The British government’s decision to ban Huawei Technologies from participating in its fifth generation, or 5G, mobile network highlights how the U.K. — and other European countries — have become caught in the crossfire between an unpredictable U.S. and a newly assertive China.
Only a few weeks ago, the government, supported by advice from its spy agencies, was confident that the security threat posed by Chinese involvement in its advanced telecoms network was manageable. The screeching U-turn is the result of relentless pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and China’s own actions, especially the crackdown in Hong Kong.
The U.K. now joins countries ranging from Australia to Japan and Germany recalibrating relations with China. Each has been unsettled by Xi’s initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic, suppression of the Uighurs and a more muscular approach in the East Asian neighborhood. Xi’s assertiveness contrasts with the “hide your strength, bide your time” stance adopted by former leader Deng Xiaoping, admittedly a generation ago.
Britain’s equivocal position on Huawei long served as cover for European countries eager for a cheap, fast upgrade to their cellular networks. Now it seems European governments, like the U.K., will have to choose between Washington and Beijing, even as business groups have become more outspoken about Xi’s “China First” industrial policy.
Back in 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government invited the Chinese into the twin nerve centers of U.K. national security: nuclear energy and telecommunications. At the time, George Osborne, then finance minister, boasted: “No economy in the west is as open to Chinese investment as the U.K.”