U.K. Huawei Ban Triggers China Warning as Trump Takes Credit

Boris Johnson faces a diplomatic minefield after banning China’s Huawei Technologies Co. from the U.K.’s next-generation wireless networks, as Beijing accused him of breaking promises and Donald Trump claimed credit for the prime minister’s decision.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the U.K. is cooperating with the U.S. to “discriminate, oppress and exclude” Chinese firms, and that Bejiing “will take all necessary measures to safeguard Chinese companies’ legitimate interests.”

U.K. Huawei Ban Triggers China Warning as Trump Takes Credit

In comments likely to do Johnson few favors as he navigates the spat with China, Trump told reporters in Washington on Tuesday he personally intervened in the U.K. decision. “We convinced many countries -- many countries -- and I did this myself, for the most part -- not to use Huawei because we think it’s an unsafe security risk,” he said.

China has accused the U.K. of “dancing to the tune” of the U.S. over Huawei and said that Britain no longer pursues an independent trade policy. It is a narrative that undermines both Johnson’s desire for what he calls a mature relationship with China, as well as his wish for post-Brexit Britain to be seen as a bastion of free global trade.

On Wednesday, U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock sought to downplay Trump’s involvement during his morning media round. “We all know Donald Trump don’t we?” he told Sky News. “All sorts of people can try to claim credit for the decision, but this was based on a technical assessment by the National Cyber Security Centre.”

Diplomatic Victory

Even so, the U.K. announcement -- a reversal of the position set out by Johnson’s government less than six months ago -- represents a diplomatic victory for Trump. The president initially failed to persuade the British government to block Huawei from its 5G networks but then imposed fresh sanctions against the company in May which forced Johnson to retreat. Other countries may now follow.

Even without the sanctions move, Johnson might have struggled to stick to his position on Huawei. Conservative lawmakers were convinced he was underestimating the threat posed by China, and were determined to block Huawei from 5G networks. They rebelled in a symbolic vote in the Commons in March, reducing Johnson’s parliamentary majority from 80 to 24. Since then the U.K. has gone into lockdown as a result of coronavirus and the confrontation over Hong Kong has escalated, increasing Tory concerns about China.

Under the British blueprint announced Tuesday, operators will not be able to add any new Huawei components to their 5G networks after Dec. 31 this year. All equipment made by the Shenzhen-based company that’s already installed will need to be removed from 5G infrastructure by 2027.

The ban on Huawei will cost U.K. operators as much as 2 billion pounds ($2.5 billion) to implement, and will delay the rollout of 5G networks by between two and three years, the government said.

‘Junior Partner’

Liu Xiaoming, China’s envoy to Britain, called the decision “not only disappointing but disheartening.” In a webinar Wednesday he said: “Huawei merely symbolizes how you treat China” and that trust between the two nations has been “undermined.”

“The way you treat Huawei will be followed very closely by other Chinese businesses,” he said. “I would argue that Britain can only be Great Britain once you have an independent foreign policy, rather than to be viewed by China and the rest of the world, just as a junior partner of the United States.”

U.K. Huawei Ban Triggers China Warning as Trump Takes Credit

In Johnson’s public remarks ahead of the ban, he stressed that he is not a “natural sinophobe” and still wants the U.K. to do business with China. In Parliament on Tuesday, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden gave a sense of how the government sees future ties.

The U.K. wants “a modern and mature relationship with China based on mutual respect where we can speak frankly when we disagree, but also work side-by-side on the issues where our interests converge,” he said.

Beijing, though, has previously warned the U.K. that a Huawei ban would have “consequences” because it would amount to treating China as a “hostile partner.”

“The U.K. has made the wrong decision, which severely undermines the Chinese company’s interests and mutual trust between China and the U.K. -- China strongly opposes that,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua said. The U.K. government has a choice, she said: “Will it remain independent or will it become a catspaw for the U.S.?”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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