the United Kingdom’s defense architecture. The UK defense community understood that a possible downgrade to U.S.-UK security cooperation was very real. The implications of this could have led to U.S. RC-135 spy planes being withdrawn from Britain, a reduction in the 10,000 U.S. military personnel based in the United Kingdom, fewer new joint capabilities, and limits placed on certain intelligence assets. It may even have jeopardized the deployment of U.S. F-35A jets on the new British aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth. Senior members of the ruling Conservative party, such as Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Tom Tugendhat and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, did recognize the danger early on. As early as last year, Gavin Williamson, former defense secretary, was so concerned that the United States would reduce its defense cooperation that he allegedly leaked secret information on Huawei, a move that led to his sacking.

The third explanation is the potential impact of keeping Huawei in UK systems on a future U.S.-UK free trade agreement. Both the White House and Downing Street are enthusiastic about a future deal, but, for London, it is essential to demonstrate the symbolic benefits of a post-EU Britain as early as possible (although the actual economic benefits are quite low as the deal is projected to offer only a 0.16 percent lift to Britain’s GDP). There were some signals from Washington that the Huawei decision would be an impediment to the deal. Indeed, while UK and U.S. negotiators have publicized their fast-tracked trade talks, only the UK side issued a statement following the most recent negotiating round—Washington remained silent. Shortly thereafter, on May 15, the Trump administration announced additional limits on Huawei equipment that would deeply impact UK networks and data. 

The United Kingdom’s Huawei policy reversal came a week later. Even without pressure from the White House, it is highly unlikely that Congress would have approved a future trade agreement with Huawei embedded in UK systems. London likely conceded this was the price to pay for an agreement it desperately needs—from a symbolic point of view at least. 

It was likely a combination of all of the above that drove Mr. Johnson to dare to stop. The result of this U-turn is a renewed strategic alignment between the United Kingdom and the United States on China, which comes in the nick of time as Beijing abrogates the Sino-British Joint Declaration. With the European Union deeply divided over its policy toward China, British diplomacy can once again play a pivotal role in aligning like-minded countries on its China policy.

London is already doing so with its proposal to create a “Democracy 10” format that will accelerate alternatives to Huawei’s equipment and software (an absolute necessity for Britain as its 3G and 4G networks are almost entirely dependent on Huawei, and as it seeks to fulfill ambitious broadband goals for the country). The format includes the G7 countries plus India, South Korea, and Australia, and plans to put out strong and principled statements related to events in Hong Kong as well as other steps Beijing may take toward India or Taiwan. 

The United Kingdom’s U-turn on Huawei restores the U.S.-UK strategic relationship to its equilibrium. For well over a century, London and Washington have generally agreed on the geostrategic dangers of the times. If Churchill were alive, he might have deeply disapproved of the U-turn, but he would have agreed that it was worth the cost to uphold and protect his proudest legacy, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance. 

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at CSIS.

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