GP Insights

GP Insights # 240, 1 February 2020

UK and EU on 5G and Huawei
Parikshith Pradeep

What happened?
On 28 January, the British Government capped the use of telecom equipment from ‘high-risk vendors’(HRV) at 35 per cent in their 5G operations. In simple words, HRV’s such as Huawei would continue to operate in the UK’s telecom sector in a limited manner. This comes after intense lobbying by the US. The hardware application is restricted to radio access networks that do not handle sensitive technology compared to ‘core networks’ which prove crucial for telecom operations. Additionally, Britain has banned the use of such hardware in military bases and critical locations.

On 29 January, the European Commission laid out recommendations titled ‘Cybersecurity of 5G networks EU Toolbox of risk-mitigating measures’ that address security concerns regarding 5G. Interestingly, the document does not ban the presence of Huawei, instead recommends cybersecurity measures to the 27 members on avoiding 5G risks. Thierry Brenton, the European Commissioner for internal markets, stated the grouping would not ban anyone based on nationality unless they followed security measures. 

What is the background?
The recent move is in tune with Britain’s stance on 5G since 2018, that vowed to do away with Huawei’s 4G hardware by 2021 and restrict 5G in ‘core networks’. Alongside Theresa May’s approval of Huawei, the government’s cybersecurity advisory organisation in February, last year, called Huawei’s induction a ‘manageable risk’ that could be mitigated. The official delay owes to the debate on ‘security vs technology’ and apprehensions over the Chinese led tech giant. On a fancy note, Boris Johnson was seen taking photos with a Huawei phone immediately after his anti-Huawei stance at the NATO summit.

5G apprehensions in Europe have culminated with increasing market penetration by the Chinese technology giant. The European Commission’s endorsement follows its March 2019 Commission Recommendation and the Council’s request for examining security issues in 5G. While the 2019 commission document does not make direct reference to Huawei, it highlights the need for ‘strategic autonomy’ mentioning the ‘EU-China, a Strategic Outlook’, a joint document. Additionally, France and Germany’s inclusion of Huawei in their 5G rollout has started setting the trend to the European 5G culture.

Considering Europe’s technological demands, it supports the limited application of vendors, unlike the US, that advocates a complete ban citing intellectual property threat and espionage from the Chinese. Trump has repeatedly advocated for banning products from the Chinese giant. In February 2019, the US State Department pushed the grouping to avoid services from Huawei. Accordingly, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo had tweeted, ‘We must ensure the security of 5G equipment by limiting authoritarian regimes’ access to, and control over, our networks.’ The US has been persistent in distancing Europe’s 5G from Huawei, for Trump in one of his calls with the British Prime Minister, pressed for cooperation against the telecom giant. 

Huawei’s CEO Ren Zhengfei at the Word Economic Forum in Davos stated that the company could ‘survive further attacks’ taking a direct jab at the US. There has been consistent tension with a slew of events including the US blacklisting of Huawei, the arrest of CFO Ming, Google’s android ban on Huawei and techno-legal disputes.

What does it mean?
First, this development could prove the US’s international efforts in banning Huawei’s 5G advancements ineffective. Evident is Trump’s support to PM Boris Johnson and this move comes at a crucial time for Britain, considering its exit from the EU and the US’s importance. Further complicating are the EU guidelines that could widen gaps and create new irritants. This could also disembark the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence grouping that includes the UK and the US with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. A long-range assessment of the situation would not overlook arm twisting diplomacy by big powers.

Second, it could prove too early to raise concerns regarding Britain’s technological capacity building in non-critical telecom sectors, but Huawei’s expertise and digital boom in Europe raise questions. While this could hamper bilateral security arrangements, it furthers concern regarding the participation of Chinese tech in non-telecom sectors. This makes it important for countries to materialise tech transfers and cooperation towards digital independence. 

Third, in the 5G debate, China has distanced Huawei in rhetoric. But the US could see this through their trade dispute with China considering the recently concluded ‘Phase One’ of the deal. 

Finally, this is a testimony to Chinese inroads into developed countries despite its history with less developed ones across South America and Africa. While one should not discredit the Chinese progress, it is imperative advanced countries tread carefully in establishing ties given technology’s role in the changing world.

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