Transatlantic Relations in Crisis: Huawei Gets Partial Access in European 5G Networks

Huawei outlet
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The recent news of the London School of Economics (LSE) being  in talks with Chinese tech giant Huawei for funding (to the tune of 105,000 GBP)  for a 3 year study on ‘5G’, has generated an intense debate, with regard to not just the increasing clout of the Chinese company in the west, but also links between western governments, and educational institutions with the tech giant. While LSE and Huawei are still in discussion stage, the ethics committee of the University has given its approval for funding, for the study, in principle. 

A number of academics as well as politicians in the UK have criticized the LSE for accepting funding from Huawei, arguing that the acceptance of funding could result in institutions like LSE compromising their academic integrity, and could be used by Beijing to legitimize unethical practices.

Last year, in January 2019, Oxford University had taken a decision that it would suspend any funding from China. The University cited public concerns with regard to ‘UK partnerships with Huawei’ as the main reason for suspending existing funding. 

The University drew flak from a number of Conservative MPs for accepting funding from the Dutch Arm of Huawei for Oxford Innovation Services OSI, the University’s venture capital fund, which is funding start-up initiatives and provides financial support for academic research — which helps in generating profits. The MPs stated that Oxford needed to think beyond its financial benefits and should re-think the decision. 

UK’s go ahead for Huawei’s participation in its 5G Network

The news of LSE being involved in discussions with Huawei for research funding, comes days after UK gave a go ahead to Huawei (classified as a high risk vendor by the UK government) to participate in its ‘non-core’ infrastructure, also known as RAN (Random Access Network) of its 5G program. Huawei would not be allowed in ‘sensitive’ parts of the network. Apart from this, the Boris Johnson administration capped the share of Huawei in RAN network at 35%. The UK government has also imposed a number of restrictions in order to address security concerns. For instance, Huawei would not be permitted in sensitive geographic locations in the UK like military bases and nuclear sites. The decision by the Boris Johnson administration to participate in the development of the UK’s 5G network has drawn serious criticism within UK, including from Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. A number of Conservative MPs opposed any kind of involvement of Huawei in UK’s 5G network. Senior leaders of the party have written to other MPs warning that the inclusion of Huawei in UK’s 5G network (albeit at 35%) could pose to be a security hazard, and will harm ties with other members of the 5 Eyes alliance (which apart from the UK, includes Australia, Canada, US, New Zealand).

Strain in UK-US ties 

Predictably, UK’s decision with regard to allowing participation of Huawei in its 5G network has been severely criticized by the senior members of the current US administration, including US President Donald Trump himself, Vice President Mike Pence and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. During a telephonic conversation with Boris Johnson, Trump is supposed to have expressed his displeasure, at the Johnson administration’s openness towards Huawei’s participation in UK’s 5G network. It would be pertinent to point out that Johnson has also postponed his trip to the US (many believe that the US stance on Huawei has not gone down well in the UK).

The US takes a tough stance vis-à-vis Huawei

The US itself has taken a very tough stance vis-a-vis Huawei. In November 2019, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC)  designated China’s Huawei and ZTE as national security risks. The US rural carrier customers of these companies were prohibited from access to an 8.5 billion USD  government fund for purchasing equipment. In May 2019, an order was passed by the Trump administration, according to which the US companies were prohibited from using telecommunications equipment made by firms such as Huawei which posed a threat to national security. 

EU’s approach vis-à-vis Huawei similar to UK 

While the US has urged all of its allies to be cautious vis-à-vis Huawei, EU too has followed a similar approach to UK, and in guidelines brought out for member states, it has imposed no blanket ban but taken a cautious approach. The EU has created a ‘security’ tool box which restricts the role of ‘high risk’ vendors in sensitive parts of the network. The guidelines also lay emphasis on the need for a diversity of vendors.

Need for nuance and pragmatism

While security concerns are genuine, it is important to keep a few factors in mind. First, a number of countries are dependent upon China not just in terms of trade, but there is also a large presence of Chinese students, in a number of countries, including the US and UK. It is thus important to adopt a nuanced stance and not link security to every issue. The Trump administration, apart from taking on China in the economic sphere has adopted knee jerk measures which are harming the United States economically (this has been acknowledged by US business lobbies, strategic analysts and even some policy makers). Only recently for instance, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned governors of the US states to be cautious in their links with China, and that Beijing was trying to capitalize on political divisions within the US. This paranoia is uncalled for, because there has been a broad consensus in the US, across the political divide with regard to US ties with China. Aggressive economic policies or visa restrictions which are impulsive and not well thought out have a detrimental impact on the economic interests of the US. Also sub-national links, including Governor Level dialogues between China and the US have helped in promoting economic links as well as people to people ties which have played a role in improving ties and removing misunderstandings.

Second, the US cannot expect its allies to blindly toe its line on issues like Huawei. The Trump Administration itself has not been on the same page with its allies on a number of issues, be it trade, the functioning of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation NATO, or dealing with Iran. A number of allies, including UK, Germany, France and even Japan have often complained about Trump being not just excessively transactional and unpredictable, but also not consulting allies on crucial issues.

Third, in dealing with companies like Huawei there has to be a pragmatism in place. While concerns with regard to funding for universities are legitimate as far as its participation in 5G programs is concerned, merely excluding Huawei can not be a policy. If countries have imposed safe guards, unnecessary paranoia does no service to anyone.

US allies like the UK, are likely to see their own interests  and they will not, and need not be on the same page as the US on every issue, including the issue of whether or not, Huawei should be part of a 5G network or not. It is important that the Trump Administration which from time to time has given short shrift to allies, is more reasonable and pragmatic, and refrains from issuing diktats on crucial policy issues.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics. 

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