LONDON: Britain on Tuesday bowed to US pressure and ordered the phased removal of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from its 5G network despite warnings of retaliation from Beijing.

The policy reversal hands a major victory to US President Donald Trump’s administration in its geopolitical and trade battle with China.

But it threatens to further damage Britain’s relations with the Asian power and carry a big cost for UK mobile providers that have relied on Huawei equipment for nearly 20 years.

Digital minister Oliver Dowden’s announcement followed a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Boris Johnson of his cabinet and National Security Council that took the final decision to alter Britain’s 5G course.

“From the end of this year, telecoms providers must not buy any 5G equipment from Huawei,” Dowden told parliament.

He said the new guidelines also required all of Huawei’s existing 5G gear to be stripped out “by 2027”.

Huawei called the decision “politicised” and likely to put Britain “in the digital slow lane”. “This is about US trade policy and not security,” Huawei UK spokesman Ed Brewster said.

“This disappointing decision is bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone.”

Johnson infuriated Trump and upset some members of his own Conservative party by allowing the Chinese leader in global 5G technology to help roll out Britain’s speedy new data network in January.

The UK was then completing its tortuous departure from the European Union and looking to establish strong ties with powerful Asian economies that could fulfil Johnson’s vision of a “Global Britain”.

But the Trump administration told the UK government that its choice imperilled intelligence sharing because British signals could be intercepted or manipulated by China.

Washington believes the private company can also shut down rival countries’ 5G networks under Beijing’s orders in times of war.

Huawei has always denied this and pointed to two decades of cooperation with British security agencies that checked on the safety of its existing 3G and 4G networks.

The British review was triggered by Washington sanctions in May that blocked Huawei’s access to US chips at the heart of 5G networks.

The sanctions did not impact older 3G and 4G providers and Britain left its guidance for those networks unchanged.

Johnson had come under intensifying pressure to not only dump Huawei but also adopt a tough line with China for its treatment of Hong Kong and repression of ethnic Uighurs in the western Xinjiang region.

But he also pledged to voters last year to bring broadband access to all Britons by 2025.

British telecoms companies had lobbied strongly against the policy reversal because of the cost of taking existing equipment out and finding untested alternatives.

Dowden conceded Britons will now have to wait longer to get full access to the speedy new network.

“This means a cumulative delay to 5G roll-out of two to three years and costs of up to 2 billion ($2.5 billion, 2.2 billion euros),” he said.

“This will have real consequences for the connections on which all our constituents rely.” But officials insisted that Huawei had managed to install only a “small amount” of equipment since the 5G system began being offered to UK consumers last year.

Johnson has challenged the Trump administration to come up with a reliable and cost-effective alternative to the Chinese firm.

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2020

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