London (AFP) – Britain on Tuesday bowed to US pressure and approved the phased removal of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from its 5G network despite warnings of retaliation from Beijing.
The policy reversal hands a major victory to US President Donald Trump’s administration in its geopolitical and trade battle with China.
But it threatens to further damage Britain’s relations with the Asian power and carry a big cost for UK mobile providers that have relied on Huawei equipment for nearly 20 years.
Digital minister Oliver Dowden’s announcement followed a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Boris Johnson of his cabinet and National Security Council.
“From the end of this year, telecoms providers must not buy any 5G equipment from Huawei,” Dowden told parliament.
He said the new guidelines also required all of Huawei’s existing 5G gear to be stripped out “by 2027”.
Huawei called the decision “disappointing” and motivated by politics.
“Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicised, this is about US trade policy and not security,” Huawei UK spokesman Ed Brewster said.
“This disappointing decision is bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone.”
Johnson infuriated Trump and upset some members of his own Conservative party by allowing the Chinese leader in global 5G technology to help roll out Britain’s speedy new data network in January.
The UK was then completing its tortuous departure from the European Union and looking to establish strong ties with powerful Asian economies that could fulfil Johnson’s vision of a “Global Britain”.
But the Trump administration told the UK government that its decision imperilled intelligence sharing and could even result in the relocation of some US fighter jets from England.
Washington believes the private Chinese company could either spy for Beijing or shut down rival countries’ 5G networks in times of war.
Huawei has always denied this and pointed to two decades of cooperation with British security agencies that checked on the safety of its existing 3G and 4G networks.
The British review was triggered by new US sanctions in May that blocked Huawei’s access to US chips and semi-conductors at the heart of 5G networks.
The restriction raised the possibility of Huawei having to switch from trusted US suppliers to alternatives whose safety could not be guaranteed by UK security agencies.
Johnson had come under growing political pressure to not only dump Huawei but also adopt a tough line with China for its treatment of Hong Kong and repression of ethnic Uighurs in the western Xinjiang region.
But he also pledged to voters last year to bring broadband access to all Britons by 2025.
British telecoms companies have warned that stripping out all existing Huawei equipment could cost them billions and take years to implement.
BT chief executive Philip Jansen even raised the possibility of Britain suffering service “outages”.
Dowden conceded that Tuesday’s announcement means more Britons will have to wait longer to get full access to the speedy new network.
“This means a cumulative delay to 5G roll-out of two to three years and costs of up to £2 billion ($2.5 billion, 2.2 billion euros),” he said.
“This will have real consequences for the connections on which all our constituents rely.”
Johnson has challenged the Trump administration to come up with a reliable and cost-effective alternative to the Chinese firm.
Britain is pushing for the creation of a 5G club of nations that can pool their resources and provide individual components for an alternative solution that could be applied across the world.
Dowden said South Korea’s Samsung and NEC of Japan were frontrunners, and talks were already at a “technical level”.
“Put simply, countries around the world — not just in the United Kingdom — have become dangerously reliant on too few vendors,” Dowden said Tuesday.
Tuesday’s announcement does not cover the older 3G and 4G networks because their equipment is not impacted by the US sanctions.