Britain China
Boris Johnson (left) and Xi Jinping Image Credit: AP

Boris Johnson’s government last week began a new review into the impact of allowing Huawei telecoms equipment in UK 5G networks. While bilateral ties are already chilled, they now threaten to enter the ‘deep freeze’ in the midst of a major potential policy U-turn on this 5G issue, Hong Kong, plus the strains of the coronavirus crisis.

The new review follows the UK government’s controversial decision earlier this year to approve a limited role for Huawei in building the country’s new mobile networks, albeit with a ban on supplying kit to the sensitive, core parts of this grid. It was announced at the time that Huawei would only be allowed to supply 35 per cent of the kit in the so-called periphery of this network, including radio masts. UK mobile operators were told that they would have three years to comply with this decision.

However, dozens of Conservative MPs, not to mention the Trump administration, have been urging Johnson’s government to review it as a priority. The latest salvo in this came a few weeks ago when Washington placed additional US sanctions against Huawei which will restrict the firm from using US technology and software to design its semiconductors.

The US Department of Commerce has said that Huawei has flouted regulations implemented last year that require the firm to obtain a licence in order to export US items. It says Huawei got around this rule by using US semiconductor manufacturing equipment at factories in other countries.

Conservative ministers have generally perceived...that enhancing ties with Beijing is strongly in the UK national interest. It has widely been viewed that there is an opportunity to develop a relationship that could make a significant contribution to UK prosperity.


This new UK review is based on technical considerations about the impact of US sanctions, but offers the government a potential ‘get out’ from its earlier decision, which would see the firm excluded, or further limits imposed. Indeed, despite the review only beginning this week, it is already widely reported that Johnson is looking to curtail Huawei’s involvement in UK 5G networks even further, reducing it to zero by 2023.

This reason why the government is acting now on this issue is to try to stave off what could otherwise be an embarrassing defeat on Johnson’s previous proposal to reduce Huawei to a 35 per cent market share. Although the prime minister has a large majority, the number of Conservative MPs willing to rebel on the issue may be as high as 50 — enough in theory to defeat the government — showcasing how anti-Chinese sentiment is hardening during the coronavirus crisis.

And this has also been reinforced recently with Beijing’s decision to impose a new security law on Hong Kong which will undermine its remaining political autonomy. That has been condemned by the Johnson government which has urged Beijing to respect fully the rights and freedoms that were set out in the Sino-British joint declaration, agreed in 1997 when control of Hong Kong was handed to China.

Political unrest in Hong Kong

In addition, several hundred senior politicians (including dozens of UK MPs) from around the world issued a statement criticising China’s plan. The statement, drafted by former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten, describes Beijing’s plans as a “flagrant breach” of the joint declaration. It goes onto assert that “if the international community cannot trust Beijing to keep its word when it comes to Hong Kong, people will be reluctant to take its word on other matters”.

Relations between the United Kingdom and China had, even before the announcement of the Hong Kong law and the coronavirus outbreak, cooled in 2019 partly because of the political unrest in Hong Kong that Beijing says needs tackling via the new law. Yet, this chill may now turn into a deep freeze.

Indeed, in the context of growing anti-China sentiment, there is now a real possibility that bilateral relations could become as frosty as in the period after then-Prime Minister David Cameron offended Beijing by meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012. London quickly reversed tack after this and the Conservative governments of both a chastened Cameron and Theresa May subsequently ratcheted down, in public at least, human rights concerns about China.

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This underlines that, for all the Government’s rhetoric against Beijing, a similar reversal in the future cannot be ruled out either. For, while there is growing international concern about China’s actions, London will soon have an acute post-Brexit dependence on intensifying economic ties with key emerging markets.

Indeed, even before Brexit, economics had assumed higher importance in bilateral relations with London putting greater emphasis on consolidating ties with Beijing. By putting the interests of commerce so prominently in the bilateral relationship, London has received significant criticism.

Yet, despite this controversy, Conservative ministers have generally perceived in the last few years that enhancing ties with Beijing is strongly in the UK national interest. It has widely been viewed that there is an opportunity to develop a relationship that could make a significant contribution to UK prosperity for a generation to come.

This is why it would be now such a potentially important break in UK policy if the Johnson government moves to a consistently much harder-line stance. London now therefore faces a very tough balancing act as it seeks to reconcile its growing political concerns about China with its future economic needs, post-Brexit.

— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.