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Government to make ‘hardened assessment’ of China risks on 5G roll-out

Image credit: Mohamed Ahmed Soliman | Dreamstime.com

The UK government will take decision on its 5G supply chain based upon ‘a hardened assessment of the risks’ in light of security concerns over Chinese telecoms company Huawei, a minister has announced.

Speaking at a Westminster Hall debate on UK policy towards China, Foreign Office minister Mark Field told MPs any decisions about overseas involvement in the UK’s critical national infrastructure would be evidence-based, whether from China or elsewhere.

“As we look at our 5G telecoms infrastructure,” Field said at the debate held on 7 May. “I can assure the House that we shall have robust processes in place to manage risk and that we are committed to the highest possible security standards.”

During the meeting, Conservative MP Julia Lopez (Hornchurch and Upminster) said Chinese influence in the UK was “not without risk”.

Lopez said: “Broadly we have a decision to take about our approach. Do we wholeheartedly embrace the relationship with China? Do we welcome what it can bring, but handle with care? Or do we take a cautionary approach that would exclude whole sectors of our economy from Chinese input?

“The Huawei case encapsulates that dilemma and highlights some of the trade-offs at play in terms of our relations, in terms of critically important allies like the US,” she added.

“But it should also make us ask questions – why the Western world got so far behind in terms of the development of 5G technology that it became dependent on Chinese telecoms firms.”

Labour MP Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) said the leaks of the discussions from the National Security Council were “obviously wrong but they were also illuminating”.

She added: “What they showed the rest of us is there is still an unresolved dilemma and unresolved differences of view at the very top of Government.”

Responding for the Government, Field said China has become an “increasingly important source of investment” for the UK.

“We do welcome inward investment and like any country we need to ensure it does meet our national security needs,” Field said. “This is true when we look at investment in key national infrastructure whether from China or elsewhere.”

Field also said Huawei has had a “longstanding joint venture going back almost a decade and a half now with BT”, stating that, “arguably those who would oppose Huawei having any more involvement will have to recognise that the past has already been worked through.”

The debate was secured by Tory MP Leo Docherty, who said a “two-handed approach” was needed towards China, not least because the relationship is worth £68.5bn annually for the UK.

“I think the challenge for us is to have the wisdom to know what is good and what is bad and to be able to focus on the positives,” he explained. “We need to be able to recognise and deal with this duality of this relationship and we need what I would call a two-handed approach. 

“On the one hand, we should be reaching out a hand of friendship and cooperation and commercial exchange with our Chinese friends. But then with the other hand, we should be clearly delineating with red line areas that are off-limits.

“That would include areas of critical national infrastructure over which we must have absolute sovereignty. The other hand should call out domestic interference is that is taking place and it should also call for reciprocal respectfulness.”

In related news, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is set to meet Prime Minister Theresa May for talks in Downing Street and is expected to warn May over plans to involve Huawei in the UK’s 5G telecoms network.

Pompeo is the first member of President Trump’s administration to speak face-to-face with the PM and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt since the National Security Council (NSC) agreed to consider Huawei’s involvement last month.

Washington is urging allies to keep Huawei out of sensitive infrastructure programmes, citing fears that the company may provide a route for China’s communist regime to spy on the West.

May reportedly gave the green light to the company bidding for work on “non-core” aspects of the high-tech 5G network at the NSC meeting, overruling concerns from ministers including Gavin Williamson, who was later sacked as Defence Secretary over suspicions that he had leaked details of discussions.

Pompeo warned earlier this year that the US will not “partner” with countries that adopt Huawei systems. “We've made clear that if the risk exceeds the threshold for the United States, we simply won’t be able to share that information any longer,” he said in April.

He also said in March 2019 that problems may arise for nations that plan to build their next-generation wireless communications networks with equipment and software supplied by Huawei.

At the end of March 2019, Huawei’s deputy chairman Guo Ping insisted that cyber security is a top priority, following a report from the British Government accusing the Chinese tech giant of security failings.

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