US lawmaker warns Washington may shift Air Force assets away from Britain over Huawei national security concerns

Jodi Xu Klein

Senator Tom Cotton warned that the US is considering shifting Air Force assets away from Britain over national security concerns of China’s Huawei Technologies’ involvement in the European country’s 5G networks.

In rare testimony in front of the British House of Commons Defence Sub-Committee, the Republican lawmaker from Arkansas said the case for “heavy laydown” of Air Force assets in Britain was already being debated in Washington.

“Senior US officials are realising our troops will face an operational security risk in the United Kingdom that they wouldn’t otherwise face in the Pacific,” referring to Britain’s exposure to Huawei.

“And I say all this as a long-time defender and friend of our special relationship: it would be a mistake for any British lawmaker to misinterpret this potential realignment of US forces as a bluff or a simple messaging effort,” Cotton said.

“Today we judge the threats in the western Pacific to be more severe than threats in Europe,” he said. “China is a graver long-term threat to international peace and stability than Russia. So in the coming years, the United States plans to increase our defensive posture in the Pacific. This build-up may require us to shift assets from other commands.”

Cotton recently introduced an amendment to the annual US legislation determining defence budget, proposing a ban of the deployment of 48 next-generation US fighter jets to Britain.

The amendment, which was part of the National Defence Authorisation Act for 2021, is “to prohibit the stationing of new aircraft at bases in host countries with at-risk vendors in their 5G or 6G networks”, British newspaper The Telegraph reported.

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The US has warned over the years that Huawei and other Chinese telecoms companies such as ZTE may endanger national security as the companies could be obliged to give up information to Beijing.

The Trump administration put Huawei, which has in recent years risen to dominate in providing 5G technology globally, on a blacklist known as the Entity List last May, preventing the company from buying critical American products to advance its chip technology.

Over time the restrictions have been refined to close loopholes. This May, the Commerce Department announced plans to redefine “direct product” rules to “narrowly and strategically target Huawei’s acquisition of semiconductors that are the direct product of certain US software and technology”, preventing Huawei from obtaining products from semiconductor companies outside the US.

Washington has been lobbying allies around the world not to incorporate Huawei’s telecoms gear in their networks. But governments such as Germany and Britain have pushed back, insisting there are other ways to ensure security safety by setting up standards for 5G products and services.

After resisting pressure from the US for months, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears to have been preparing in recent weeks to phase out Huawei equipment, pressured by members of the Conservative Party to remove Huawei from Britain’s 5G infrastructure and the rest of its telecoms network by 2023.

On Tuesday, Cotton said he continued to observe and work with the British government and the decisions it takes to try to ensure that the alliance remains as strong as it always has been.

“I’ve seen the media reports suggest that could happen as early as 2023. I would welcome that doing it even earlier,” Cotton said. “I am a bit mystified by why you spend the money to build out a 5G network using one kind of technology only to tear it out four years later.”

Part of the problem the world faced, Cotton said, was there are so few providers of 5G equipment.

Cotton added he was encouraged by reports indicating that the British government intended to help lead efforts to develop alternatives to Huawei, saying “I'd welcome even closer cooperation between our nations on these matters.”

“There is another path: Britain can join the United States and other powerful free nations and work together on a 5G solution that doesn’t empower Chinese intelligence,” he said.

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