UK bars Huawei from 5G network, raising tensions with China

Huawei, a Chinese tech giant, is at the center of one of China’s disputes with the United States.
Huawei, a Chinese tech giant, is at the center of one of China’s disputes with the United States.Lam Yik Fei/New York Times

LONDON — Britain announced Tuesday that it would ban equipment from the Chinese technology giant Huawei from the country’s high-speed wireless network, a victory for the Trump administration that escalates the battle between Western powers and China over critical technology.

The move reverses a decision in January, when Britain said Huawei equipment could be used in its new 5G network on a limited basis. Since then, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced growing political pressure domestically to take a harder line against Beijing, and in May the United States imposed new restrictions to disrupt Huawei’s access to important components.

Britain’s about-face signals a new willingness among Western countries to confront China, a determination that has grown firmer since Beijing last month adopted a new law to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, the semiautonomous city that was a British colony until 1997 . On Tuesday, Robert O’Brien, President Trump’s national security adviser, was in Paris for meetings about China with counterparts from Britain, France, Germany, and Italy.

Huawei’s critics say its close ties to the Chinese government mean Beijing could use the equipment for espionage or to disrupt telecommunications — a point the company, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment, strongly disputes.


Arguing that Huawei created too much risk for such a critical, multibillion-dollar project, the British government said Tuesday that it would ban the purchase of new Huawei equipment for 5G networks after December, and that existing gear already installed would need to be removed from the networks by 2027.

“As facts have changed, so has our approach,” Oliver Dowden, the government minister in charge of telecommunications, told the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon. “This has not been an easy decision, but it is the right one for the UK’s telecoms networks, for our national security and our economy, both now and indeed in the long run.”


The dispute over Huawei is an early front in a new tech cold war, with ramifications for Internet freedom and surveillance, as well as emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics.

“The democratic West has woken up late to its overdependence on a country whose values are diametrically opposed to it,” said Robert Hannigan, a former head of the British digital surveillance agency GCHQ, who is now an executive at the cybersecurity firm BlueVoyant. “Huawei and other Chinese companies present a real cybersecurity risk, but the primary threat comes from the intent of the Chinese Communist Party, as we see in Hong Kong.”

Huawei described the announcement Tuesday as a disappointment and “bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone.”

“It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane,” said Ed Brewster, a spokesman for Huawei UK. “Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicized; this is about US trade policy and not security.”

Until the latest turn of events, Britain had been welcoming of Huawei. In 2005, it was the first country to offer Huawei a foothold in Europe, now the company’s largest market outside China. Huawei financed university research and a charity started by Prince Charles. And just last month, Huawei announced plans to spend 1 billion pounds (about $1.25 billion) on a new research center in Cambridge.

The British experience shows the challenges nations face navigating the US-China rift. In moving forward with the ban, Britain risks retaliation from China, one of its largest and fastest-growing trading partners, when it is trying to craft a more open trade policy outside the European Union. China’s ambassador in London, Liu Xiaoming, recently warned that Britain would “bear the consequences” of treating China with hostility.


“The Huawei issue is the first of many complicated decisions we’re going to have about striking the right balance between our commercial and economic engagement with China, and our security concerns about how China uses its power,” said John Sawers, a former chief of the British intelligence service MI6.

Huawei is the leading provider for towers, masts and other critical equipment needed to build new wireless networks based on fifth-generation wireless technology, known as 5G.

New 5G networks are seen as essential infrastructure in an increasingly digital global economy. The networks will provide faster download speeds for phone users but offer even more important potential for commercial applications in industries such as manufacturing, health care and transportation.

In Britain, officials warned that its decision would add significant costs and delay the rollout of 5G by around two years. The new 5G wireless systems must be built atop existing networks that Huawei had a major role in constructing. In setting a 2027 deadline, the British government said moving any faster to remove Huawei gear would produce a greater risk to the security and resilience of the network.

The ban does not apply to smartphones and other consumer products made by Huawei, or equipment used in 2G, 3G, and 4G networks.


Many see the Huawei dispute as foreshadowing future conflicts, with other prominent companies becoming entangled. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was considering actions against Chinese apps, including the hugely popular social media service TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese internet company.

Britain’s decision to bar Huawei will put pressure on other European countries. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is being urged to keep the company out of a new 5G network but is weighing the economic fallout for German automakers, for whom China is a critical market.