British PM Johnson faces off a major revolt over Huawei 5G decision

British PM Johnson faces off a major revolt over Huawei 5G decision
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced off a major revolt over his decision to allow Huawei in national 5G networks.

The PM faced his first major rebellion on Tuesday as fellow lawmakers expressed concerns about what the decision could mean for both the UK's national security and the country's relationship with Washington.

Johnson’s majority was slashed to 24 as rebels from the Conservative party backed an amendment tabled by Iain Duncan Smith to the Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill which sets in law that any vendors deemed "high-risk" by British intelligence, like Huawei, will be stopped from the UK's networks by the end of 2022. MPs voted down the amendment by 306 votes to 282

Following the vote, Huawei VP Victor Zhang said:

“We were reassured by the UK government’s decision in January that we could continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track. It was an evidence-based decision that will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure. We are proud to have supplied cutting-edge technology to telecoms operators in the UK for more than 15 years and we will build on this strong track record, supporting those customers as they invest in their 5G networks, boosting economic growth and helping the UK continue to compete globally.

The government has examined the evidence and concluded that Huawei should not be banned on cybersecurity grounds and two parliamentary committees have done the same and agreed. An evidence-based approach is needed, so we were disappointed to hear some groundless accusations asserted. The industry and experts agree that banning Huawei equipment would leave Britain less secure, less productive and less innovative.”

In January, the UK announced that it will allow the use of Huawei's gear in a "limited capacity" following a multi-year security review. 

Huawei’s equipment will be allowed in no more than 35 percent of the access network which connects devices and equipment to mobile phone masts. Furthermore, Huawei will not be permitted in any critical infrastructure or sensitive sites like nuclear sites and military bases. All equipment will also continue to be checked at the dedicated Huawei Cyber Security Centre in Banbury for any potential risks.

Ahead of the UK's decision on Huawei in January, US intelligence officials provided their British counterparts with a dossier highlighting why they perceive Huawei to be a national security threat.

Washington was subsequently angered at the UK's decision to allow Huawei in even a limited capacity. In a recent phone call between President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson, Trump reportedly hung up on Johnson over the Huawei decision. Johnson was said to have cancelled upcoming visits to the US over frustration that Trump failed to offer any alternatives to the use of Huawei's equipment.

Huawei's equipment is already being used by all of the UK's major operators. An outright ban of the Chinese vendor's gear would be costly both in terms of obtaining replacement hardware and recruiting the required engineers to install it. Even under the UK's current plan to limit the use of Huawei's equipment, BT alone estimates the decision will cost it around £500 million over the next five years.

The UK's 5G leadership in Europe would also be damaged. Significant new opportunities arising from the new generation network across most areas of the economy would be prevented from being harnessed.

Mike Rake, the former chairman of BT, wrote in an open letter:

"Any attempt to further restrict Huawei 5G equipment, or to remove existing 4G equipment, will not only incur very significant costs but prejudice trade relationships with China and will significantly set back the government's broadband ambitions.

This, in turn, will further damage our competitiveness as an economy at what is a critical moment."

A bipartisan group of 20 US senators wrote a letter earlier this month to the House of Commons urging British lawmakers to reconsider their position.

As the UK embarks on its "Global Britain" venture and prepares to sign trade deals with both the US and China, it must tread a fine line to ensure any decision is independent but maintains good relations with both key partners.

17:11 update: Added statement from Huawei VP Victor Zhang.

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