Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, gestures while speaking during a news conference following a European Union leaders summit in the Europa building in Brussels, Belgium. (Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)

Theresa May Battles to Convince Defense Allies They Can Still Trust U.K.

(Bloomberg) -- As Theresa May’s government grapples with the chaos of Brexit, the political disarray has raised a troubling new question for a country at the heart of the NATO defense alliance: Can Britain still be trusted?

Two years ago the prime minister argued that the U.K.’s international security ties would ensure the nation remained a global player after it had left the European Union. This week she fired her defense secretary for leaking details of a meeting of the country’s National Security Council.

It was a dramatic episode for a nation that is a linchpin of the international “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance, which includes the agencies of the U.S., Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Theresa May Battles to Convince Defense Allies They Can Still Trust U.K.

May would argue that her decision to dismiss Gavin Williamson -- who denies being the leaker -- shows her commitment to remaining a reliable partner for Britain’s allies. May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, told Parliament on Thursday that “appropriate contact” was being made with “key allies” to discuss the matter.

But the big risk to Britain’s relationship with its intelligence partners comes not from the fact of the leak but from the subject of it: The question of how closely Britain will work with Huawei Technologies Co. as it builds its 5G telecommunications infrastructure.

Trump’s Fears

Paul Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who’s now a professor at Georgetown University, said the leak itself was unlikely to trouble many in Donald Trump’s White House.

“Given that the leaker’s apparent motivation was to highlight the same security concerns about Huawei that the Trump administration has been expressing publicly, people inside the administration probably are pretty relaxed about the leak,” Pillar said. “Some of those people may even welcome it, for amplifying the administration’s own concerns and possibly deterring the May government from having even more dealings with Huawei.”

The 5G network is about much more than faster mobile phone downloads. It will be critical to technologies such as artificial intelligence and driverless cars. The argument for working with Huawei is that its technology is advanced, and would ensure Britain had a diversity of supply. The argument against is that the company is compromised by its relationship with China’s security apparatus.

Snake in the Room

Some of Britain’s most important allies have decided that the risk is too great. The U.S. has banned Huawei equipment from defense contracts, and use by some government agencies. Australia and New Zealand won’t use it in their 5G infrastructure. The U.S. is going further, urging Britain to follow suit and the issue may well be on the agenda when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits London next week.

Not everyone in Britain is convinced. Within government, the split is between what are referred to as “‘prosperity” departments -- those concerned with economic growth -- and “security” departments, such as the Home Office and Williamson’s former home, the Ministry of Defense.

“The Americans have taken the view that allowing Huawei access to certain parts of their network is like allowing a snake into the room,” said Keith Simpson, a Conservative lawmaker who sits on Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. “We have to make our own judgment.’’

But others argue that it doesn’t matter whether the U.S. is right about the risks of working with Huawei: The strength of American feeling means Britain should go along with its ally.

“We share very, very sensitive information with the U.S. and vice versa,” said Bob Stewart, another Conservative. “It’s probably the closest relationship we have in the intelligence world. Would you, if you were an American intelligence official, be dismayed at the infiltration by China into such a prominent information network provided by the U.K.? I would suggest to you that you would.”

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