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15 July 2020

Boris Johnson’s U-turn on Huawei raises more questions than it answers

The new approach could have major consequences for how the UK operates as an independent trading nation. 

By Stephen Bush

British mobile producers will be banned from purchasing Huawei kit from 31 December, while the Chinese telecommunications company’s equipment will be stripped from the United Kingdom’s 5G networks by 2027.

It wasn’t clear in the House yesterday if that ban extends to the Emergency Services Network, the looming replacement to Airwave, which allows the emergency services to communicate with one another, or what the implications for the decision will be on the timeframe for the construction of the ESN. 

That highlights the big question about the UK’s change of approach on China: what does it mean beyond the big, showy and expensive act of ripping out Huawei from 5G? To what extent does it change the British approach on international development and trade? 

You can think, as I do, that it’s right for the British government to respond in a meaningful way to Hong Kong’s new security law and the ongoing mistreatment of the Uighur minority, but it is a policy with real costs, not only in terms of the upfront sums, but in the knock-on consequences for businesses and individuals with poor connectivity in the here and now. It has real consequences for how the UK operates as an independent trading nation outside any of the world’s major blocs. 

The big challenge of the government’s new approach on China is – to what extent is the British government revisiting its aims and strategy, beyond merely ripping out bits of our communications network?

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