Britain banned mobile network operators from installing Huawei 5G equipment in 2020 and ordered them to remove any existing Huawei equipment by 2027. British Telecom was asked to complete the transition from Huawei by January 2023 but recently requested additional time to avoid service disruptions.
In a Cabinet Office meeting in May 2019, a delegation of US officials dismissed their British counterparts’ report on the safety of Huawei 5G equipment and literally shouted down their allies from across the pond for several hours straight, according to author Richard Kerbaj in an upcoming new book. ‘The Secret History of the Five Eyes,’ by Kerbaj, will be released on September 1.
According to a British intelligence official who attended the meeting, US deputy national security advisor Matthew Pottinger only shouted and was entirely uninterested in the UK’s analysis of Huawei’s product safety.
The American message was that they did not want the UK to do this (use Huawei equipment) and that the UK had no idea how evil China was. The official recalled that it was five hours of yelling with a scripted, angry, and strangely non-threatening script. Pottinger was unconcerned when the UK offered a policy discussion. The UK even stated that it did not dispute the analysis of the Chinese threat and explained its technicalities, but US officials were uninterested. Pottinger was constantly and repeatedly annoying.
Ciaran Martin, the former UK National Cyber Security Center chief in charge of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) analysis of the Chinese company’s equipment to look for vulnerabilities, was also present at the meeting.
Martin noted that the UK was eager to collaborate with the US to counter [China’s] ambitions. The issue was that the UK didn’t consider Huawei’s limited involvement in UK 5G to be the most important aspect of a much larger strategic challenge, whereas the US was only interested in that part of the problem for reasons the UK couldn’t fathom.
US intelligence and officials in Washington also pressured other members of the English-speaking Five Eyes Alliance to ban Huawei, with New Zealand and Australia doing so in late 2018 and Canada delaying its decision until May 2022. In February 2019, then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Britain that using Huawei equipment would jeopardise US national security. The Commerce Department placed Huawei and dozens of its affiliates on a trade blacklist the same month as the contentious May 2019 meeting.
The CIA also started an intimidation campaign, attempting to “discredit” the UK’s position with their French, German, Italian, and Norwegian counterparts, and expressing superficial concerns about Britain’s “misjudgment” of the situation, according to Kerbaj. British intelligence officials characterised the CIA’s actions as an open “black ops” mission against an ally.
Martin was said to have assured his US counterparts that Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G network would not jeopardise Five Eyes channels, which are linked to networks separate from and inaccessible to Huawei, as well as government systems and nuclear facilities. These assurances, however, were insufficient for the Americans.
According to Sir Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador to the US at the time, the US delegation didn’t have any compelling technical arguments that undermined the GCHQ case.
He recalled that GCHQ was rather unimpressed. The encounter revealed that the US case was primarily political rather than technical. So GCHQ stuck to their guns, as did the prime minister at first, Darroch explained.
Boris Johnson, who initially backed Martin’s recommendations on Huawei, barred the Chinese firm from operating in the UK in July 2020 after the US presented London with a fait accompli by prohibiting the Chinese firm from using US-made chips in its 5G equipment. The move has caused a multiyear delay in Britain’s 5G rollout, with economists estimating that removing Huawei equipment by the 2027 deadline will cost more than £2 billion.
Martin, who resigned as GCHQ CSC chief in late 2020, told Kerbaj that the Huawei 5G saga had rendered Britain “entirely dependent on Nokia and Ericsson” and that while the UK “trusts” these companies, “in reality, anyone can try to hack anything.”
Is the UK seriously claiming that they cannot be hacked because they are not Chinese? For example, by neighbouring Russia or perhaps China? he inquired.
Huawei has consistently denied that its equipment has built-in capabilities for use by the Chinese government for malicious purposes, emphasising that it is a private, independent company with no ties to Chinese authorities. To assuage any privacy concerns, the company has expressed a willingness to sign a ‘no-spy’ or ‘no-backdoor’ guarantee, a commitment that its Western competitors have yet to match.