Zhang Jingwei: What is behind the UK’s decisive stance on Huawei?


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Zhang Jingwei: What is behind the UK’s decisive stance on Huawei?


By: Zhang Jingwei    Source: Think China    Published: 2020-02-14

Editor's Note: US President Donald Trump was furious when his friend, British Prime minister Boris Johnson, decided to give Huawei a role in building the UK's 5G infrastructure. German Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to be going a similar direction in a position paper announced yesterday. Chinese academic Zhang Jingwei ponders the UK's move and thinks ahead to implications that it may have on the UK's wider relations with China and the US.

Huawei has changed China-US relations, and redefined relations between China, the US, and the UK.

After detaining the chief financial officer of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou, Canada came under pressure from China and the US. The youthful Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has fallen from grace as a respected politician familiar with Chinese politics and culture and is now branded a “two-faced” leader.

In contrast, Boris Johnson, also dubbed “Britain’s Trump”, is no longer derided after winning the general election, and doing the seemingly impossible of delivering Brexit. He has also been decisive in announcing that the UK would use Huawei technology with some restrictions.

Victory in the general election won Boris Johnson the approval of his countrymen, while the Huawei decision garnered praise from China, and is a blueprint of how the world’s major powers can deal with China and the US. The decision to use Huawei technology on a limited scale is also a testament to the UK Prime Minister’s diplomatic acumen, and the country’s influence as a major power.

The UK’s decisive stance on Huawei

It was a difficult decision for the UK to make. From Theresa May’s time as Prime Minister to Boris Johnson taking over, the country was subjected to great pressure from the US. As a member of the Five Eyes alliance which it helms with the US, the UK was under more stress than other European countries. As such, it compromised by excluding Huawei from the core of its 5G networks, while allowing the company to provide up to 35% of the non-core 5G equipment it needs, including base stations. According to Johnson, this would allow his people to enjoy affordable new technology without jeopardising national security.

By doing so, the UK has taken US sentiments into account and fulfilled its obligations as a part of the Five Eyes alliance. It should be noted that there is no concrete evidence that Huawei technology is a threat to the UK’s national security, nor to that of other countries.

To China, the UK’s decision to utilise Huawei technology, albeit on a limited scale, is a hard-earned victory, with the BBC calling it “an endorsement that will please Beijing”. On the other hand, to the US, the decision by the Boris Johnson government is a betrayal of the special relationship between the two countries. The UK is the most important US ally on both sides of the Atlantic, and both countries form the twin cores of the Five Eyes alliance — a partnership between key US allies.

As a staunch US ally, the UK’s decision is an affront to the US, and has provided Huawei with some respite from the US-led clampdown. The UK’s betrayal is a particularly hard slap in the face given the decisions of other US allies, such as Australia (also a member of the Five Eyes alliance) and Japan, and even non-US allies, such as Vietnam, not to use Huawei technology.

To make things worse, Donald Trump viewed Boris Johnson as a friend, and even voiced his support for Brexit. Clearly, Johnson has caught Trump and the US unawares with his decision. Thus, it is not surprising to hear the White House say it was “disappointed” with the decision. Both the Republican and the Democratic Party have not held back in expressing their anger towards the UK for doing so. (NB: The Financial Times reported that Trump vented “apoplectic” fury at Boris Johnson in a tense phone call over Britain’s decision to allow Huawei a role in its 5G mobile phone networks.)

Democratic Representative Ruben Gallego called for a reconsideration of the US’s special relationship with the UK, and stressed that “our intelligence sharing capability is going to be compromised by this penny-pinching action”. Other than saying that “this decision has the potential to jeopardise US-UK intelligence sharing agreements”, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham also pointed out that the decision “could greatly complicate a US-UK free trade agreement”. Republican Senator for Arkansas, Tom Cotton, mocked the UK for having “freed itself from Brussels only to cede sovereignty to Beijing”. The retorts from both parties reflect the unease of American society towards the US’s fragile leadership of its Western allies, and its paranoia towards China.

Paving the way for equidistant diplomacy

Putting aside the emotional outbursts, the US is more worried that the UK’s decision to use 5G technology from Huawei would thwart its clampdown of the company since Canada and New Zealand, the other members in the Five Eyes alliance, are likely to follow suit. Detaining Meng Wanzhou on behalf of the US has hurt relations between China and Canada. If Canada were to follow the UK in utilising Huawei 5G technology with restrictions, China-Canada relations would improve. As the smallest member of the Five Eyes alliance, New Zealand is very likely to follow the UK’s example.

The EU’s position is largely in line with that of the UK, which is to ensure security without excluding specific companies. Therefore, it will also follow the UK’s example. By extension, other countries and regions will also learn from what the UK has done. After all, Huawei’s 5G equipment is excellent value. Besides, since the 4G era, Huawei has been diligently developing its overseas markets. This makes it more economical and efficient (for existing customers) to upgrade to 5G equipment from Huawei.

In the past, the UK was the US’s ally in curbing China’s rise. Now, it has switched to a policy of equidistant diplomacy towards both China and the US. While it may seem like the UK has betrayed its ally, and Boris Johnson has fallen out with Donald Trump, the truth is that the UK is looking after its national interests. It was the same when it joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a Chinese initiative, despite the US and Japan doing their utmost to stop it from doing so.

Nonetheless, the UK’s boldness in going against the US is proof of this traditional powerhouse’s decisiveness and judgement. After it joined the AIIB, other developed countries (with the exception of the US and Japan) followed suit, proving that it was spot on with this crucial decision. Today, the AIIB is a global economic organisation that is on par with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Similarly, the rest of the world would follow the UK in choosing Huawei 5G technology in time to come.

It is also worth mentioning that China will look to reciprocate the UK’s goodwill. Following Brexit, it would be easier for the UK to reach a free-trade agreement with China. This would enhance its position during negotiations with the EU during the Brexit transition period.

As for retaliation from the US, the UK would not be afraid. Following Brexit, the UK has a bigger role to play as a mediator between the US and the EU. Since the US is not on good terms with the EU, it needs the UK’s assistance, and would not punish it harshly. The Boris Johnson government has played a good hand in managing the UK’s relations with China and the US respectively. In so doing, it has also reshaped the dynamics of the relations between the three countries.

Note: Reuters reports that lawmakers from German Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling conservatives have backed a position paper on 5G mobile networks on 12 February, that recommends tougher rules on foreign vendors while stopping short of calling for a ban on China's Huawei. This may not the direction that the US was hoping for, but it takes into account Germany's concerns that ruling Huawei out altogether would lead to repercussions from Beijing as three of its network operators are all customers of Huawei.

The author is a visiting fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.