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Arnold Ahlert / Apr. 16, 2020

Boot Huawei Out of the UK

Here's hoping Boris Johnson reconsiders Britain's plan to rely on Chinese technology.

“The [National Health Service] has saved my life, no question.” —UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson following his recovery from coronavirus

Does a serious case of coronavirus — one that put Johnson in intensive care, and will now require several more weeks of recuperation — focus the mind?

“Chinese tech giant Huawei was blasted today after attempting to use the coronavirus pandemic as a bargaining tool in its battle to remain part of the UK’s 5G network,” the Daily Mail reported Monday. “The firm, which has close links to to the country’s Communist state machinery, urged Boris Johnson to avoid doing Britain ‘a disservice’ by cutting it out of the next generation roll-out.”

A disservice? Blessing would be more like it. In January, the UK decided to allow Huawei to continue to be part of its 5G networks, despite pressure from the United States not to do so. Johnson’s government assured itself that banning the tech giant from supplying parts to the “core” part of its network, limiting it to providing only 35% of parts in the network’s “periphery,” and keeping it away from areas near military bases and nuclear sites would be a sufficient bulwark against Chinese spying efforts.

A Downing Street press release at the time noted that Johnson had spoken with President Donald Trump to address such concerns. “The prime minister underlined the importance of like-minded countries working together to diversify the market and break the dominance of a small number of companies,” it said.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also addressed concerns expressed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had warned the UK that “we won’t be able to share information” with nations that put [Huawei] into their “critical information systems.” The minister told the House of Commons, “Nothing in this review affects this country’s ability to share highly sensitive intelligence data over highly secure networks both within the UK and our partners, including the Five Eyes.”

What neither entity bothered to mention? China warned the UK that if it failed to implement the rollout, there would be “substantial” repercussions with regard to other trade and investment plans.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, got it exactly right: “I fear London has freed itself from Brussels only to cede sovereignty to Beijing.”

That same month, the UK’s first two patients tested positive for coronavirus. By early March, cases of coronavirus began to surge. As of Tuesday, the UK’s Office for National Statistics announced that 5,979 deaths had occurred as of Apr. 3. Moreover, one-third of NHS staff, as well as people defined as “key workers” — all of whom were tested for coronavirus because they have shown symptoms, or live with symptomatic people — have tested positive for it.

As for the substantial economic repercussions implied by China’s threat, the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility warned that the UK’s economy could shrink as much as 35% if the current lockdown lasted three months, while the International Monetary Fund warned the virus would plunge the UK into its deepest slump in more than a century.

Despite these almost unfathomable realities, the nation seemingly remains mired in denialism. In March, a revolt by 38 Conservative MPs who proposed ending the Chinese firm’s participation in the 5G project — by 2023 — was defeated. And while MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence service, and MI5, its domestic counterpart, expressed concerns about China’s response to the virus and the UK’s relationship with Beijing, the agencies apparently still believe the government made the right call in granting Huawei access to Britain’s 5G network.

Unsurprisingly, Huawei’s UK chief Victor Zhang continued to champion the deal. In an open letter, he drew attention to the work his company has done keeping the UK connected during the pandemic, even as home data use increased by at least 50% since the virus first hit, placing “significant pressure” on telecom systems. He further noted the pandemic has revealed how many people, especially those living in rural communities, are “stuck in a digital slow lane,” adding that those who attack his company do so “without presenting any evidence.”

In February, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei dismissed pressure engendered by the United States. “There’s no way the U.S. can crush us,” he boasted. “The world cannot leave us because we are more advanced. Even if they persuade more countries not to use us temporarily, we can always scale things down a bit.”

Ren further insisted his company would never engage in any spying efforts on behalf of the government. “Our company will never undertake any spying activities,” he stated. “If we have any such actions, then I’ll shut the company down.”

Reality says otherwise. Chinese law requires companies to “support, co-operate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work.” Moreover, the notion that Ren could simply shut the company down — as opposed to him being “disappeared” and replaced — is absurd.

Meanwhile, Huawei marches on. Of the three-out-of-four UK mobile networks that decided to use Huawei in their network’s “peripheries,” two of them — Vodafone and EE — have already exceeded the 35% restriction. Nonetheless, as of January 2020, the UK’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) guidelines gave operators three years to reduce their dependency.

Considering what’s happened in the last three months — courtesy of Chinese government duplicity — that timeline is ridiculous. Even more so when one also considers that Trump administration cybersecurity chiefs (and their Australian counterparts) expressed concerns that the definition of “periphery” and “core” will become increasingly blurred.

Moreover, the potential for that blurring was conceded in January. “UK network operators acknowledge that over time more functions will indeed move from centralised sites to individual exchanges and even base stations themselves,” BBC News reported. “But they are adamant that they can still design the architecture of their networks to keep the core distinct and protected.”

Really? Will a country in lockdown for the foreseeable future — one where NHS staff may begin giving people over 65 years of age health “scores” to determine waiting-list positions for potentially overloaded intensive care units — still buy into such assurances?

Some Brits get it. “Over time, we have allowed ourselves to grow dependent on China and have failed to take a strategic view of Britain’s long-term economic, technical and security needs,” stated a letter written by 15 Conservative MPs to Boris Johnson — one day before he was hospitalized.

By contrast, supporters of the agreement insist greater connectivity is needed to boost economic growth, and that excluding the company would raise costs and slow down delivery of more reliable networks.

If that rationale has a familiar ring, maybe it’s because Americans were told that globalism would be a “net plus,” even as the middle of our country was hollowed out — and our own national-security vulnerabilities were conspicuously ignored.

Here’s hoping Johnson has a speedier recovery than currently predicted. Either way, it appears he will have plenty of time to reconsider the benefit of having a national-security-related business relationship with a wholly irresponsible nation that might have killed him — and has killed thousands of his fellow countrymen.

At some point cooperation becomes collaboration, Mr. Johnson.

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