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Boris Johnson could be forced to rethink Huawei’s role in building the UK’s 5G network due sanctions imposed on the Chinese tech giant by Donald Trump.
The US administration tightened restrictions on the company in May amid fears it had close ties to the Chinese state.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the PM has been under increasing pressure from backbenchers to scrap the deal with the company to build “non-core” elements of the 5G infrastructure, with Tory MPs behind a Commons revolt saying it risks national security.
Now, culture secretary Oliver Dowden has said the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) will conduct a review in light of the US sanctions, signalling the government could perform a U-turn.
It comes as the US imposed stricter rules around Huawei’s ability to buy semiconductor chips from firms which use US technology in their manufacturing.
Amid claims Dowden told MPs on the Commons’ defence committee that while the UK had been “clear eyed” about the security risks, the review will determine the “reliability” and viability of Huawei’s ability to deliver.
“Given that the US government has imposed sanctions on Huawei, given that those are focused on 5G, we do need to fully understand those and understand how that impacts on how much we can rely on Huawei equipment in the system given that it is subject to those restraints from the sanctions,” he said.
Dowden wants to see the playing field become more diverse so the UK is not dependent on a limited number of firms – currently just Huawei, Nokia and Siemens lead on 5G technology.
He added that it is the government’s ambition to remove Huawei from the network “over time” – but refused to set a timeframe for such a move.
An earlier review before the tougher sanctions were put in place concluded that Huawei would be allowed to have a reduced role in Britain’s 5G infrastructure.
However, the company was classed as a “high-risk vendor”, locked out of sensitive parts of the network and told it would be limited to no more than 35% of non-core areas of the network.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace disputed suggestions that the US was bullying the UK into taking tougher action against Huawei.
“It’s not an American sanction against us, it’s an American sanction against the use of American IP (intellectual property) – not British IP – that seems to render part of Huawei equipment inoperable, so the United States are perfectly free to sanction whoever they want,” he said to the defence committee.
“If it was British IP being sanctioned by a third country, you might say you’re being bullied or pressurised but it’s not, my understanding it’s about chip manufacturers and things coming out of Taiwan using US IP and we would impose our view – and we still do – on IP that we own, so I don’t think it’s a matter of US bullying.”
It comes as the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officially designated Huawei as a national threat.
Following the Tuesday’s session, Huawei vice president, Victor Zhang, said: “We are investing billions to make the prime minister’s vision of a ‘connected Kingdom’ a reality so that British families and businesses have access to fast, reliable mobile and broadband networks wherever they live.
“We have been in the UK for 20 years and remain focused on working with our customers and the government to ensure the country gets the jobs and economic growth created by 5G as quickly as possible.”