US campaign against Huawei's 5G role in UK set to continue

Dan Sabbagh
Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The White House campaign against Britain’s decision to allow Huawei to supply 5G network technology is expected to continue after a critical UK-US meeting at Downing Street broke up without reaching agreement on the issue.

Sources said that the American delegation, led by acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, were unimpressed with attempts made by the prime minister’s chief aide Dominic Cummings to persuade them to work together on developing alternatives to the Chinese supplier.

The US still wants the UK to reconsider and ban Huawei altogether, and believes that British officials including the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, have failed to appreciate the depth of their unhappiness with the decision.

Although the US was keen not to upset the British by overtly briefing against them on the day of the meeting at No 10, the campaign of attrition in which senior White House officials warn of the security risks is expected to continue in the future. “The US was not encouraged by what they heard,” one source added.

It is not clear how the impasse between the two countries can be resolved, although some believe the US wants to see if a revolt by Conservative backbenchers, including David Davis and Iain Duncan Smith, can force Boris Johnson to back down.

Donald Trump spoke to Johnson on the phone a few hours after the meeting. However, to the surprise of the British, Huawei did not come up. Downing Street said the two discussed “a range of bilateral and international issues” and that they would meet at the G7 summit in the United States in June.

Last month, the UK proposed that Huawei would be limited to supplying 35% of 5G network equipment and be banned from providing kit at the core of the future high speed mobile phone network – but it requires legislation to be voted through parliament before it becomes final.

The rebel backbenchers have called for Downing Street to commit to eliminating Huawei entirely in the years ahead, and it had been thought this could be grounds for a compromise between the UK and the US, because that would allow time for other suppliers and technologies to emerge.

Huawei has become the leading supplier of 5G equipment in a market in which there are only two other significant competitors, Ericsson of Sweden and Nokia of Finland. Unusually for a high tech sector, there is no major US player.

The night before the meeting, Mulvaney told an audience of students at the Oxford Union that there could be “a direct and dramatic impact” on intelligence sharing between the countries, and that the US remained “very much concerned”.

The timing of those remarks irritated Downing Street, although it was the latest in a string of high level White House warnings about Huawei, made over the weekend by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, and Mark Esper, the defense secretary.

Trump himself waded in to the row on Sunday night, calling the US ambassador to Germany on Sunday night to pass on his concerns. The diplomat said he had been instructed “to make clear that any nation who chooses to use an untrustworthy 5G vendor will jeopardise our ability to share intelligence and information at the highest level”.

Britain’s security community has repeatedly said they believe that any risk that Huawei equipment could be compromised to allow mass surveillance by the Chinese state can be contained.

Huawei already supplies equipment for British 3G and 4G networks, and its software is already routinely monitored by a special unit supervised by signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, whose main criticism is that the code is poorly designed.

The British side was represented by Cummings and Sir Edward Lister, the prime minister’s chief of staff. Also present was US official Robert Blair, who specialises in international telecommunications policy, and is the lead administration official on Huawei.

Downing Street said that Huawei was not the only topic of conversation. A spokesman said: “The meeting was with a senior officials, including Edward Lister. They discussed a range of issues, including coronavirus, UK-US trade, the UK’s decision on 5G and foreign policy matters”.