Britain has bowed to US pressure and approved 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.
Britain’s digital minister Oliver Dowden announced the move in parliament, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired meetings with his Cabinet and the National Security Council.
“From the end of this year, telecoms providers must not buy any 5G equipment from Huawei,” he told lawmakers.
The new guidelines also require all existing Huawei gear to be stripped out by the end of 2026.
Huawei had been reportedly pushing for the full ban to take effect after the next general election scheduled to take place in 2024 at the latest that could potentially bring a new government to power with a more sympathetic approach.
Johnson infuriated Trump and upset some members of his own Conservative party by allowing the Chinese 5G leader 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 fulfill Johnson’s vision of a “global Britain”.
But the Trump administration told the UK government that its decision imperilled intelligence sharing and could even result in the relocation of some US fighter jets from England.
Washington believes the private Chinese company could either spy for Beijing or shut down rival countries’ 5G networks 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 new US sanctions in May that blocked Huawei’s access to US chips and semi-conductors at the heart of 5G networks.
The restriction raised the possibility of Huawei having to switch from trusted US suppliers to alternatives whose safety could not be guaranteed by UK security agencies.
Johnson is coming under growing political 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 have warned that stripping out all existing Huawei equipment could cost them billions and take years to implement.
BT chief executive Philip Jansen said Monday that Britain could suffer “outages” and potential security risks if the sector was forced to stop dealing with the Chinese firm.
“If you were to try and not have Huawei at all (in 5G activities) ideally we’d want seven years and we could probably do it in five,” he said.
Huawei said its UK chairman, former BP boss John Browne, stepped down early, giving two-months’ notice hours before the government’s final decision was announced.
Johnson’s government originally allowed Huawei to roll out up to 35 per cent of Britain’s 5G network under the condition that it stays out of “core” elements dealing with personal data.