LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - At least Britain consulted the experts over Huawei Technologies. Government ministers who dismissed the warnings of specialists about leaving the European Union were more receptive to scientific opinion when deciding on Tuesday to give the Chinese company limited access to the United Kingdom’s superfast 5G telecom networks. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s measured compromise gives cover to other European countries navigating the tricky path between Washington and Beijing.
The U.S.-led case against Huawei is essentially that Beijing might co-opt the Chinese company’s hardware and software to spy on the West. That is why President Donald Trump linked Johnson’s decision to the future of transatlantic intelligence cooperation. That argument always appeared to be based on heart rather than head, however. The logic against an outright ban is much stronger.
Start with the evidence. For the last decade, a bunker full of British spooks has done little but hunt for supposed security “back doors” buried in Huawei equipment. Their most sinister discoveries are some slipshod programming and security risks that they believe can be managed. Rejecting this weighty assessment in favour of evidence-light American warnings would have set a worrying precedent.
Britain’s decision to limit Huawei kit to the periphery of 5G networks – essentially transmitting towers and base stations – reduces its potential exposure. Another sensible precaution is keeping Huawei masts away from sensitive sites like Johnson’s Downing Street residence, military bases and nuclear power stations, though that last condition jars with the fact that a Chinese company is building Britain’s latest nuclear plant.
The ruling has financial benefits, too. The industry-funded GSMA reckons a Europe-wide ban on Huawei would have cost telecom operators an extra 55 billion euros to build out 5G networks. It might also have made the technology less stable. The only other equipment providers are Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia, both of which have developed an alarming habit of issuing profit warnings. By imposing a 35% cap on Huawei’s market share, Johnson is signalling his desire that at least three equipment suppliers contest the market.
Johnson’s decision is significant for other European countries, like Germany, that are caught between Far East and West. As it leaves the EU and shops around for post-Brexit trade deals, most notably in Washington, Britain’s position is weak. If it can nevertheless ignore Trump’s Huawei threats, others will find it easier to follow suit.
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