The United States has warned the UK’s data security - and therefore sovereignty - could be at risk given Huawei’s closeness to the government of China, while senior Tories warned that giving the firm a role would mean “nesting a dragon” British infrastructure.
Ex-party leader Iain Duncan Smith suggested the prime minister had previously given him assurances he would not approve Huawei, given China’s position as a “country that has set out to steal data non-stop”.
But Johnson insisted it is possible to ensure British consumers benefit from “fantastic” 5G technology, but to do it in a way that does not compromise national security or jeopardise the country’s key intelligence partnerships with the likes of the US.
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The row broke out as ministers on the national security council (NSC) prepared to meet on Tuesday to hammer out what US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has called a “momentous” decision.
The Financial Times reported the meeting is expected to agree the company can play a restricted role, with ministers looking to impose a cap on its market share to prevent over-reliance on its equipment.
The US administration has previously urged allies in the Five Eyes intelligence community - made up of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - not to use Huawei, claiming it would be a security risk - something the company vehemently denies.
Johnson told reporters: “The way forward for us clearly is to have a system that delivers for people in this country the kind of consumer benefits that they want through 5G technology... but does not in any way compromise our critical national infrastructure, our security or jeopardise our ability to work together with other intelligence powers around the world.
“The Five Eyes security relationships we have, we’ve got to keep them strong and safe.”
He added: “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have technological progress here in the UK, allow consumers, businesses in the UK to have access to fantastic technology, fantastic communications, but also protect our security interests and protect our key partnerships with other security powers around the world.”
But Johnson’s expected decision has caused dismay among senior Tories, including foreign affairs experts and former cabinet ministers.
Asking an urgent question in the Commons, former foreign affairs committee chair Tom Tugendhat said: “The idea we should be nesting that dragon, the idea that we should be allowing the fox into the hen house when really we should be guarding the wire is one of those moments where I hope the minister will see his responsibility very clearly.”
Duncan Smith said: “We are at war in a sense, there is a cyber war going on at which China is arguably the single biggest participant, maybe Russia as well.
“That we should think about giving a company which is heavily subsidised by China, a country that has set out to steal data non stop and also technology; that we think of giving to them that right to be in what is essentially a very, very delicate area of our technology, the idea that we would do that seems to me utterly bizarre.
“I was led to believe this government would not make that decision, I hope that they will now reject Huawei immediately.”
Former Brexit secretary David Davis said that although the US had “sometimes been heavy handed in their dealings with the Chinese” they “have a point” about Huawei.
He claimed potential vulnerabilities could be exploited by Beijing later down the line.
He told PA: “The problem with this is that it is irreversible. Once you have done it, the technology is not designed to be ‘plug and play’ - where you can pull out a Huawei unit and put in a Samsung one - it’s effectively proprietary, a bit like having an Apple plug.
“So it’s quite close to an irreversible mistake, and it’s also close to a mistake you wouldn’t know if you’d made it.”
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt warned against a “dependency” on a Chinese company in delivering 5G technology.
He told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “I must admit I always wondered whether it was wise to allow ourselves to become technologically dependent on another country, whichever country, for something as critical as 5G technology.”
Professor Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, said he did not believe the US would cut off intelligence-sharing if Huawei was given a role in the UK’s 5G network.
“When the dust settles, I find it very hard to believe that the US would want to cut off its access to UK-generated intelligence as a response to a decision of this nature. I don’t take that threat very seriously,” he said.
Last year, the US imposed trade restrictions on Huawei over concerns about the company’s security and ties to the Chinese government.
Allegations that its telecommunications equipment could be used to spy on people have been repeatedly denied by the firm.
Tory MP Crispin Blunt, who has sat on committees for foreign affairs and national security strategy, urged the US to provide evidence it was not treating Huawei as a player in its trade war with China.
He said: “Unless the Americans can make a legitimate security case, we should quietly ignore their current public position that thinly disguises a protectionist trade position built on supposition and we should proceed on the evidence, as well as gently (telling) our American friends that we are not leaving one dependent economic relationship on Friday, to immediately enter another.”