Britain’s plan to phase out the use of Huawei equipment from its 5G networks has been met with opposition from Beijing – but has also attracted criticism at home for not going far enough.
China hawks within the Conservative Party have accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government of adopting delaying tactics by letting British telecoms companies delay the removal of the Chinese tech giant’s products until 2027.
For the Beijing government, however, the so-called “golden era” in relations – cemented five years ago when Queen Elizabeth welcomed President Xi Jinping to Britain – has given way to a new era of diplomatic tension that has not been seen in decades.
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On Tuesday, Westminster tried to minimise the impact on UK-China ties by saying the ban was down to US sanctions that banned Huawei from using US-patented technology. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre said these could lead to “security and reliability problems” with the company’s equipment.
That, British officials say, explains why existing Huawei equipment in the British 3G and 4G networks will not be affected because it would not be affected by the new US policy.
Asked about possible Chinese retaliation, a high-ranking British official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they would be prepared for possible cyberattacks.
When asked about the ban on Wednesday, a Chinese government spokeswoman stopped short of directly mentioning retaliation, but said Beijing would take “any necessary measures” to protect Chinese business interests overseas.
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“Without any concrete evidence, the UK have acted in concert with the US, cited unfounded risks as excuses and repeatedly discriminated against, suppressed and excluded Chinese firms,” Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, told reporters.
Describing it as the “wrong decision”, she added it “seriously shook the basis of mutual trust between China and the UK”.
She continued: “This is not a question of one company or one industry, but … a question of Chinese investments facing grave threats, and a question about whether the UK is still an open, fair and non-discriminatory market.”
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, rejected Hua’s criticism, saying: “Chinese investment in the UK is significantly greater than UK investment in China.
“The UK has consistently been a very open economy to investors from around the world including China. And it is simply untrue to claim otherwise.
“Beijing, however, operates a very closed economy, which is simply not comparable.”
The nationalistic state-run newspaper Global Times went further than Hua and called on the Chinese government to retaliate “otherwise would we be seen as easy to bully”.
An editorial in the newspaper said: “Such retaliation should be public and painful for the UK.”
But such threats are likely to further embolden the hawks in Parliament, particularly those in the Conservative Party.
“If the telecoms firms believe Huawei can be taken out of 5G by 2025, why is there a delay until 2027? Why is there no ban on 3G and 4G?” Bob Seely, a Conservative member of parliament, asked.
“And will telecoms firms be allowed to continue to put Huawei into the system for several more years with kit already purchased or that will be purchased over the next six months?”
Huawei said the move by the British government was “bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone” and threatened to “move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide”.
But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the news, saying: “The UK joins a growing list of countries from around the world that are standing up for their national security by prohibiting the use of untrusted, high-risk vendors.”
BT Openreach, the largest British broadband provider, told the BBC it had recently struck a deal to buy full-fibre network kit from a new supplier – the US firm Adtran – but the first deliveries would only start in 2021.
Additional reporting by Catherine Wong
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