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Tory rebellion threatens Huawei’s future in 5G rollout

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The government’s plan to allow Shenzhen-based Huawei a limited role in the future of the UK’s telecommunications network is under threat from heightened hostility among Tory backbenchers.

In January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave the long-awaited nod to the world’s largest telecommunications manufacturer and other “high risk vendors”, permitting Huawei to provide equipment for the non-core parts of the UK’s 5G networks. The conditions mean that Huawei may provide equipment for no more than 35 per cent of the Radio Access Network (antennas, base stations, and other peripheral parts of the next-generation mobile infrastructure) while rivals like Ericsson will provide the security-critical network core. Huawei will also be excluded from “sensitive geographic locations such as nuclear sites and military bases”.

These conditions should limit the risk of Huawei manipulating data being transmitted within the network. However, many remain critical of the decision. The main argument made against Huawei’s inclusion is that it will threaten national security; under a 2017 law, companies based in China are required to cooperate with government intelligence and security agencies.

Huawei has repeatedly rejected the notion that its 5G equipment could be used as an earpiece for the Chinese government.

Many Tory backbenchers oppose the inclusion of Huawei, with the government’s 80-seat majority being drastically cut to 24 during a recent vote on a rebels’ amendment proposing that Huawei should be excluded from the UK’s 5G network by 2023. The amendment was backed by several high-profile Conservative MPs, including former cabinet ministers, a Commons committee chair, and the chair of the 1922 Committee.

The government hoped to win over backbench rebels before an as-yet-unscheduled final vote on the issue, with a campaign supporting the partial inclusion of Huawei.

However, it is becoming increasingly possible that the government’s proposals may be rejected by MPs amid mounting questions about the UK’s future relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), on account of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab acknowledged in a press conference this week that once the coronavirus pandemic has ended, the government cannot return to “business as usual” regarding its relationship with the CCP. Lord Hague, the former Conservative leader and foreign secretary, said that the UK cannot be dependent on a state that does not “play by our rules”.

Tom Tugendhat, the Tory chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, commented: “I think the mood in the parliamentary party has hardened and I think it’s a shared realisation of what it means for dependence on a business that is part of a state that does not share our values. That has become clearer.”

He explicitly stated that he did not believe the government will be able to pass its legislation.

Tory MP Damian Green, who previously served as first secretary of state, said in an interview: “We need to devise a proper, realistic exit strategy from relying on Huawei, which will be difficult for some of our telecom providers so they need to know the government is determined to drive down Huawei’s involvement to zero per cent over a realistic timescale, because that will affect everyone’s procurement decisions.”

Excluding Huawei from the UK’s telecommunications infrastructure would present a challenge for operators, who would be forced to remove existing Huawei equipment from their networks, including their 4G networks. Just replacing Huawei equipment with Ericsson alternatives in order to comply with the 35 per cent cap (approximately in line with its market share in 4G) is expected to cost BT approximately £500m. The move would also be likely to delay the UK’s 5G rollout by at least a year as Huawei is considered the global leader in 5G equipment.

Huawei defended its role in the rollout of 5G in an open letter from its UK head Victor Zhang published earlier this week. The letter reiterated that no concrete evidence had been presented to demonstrate that Huawei presents a national security risk and warned that “disrupting our involvement in the 5G rollout would do Britain a disservice,” citing a 50 per cent boost in home data use during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement, a government spokesperson said: “Our position has not changed. We are clear-eyed about the challenge posed by Huawei, which is why we are banning them from sensitive and critical parts of the network and setting a strict 35 per cent cap on market share.”

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