In Brexit Britain, Theresa May could never have afforded to ban Huawei

The Huawei leaks have split the Conservative cabinet – but banning the firm would have pushed back the launch of 5G in the UK by several years.

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Over the last year, the US government has conducted a ferocious lobbying campaign against Huawei, the Chinese tech giant seeking to rebuild the world’s telecoms networks. American officials claim the company is an arm of the Chinese state and could be forced to spy on citizens and businesses at Beijing’s behest (allegations Huawei firmly denies).

The US has even threatened to withhold intelligence from states which buy the company’s telecoms equipment. But on 24 April, as representatives of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance prepared to meet publicly on British soil for the first time, the campaign began to unravel.

A member of the National Security Council leaked Theresa May’s decision to defy American pressure to ban Huawei equipment to the Telegraph and Guardian. The Prime Minister has chosen to limit the company’s work to non-core parts of the 5G network. The leaks, which could prompt an inquiry, demonstrate just how political the issue has become. May’s decision has reportedly split the cabinet; some of her most senior ministers have pushed for an outright ban. In reality, she could never have afforded to do so.

The first 5G deployments will run across 4G networks. A total ban would have forced mobile operators to strip out Huawei components from their existing infrastructure and replace them with more expensive hardware. Huawei’s tech might not be better than its rivals, but it is cheap. Banning the firm would have been hugely expensive and pushed back the launch of 5G in the UK by several years.

While the decision to limit Huawei’s telecoms equipment could aggravate Beijing, an outright ban would have been more damaging still. If the UK is to strike a trade deal with China after Brexit, Huawei is likely to play a key role. The company sees Britain as a gateway to other Western markets and in 2018 pledged to spend £3bn on British products and services in a bid to secure the government’s support. Beijing would not have easily forgiven the UK had it decided to turn its back on one of its biggest exporters.

By limiting rather than banning Huawei’s presence in the UK, May has sought to balance the competing demands of the US and China, as well as those of its telecoms operators and intelligence agencies. But while it may be the path of least resistance, it is still likely to have an impact on the UK’s relationship with the US. The timing of the leaks is particularly embarrassing.

As reports emerged on Wednesday morning, representatives of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, which comprises the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, were gearing up to make a rare onstage appearance at the government’s CyberUK conference in Glasgow.

Ciaran Martin, the head of the National Cyber Security Centre, sought to downplay claims the move had created a rift in the alliance. “Critical infrastructure protection is a core priority,” he told delegates. “It includes all sorts of systems and, as with everything in the Five Eyes, there is much more that unites us than divides us.” Rob Joyce, a senior cyber security advisor to the US National Security Agency (NSA), said the “Five Eyes” alliance was united in banning Huawei from the most sensitive networks, but that “the realities of where do you define sensitive networks” remained a matter of “discussion”.

The decision on whether or not to ban Huawei will have been one of the most difficult Theresa May has had to make since becoming Prime Minister. It is not clear what the outcome of the review would have been if Britain had not been leaving a bloc with established trade links to both China and the US. But it’s likely that economic considerations will have been factored into the decision. It was already a given that Brexit would disrupt many areas of policymaking in the years to come. This review suggests that issues of national security are no exception.

Oscar Williams is editor of the NewStatesman's sister site NSTech.