After months of indecision, the government has finally made a choice regarding an issue of substantial importance both to national security and diplomatic relations. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that this introduction could be describing a number of contemporary political issues, but, despite the abundance of controversies, the first decision of Boris Johnson’s majority government has caused quite a stir – most of it among his own membership.
This week, the government announced that Chinese tech giant Huawei would be allowed a substantial (albeit limited) role in the rollout of the UK’s 5G network in a move which upheld the position of the previous administration to the anger of many Conservative backbenchers.
The issue is a difficult one, made even more so by the fact that the UK is already dependent on Huawei for much of it’s 4G infrastructure. 5G technologies do not replace their predecessors but build on them, meaning that only Huawei can make use of existing 4G infrastructure. To replace this would not only take time but would have an estimated price tag of £120 billion; that’s more money than the highly controversial HS2. This huge expense comes before the construction of 5G networks has even begun – and it’s not the only cost that denying Huawei a role in Britain’s 5G infrastructure would incur.
Both the alternative providers, Swedish Ericsson and Finnish Nokia would be significantly more expensive than Huawei (largely because of the subsidies and support offered to Huawei by the Chinese government), and offer a lower quality service in return. Perhaps most importantly neither of the European options can match Huawei’s ambitious timetable, creating a delay of at least three years before 5G is ready for use.
The impact of this delay would be more damaging than it initially sounds. Improving the UK’s abysmal productivity is one of this government’s top priorities and, as Johnson’s campaign focus on ‘levelling up’ with ‘super-fast broadband’ indicated, improving technological infrastructure is at the top of the list of solutions to this persistent problem.
However, whilst denying Huawei a role in the 5G network would come with many issues, the other option is far from an easy choice. As China attempts to spread its global influence and the US becomes increasingly inward-looking allowing the Communist part of China (CCP) direct access to such an important element of our economic and security infrastructure could grant them what many would argue is an unnecessary and dangerous level of influence and – perhaps more importantly – leverage.
For what it’s worth, the CEO of Huawei has consistently argued that the company is under no greater obligation to provide information to the CCP than western tech companies are to their respective governments, and that the company has nothing to do with Chinese espionage operations (although the recent arrest of two Huawei employees in Poland makes these claims seem dubious at best). On top of this, UK security organisations have been clear that they believe they can manage any potential threats posed by the company’s involvement, a position which should serve to reassure at least some of Johnson’s critics.
There’s also the argument that the only way to reduce dependence on Chinese technology is to take the leap and give the kind of boost to western companies that might create a viable market. If that’s true, countries like the UK will have to lead the way. Furthermore, allowing Huawei to build large parts of the 5G network could lead future governments into the exact same dilemma the current one faces when they begin to consider upgrading even further.
Ultimately, like many issues in contemporary politics, it’s a gamble. It’s entirely possible that concern over Huawei will be looked back upon in the future as much ado about nothing. We may indeed be able to reap all the many benefits of the move and never see the potential downsides manifest. But there’s an equally strong chance that future governments could come to regret Johnson’s decision just as much as he regrets that made to allow Huawei into our 4G network over a decade ago. Either way, the first decision of Johnson’s majority has been made. Only time will tell how it will be judged.