What Did the United Kingdom Just Decide on Huawei and 5G?

The United Kingdom is trying to finesse the Huawei problem by instituting a partial ban. Huawei equipment will be excluded from "sensitive" areas (such as around Whitehall or military bases) and its use confined to the "edge" of telecommunications networks. There is much debate over whether this partial ban is enough to mitigate the risk of using Huawei equipment, which the United Kingdom readily admits exists.

The decision will be presented in different forms to different audiences. To the Chinese, the United Kingdom will say that Huawei remains a "valued partner." The United States will be told it is a partial ban and that the United Kingdom shares its views of Chinese espionage.

Is this a defeat for the United States? It is definitely a rebuff and will be spun as a defeat, but this is not a clear win for either side. The United States was unprepared for the decision to go against it and now must recover. The greatest damage to the U.S. push for a total ban will be that other countries that remain undecided about Huawei, like Germany, will now use the UK decision as a rationale for adopting some variant of a partial ban, and it is possible that in some cases, any ban will be much weaker.

The United Kingdom will also issue tougher regulations for telecom network security, use a government 5G testbed to test secure deployments, and demand supplier diversity from its network operators. This means some level of continued purchases from Nokia and Ericsson. (Samsung does not have a presence in UK telecom networks.) The issue here is Huawei's anti-competitive behavior, where it uses subsidized, predatory pricing to destroy competitors. The UK measures are likely not enough to counter this unless part of a larger U.S.-EU-UK effort.

The United Kingdom is gambling that the "special relationship" is special enough to withstand the fallout from the decision and, frankly, that the Trump administration is too distracted by impeachment to act against it. The United Kingdom also hopes the move in telecom technology to "virtualized" networks, where software replaces hardware, will reduce the risk of using Huawei equipment. This change will occur over the next five years, and it could reduce risk depending, of course, on where a company buys its virtualized network equipment. Currently, U.S. and Japanese companies are the major suppliers of this new telecom technology, but China will make desperate efforts to catch up.

One of the best UK arguments made in support for the decision has not been made public. UK officials began floating the idea of a partial ban early in 2019. At that time, one of them said, “Chinese spies are already all over networks, so what difference would banning one company make?” The counterpoint is that this success is no reason to make the task of Chinese cyber espionage easier. The last time the United Kingdom decided to buy Huawei, it overruled its security agencies for commercial reasons. This time, the security agencies offered their political masters a solution that lets them have it both ways.

The United Kingdom acknowledges that using Huawei technology creates a national security risk but argues that this partial ban, combined with better efforts to improve cybersecurity, is sufficient to mitigate that risk (but not eliminate it). The best answer on whether a partial ban and core/edge separation reduces risk is "it depends." What it depends upon is how well the United Kingdom follows up on its plans for secure telecommunications.

James Andrew Lewis is a senior vice president and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program