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US restrictions on Huawei throw its involvement in UK 5G into question

Image credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

Huawei’s role in the UK’s 5G networks has again been thrown into doubt, following a tightening of US sanctions on the firm in May.

The US Government imposed restrictions on the Chinese tech giant that prevented it from using silicon made by American firms.

The decision led the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to carry out a review assessing the possible impact it could have on the UK’s networks.

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden told MPs the new review is needed to determine the “reliability” and viability of Huawei’s future within the UK infrastructure in the face of such restrictions.

After months of dithering about whether to allow Huawei to build the UK’s 5G networks, the Government finally caved in January and said it could play a limited role in non-core infrastructure that would hopefully limit the possibility of backdoors being installed to enable cyber espionage by the Chinese state.

While Huawei has repeatedly refuted such claims and said Washington is gripped by anti-Chinese hysteria, the firm is now considered a “high risk vendor” in the UK. The added US restrictions in May could limit further the meagre role that Huawei has been allowed to play.

“On Huawei, the position is very, very simple,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters. “I do want to see our critical national infrastructure properly protected from hostile state vendors, so we need to strike that balance and that’s what we’ll do.”

Dowden wants to see the playing field become more diverse so the UK is not dependent on a limited number of firms – currently only Huawei, Nokia and Siemens lead on 5G technology.

He added that it is the Government’s ambition to remove Huawei from the network “over time”, but refused to set a timeframe for such a move.

Huawei said it was investing billions of pounds in Britain to make Johnson’s vision of a “connected Kingdom” a reality.

“We have been in the UK for 20 years and remain focused on working with our customers and the government to ensure the country gets the jobs and economic growth created by 5G as quickly as possible,” said vice-president Victor Zhang.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has disputed suggestions that the US was bullying the UK into taking tougher action against Huawei.

“It’s not an American sanction against us, it’s an American sanction against the use of American IP (intellectual property) - not British IP - that seems to render part of Huawei equipment inoperable, so the United States are perfectly free to sanction whoever they want,” he said to the Defence Committee.

“If it was British IP being sanctioned by a third country, you might say you’re being bullied or pressurised but it’s not; my understanding is it’s about chip manufacturers and things coming out of Taiwan using US IP and we would impose our view - and we still do - on IP that we own, so I don’t think it’s a matter of US bullying.”

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