Boris Johnson has suggested he will arrive at a compromise solution over the decision on whether to let the Chinese company Huawei build parts of the UK’s 5G network in the face of US warnings that it would compromise intelligence-sharing.
During a university visit, the prime minister hinted that he would give Huawei some role in building the high-speed networks, but he faces considerable scepticism from Conservative backbenchers who used a parliamentary debate to raise concerns.
Speaking at the King’s College London mathematics school after launching a post-Brexit visa plan, Johnson insisted there could be a solution that was a “very, very important strategic win for the UK”.
Huawei is a Chinese telecoms company founded in 1987. Officials in Washington believe the company poses a security risk because the Chinese government will make the firm engineer backdoors in its technology, through which information could be accessed by Beijing. Donald Trump has banned US companies from sharing technology with Huawei and has been putting pressure on other nations to follow his lead.
The UK has accepted there is some risk in working with Huawei, but security services do not believe it to be unmanageable. The UK government has agreed in principle to allow Huawei to be involved in building “non-core” parts of the UK’s 5G network. With a final decision expected within weeks, the head of MI5 had recently said he was confident the US-UK intelligence-sharing relationship would not be affected if London gave Huawei the nod.
Poland’s internal affairs minister, Joachim Brudziński, has called for the European Union and Nato to work on a joint position over whether to exclude Huawei from their markets, after an Huawei employee was arrested on spying charges.
Much of the doubt surrounding Huawei stems from founder Ren Zhengfei’s background in China's People’s Liberation Army between 1974 and 1983, where he was an engineer. His daughter, Huawei’s senior executive Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada in December 2018 over allegations of Iran-sanctions violations.
Huawei insists it has never been asked to build any backdoor into its technology by the Chinese government and has offered to sign a “no spy agreement” with countries adopting it. The trade rivalry between the US and China has intensified in recent years and the firm believes the White House is simply using it as a weapon in that larger fight.
He said: “The way forward for us clearly is to have a system that delivers for people in this country the kind of consumer benefits that they want through 5G technology or whatever but does not in any way compromise our critical national infrastructure, our security, or jeopardise our ability to work together with other intelligence powers around the world. The Five Eyes security relationships we have, we’ve got to keep them strong and safe.”
A final decision is expected on Tuesday at a meeting of the National Security Council. When pressed on what that decision would be, Johnson said: “We are going to come up with a solution that enables us to achieve both those objectives and that’s the way forward.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have technological progress here in the UK, allow consumers, businesses in the UK to have access to fantastic technology, fantastic communications, but also protect our security interests and protect our key partnerships with other security powers around the world.”
Shortly after the visit, MPs held an emergency debate on Huawei in the Commons, in response to an urgent question from the Conservative backbencher Tom Tugendhat. He told MPs that allowing Huawei to supply 5G technology would “nest a dragon” into the heart of the UK’s “critical national infrastructure”.
Several senior Conservatives echoed the concerns, with one backbencher, the former party leader Iain Duncan Smith saying he had been told previously Johnson would opt for a total ban on Huawei in line with US demands. “I was led to believe this government would not make that decision,” he said.
The Labour frontbencher Tracy Brabin accused Johnson of “doing a runner” by not turning up to parliament, leaving the government’s response to the culture minister Matt Warman.
But Kevan Jones, a Labour backbencher and former member of the intelligence and scrutiny committee, said the committee, which has access to classified material and has reviewed Huawei, had said “from the briefings and information I have seen, I think that any risk can be mitigated”.
The US has stepped up warnings in recent weeks against Britain allowing Huawei any role at all, urging the prime minister to match its ban because of fears that China could exploit security loopholes in order to spy on British citizens.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who is due to visit the UK later this week, tweeted on Monday: “The UK has a momentous decision ahead on 5G. British MP Tom Tugendhat gets it right: ‘The truth is that only nations able to protect their data will be sovereign’.”
Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs committee, also warned that the move would hand power to Beijing.
Johnson is expected to take the final decision on Tuesday after a meeting with security advisers and the cabinet, which includes some sceptics of Huawei, including Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, and Priti Patel, the home secretary.
A minister is likely to make a statement to the House of Commons on the final decision in the afternoon.
Downing Street sources have said there is no other credible supplier for the infrastructure Huawei would provide, and that the US has been unable to suggest one. Britain’s spy agencies argue that any risk that Huawei technology could be compromised by the Chinese state to undertake surveillance can be contained.