The Huawei decision reinforces the need for the UK to build a coherent technology strategy towards China

Technology Policy

The Huawei decision reinforces the need for the UK to build a coherent technology strategy towards China

Posted on: 16th July 2020
By Multiple Authors
Hermione Dace
Senior Policy Analyst
Max Beverton-Palmer
Director of the Internet Policy Unit

    The UK government has announced that Huawei will have no future role in the country’s 5G infrastructure. With rising tensions around Hong Kong and acrimony about transparency in the wake of Covid-19, it represents another defining moment in the UK’s relationship with China. But it is also part of a larger dynamic between China and the West, as technology, security and geopolitics intertwines. It’s now more important than ever that the UK fits this decision into a broader framework. It must build a coherent and coordinated China strategy on technology – one that enables the West to harness the opportunity to collaborate with China on key global issues, whilst mitigating threats in order to protect our technology and values.

    A defining moment in technology and geopolitics

    A defining moment in technology and geopolitics

    After stating that the country would allow Huawei to supply non-core parts of its network back in January, the UK government’s decision has halted a drift into a deeper strategic dependence on China. UK mobile providers are now banned from buying new Huawei 5G equipment after 31 December and must remove all the firm’s 5G kit from their networks by 2027. 

    The decision will have consequences for the UK’s infrastructure: Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has said the move would delay 5G rollout by around two years, at a cumulative cost of up to £2 billion

    But the decision also demonstrates the UK’s willingness to take a tougher stance on attempts to insulate itself from the risks of over-reliance on technology companies close to governments with fundamentally different values. With Brexit set to impact the UK’s trade with Europe and the US becoming increasingly protectionist, it is a big call on our future alliances. 

    Rising tensions and hardening attitudes

    Rising tensions and hardening attitudes

    To most, the decision will not come as a surprise. In May the US imposed new sanctions, claiming that Huawei poses a national security threat. The NCSC’s report made it clear that US sanctions had meant finding a mitigation strategy for the UK was not viable. However, the UK’s desire to gain a trade deal with the US is likely to have also played a role.

    The political backdrop has also been hardening in recent months as legitimate questions about transparency around Covid-19 have risen to the surface. Some of the noise has been used by nations to distract from their own failings, but as a recent poll conducted by YouGov for the Tony Blair Institute shows: the Chinese government is consistently seen as responsible for the severity of the pandemic, and there is widespread distrust of the nation. The research also showed majority opposition to China having a major role in national infrastructure projects in Britain, the US, France and Germany.

    Figure – Opposition to international companies from the following countries playing a major role in national infrastructure projects

    Figure 10

    Q: Generally speaking, to what extent would you support or oppose allowing international companies from each of the following countries to have a major role in infrastructure projects in your country?

    Source: YouGov for Tony Blair Institute

    However, tensions had been rising long before Covid-19. The US-China trade war has been rumbling on and the European position has been toughening in recent years, with the bloc’s technology policy becoming more sovereign-focussed. 

    Almost all Western nations have rightly long-criticised China for its extensive surveillance state, which has been enabled by its advanced deployment of technology. For instance, there have been rising concerns about allegations of Huawei using forced labour and providing kit to perpetuate human rights abuses against the Muslim Uighur community in Xinjiang.

    More recently there have also been questions about the growth of Chinese apps around the world. It was reported recently that Chinese company ByteDance has implemented a restriction on domestic employees’ access to code bases for ByteDance’s overseas products – evidence that the company is building walls between its Chinese and global operations. India has banned TikTok, WeChat and several other apps, claiming they are a danger to the country. The US has also recently stated it is considering sanctions against Chinese social media apps, including TikTok, as a result of national security concerns. 

    A renewed strategy

    A renewed strategy

    The Huawei decision represents a defining moment in the UK’s relationship with China, and more specifically, how the UK approaches China’s powerful technology sector. The UK government has now made it clear that the spread of Chinese technology infrastructure will be challenged. But the decision is not an isolated event; it will spark a wider debate about the UK’s strategy with China and its technology going forward. 

    While it’s appropriate to confront China when faced with genuine security concerns, the UK government must refine its broader approach to China’s technology, so future actions are based on clear and careful thought.

    Relations cannot be presented in binary terms: there will need to be points of competition as well as confrontation, while recognising that it will often be in the interest of Western nations  to cooperate. There are both great opportunities that the West should seek to harness, as well as threats that Western policymakers must attempt to mitigate. 

    First, policymakers will need to work out how the UK can leverage China’s science and innovation potential to generate global benefits. China is now a leading technological power, and is rising as a leading source of digital innovation, notably in emerging technologies such as AI and regenerative medicine. It is in the global interest to build trust and work together towards common goals on global issues such as tackling the climate crisis and healthcare. 

    Second, UK policymakers must work out where to compete by strengthening the UK’s  own technology sector. The UK and its allies need to adopt a more assertive and coordinated strategy, where nations with shared values work on developing their capabilities in unison. There is an opportunity to build shared capability to reduce potential single points of failure, or single points of security risk, across a wide variety of technological capabilities beyond telecommunications infrastructure. 

    Finally, the government must continue to be realistic about the threats. Questions about cyber-security and trust are becoming more important than ever as China exports its technologies to the West, including in consumer apps such as TikTok. The UK government and its allies should set out clear processes for privacy, freedom of expression, online harms, responsible and ethical design and cybersecurity standards, and confront the nation where it’s necessary, to preserve both the UK’s security and its democratic values. 

    Although the Huawei decision represents a key moment in the UK’s relationship with China, it also demonstrates the wider significance of the power of technology in our globalised world. As a new era in geopolitics begins, the strength, sophistication and potential of China’s technology capability needs to be fully recognised. 

    The West needs to engage China – actively and intensely – on global technology issues at the level of government, but also business to business and people to people. This will help enlarge the space for cooperation, shrink that of confrontation and keep competition healthy. The alternative is a hard block – holding back progress on key technologies that will make peoples’ lives better. 

    EDITOR’S NOTE: The source of this data is polling conducted by YouGov of a sample of 8,494 adults in Great Britain, the United States, Germany and France. The sample was made up of 2,033 adults in GB between 4 and 15 June 2020; 2,418 adults in the US between 8 and 11 June 2020; 2,020 adults in Germany between 9 and 12 June 2020; and 2,023 adults in France between 9 and 11 June 2020.

    Full Survey Results
    The data is available here in XLSX format

    Find out more