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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

The UK’s Huawei decision is emblematic of the new tech Cold War

After months of prevaricating, the UK recently made the decision to lock Chinese telecoms company Huawei out of its 5G network. In January, the UK had decided to limit the company’s share of the network to 35 per cent and keep it out of the sensitive ‘core’, but this decision was overturned after the US imposed new sanctions on the company meaning it could no longer use American-made chips. 

The Trump administration has claimed triumph for the UK’s final decision – pegging it to a sustained campaign of pressure on the UK government to excise Huawei. But the truth is less clear cut. The UK has cited security worries about the Chinese technology (the most recent evaluation by the security agencies said the risk was too great following the latest sanctions). But Huawei has also become totemic in quickly realigning Sino-Western relations. The UK’s decision is emblematic of an emergent age of tech protectionism and a reshuffling global order. 

“It’s a political decision,” says Oliver Turner, senior lecturer in International Relations at Edinburgh University. It’s also a decision that has arrived at a decisive moment for the UK, given its recent departure from the EU. “I think the UK is looking around and thinking, where does our future lie outside of the European Union? What are we in the future if we’re not a European power? What’s our identity? And I think the UK is making an assessment that its identity is certainly as a Western power,” says Turner.  

In the wake of the decision on Huawei, ideas have surfaced such as forging a new international technology partnership based on the Five Eye intelligence sharing alliance (comprising the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand), or a newly created ‘D10’ (democratic 10) group – comprising the G7 countries plus Australia, India, and South Korea. Echoing the rhetoric of the Brexit campaign, the UK appears to be seeking closer ties to Commonwealth countries including Australia and India. The latter, in addition to excluding Huawei, has taken the far more extreme step of banning TikTok and many other Chinese internet applications amidst rising tensions with China. 

Strengthening relations with Japan could also be on the table. There are increasing murmurs about extending Five Eyes to “Six Eyes”, with the inclusion of Japan in the intelligence network. Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, who is one of parliament’s most vocal China hawks, tweeted earlier this week saying “Japan’s Defence Minister welcomes the idea of turning Five-Eyes into Six-Eyes.” A recent paper published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – considered the third most influential think thank in the world – set out a blueprint for “U.S.-Japan Technology Policy Coordination,” and a vision for how technonationalism should be balanced with a globalised world.

Among other things, the paper recommends that Japan and America “update their decades-old bilateral science and technology cooperation agreement, especially by doing more to nurture private-sector collaboration; and broaden cooperation and deepen funding pools on certain shared strategic priorities, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing”. It notes the dawning realisation that no country on its own will be able to dominate technological innovation sphere in the coming years (apart from, perhaps, China). 

This emphasis on resurgent Commonwealth bonds could influence which supplier the UK opts for to fill the hole left by Huawei. Huawei is the world leader in 5G, but there are a few other alternatives. There’s Swedish-owned Ericsson, Finnish-owned Nokia, South Korean-owned Samsung, and Japanese-owned Fujitsu. Stumping for the former two might seem the obvious choice, but some believe that the UK might be reluctant to opt for European suppliers so shortly after leaving the EU.

“There’s been some thoughts that the symbolic aspect of going back to the Europeans, at least in this particular stage, is something that the UK government is not very keen to do,” says Corneliu Bjola, associate professor of diplomatic studies at Oxford University, who currently specialises in the impact of digital technology on the conduct of diplomacy. Could this lead to the UK landing on Samsung, or even Fujitsu, instead? Samsung has already signalled its willingness to supply the UK’s 5G network.

When announcing the UK’s Huawei decision, culture secretary Oliver Dowden said it was the government’s intention to embark on a diversification strategy with the “aim of driving competition and innovation to grow the market and deliver greater resilience across all of our networks”. He said this strategy would include securing the supply chains of incumbent (non-Huawei) vendors, bringing new scale vendors into the market by removing barriers to entry, and investing more heavily in research and development.

How did we arrive at this juncture? The US began paving the way for tech protectionism a number of years ago. Under Obama, the Committee on Foreign Investment – an inter-agency government committee that assesses the national security implications of foreign investments in the US – barred investments by Chinese companies. “What the Trump administration did is accelerate this trend, in the sense of saying ‘we have to do this not only domestically but also internationally’,” says Bjola, noting that in the wake of the UK’s decision, the idea to create a multinational institution that replicates the committee has been floated, perhaps comprising a group of countries such as the ‘D10.’ Bjola guesses that this wariness will be heightened for any foreign investment in ‘sensitive’ technologies such as AI. 

Are the new geopolitical fault lines split down pro and anti-China sentiment? “People talk about a new Cold War emerging, but I don’t really think that’s true because the world is very different,” says Turner. “The Chinese economy is so interconnected with the rest of the world that you can’t compare it to the Soviet Union, for example.

“We’re not seeing a division of the world into competing ideological blocs, partly because China isn’t really interested in converting the rest of the world to authoritarianism. It’s just not interested in the way the Soviet Union was.”

Greater decoupling from China by Western countries could be particularly troublesome for the UK, which has received significant Chinese investment. IMF data shows that China is a top 20 investor in the UK. It’s embedded in the UK’s infrastructure, including its nuclear power capabilities. At present, it’s partly financing the construction of the £20bn Hinkley Point nuclear power station, which is sparking renewed debate. “I think the UK might start to reconsider Chinese investments in critical infrastructure across the board,” says Turner. “Energy might be the next one that is reassessed.” 

Beyond the entwinement of China in the UK’s infrastructure, the threat of a trade war should the UK continue down an adversarial path looms large. In 2019, China was the UK’s sixth biggest export market, worth £30.7bn, and fourth biggest source of inputs, worth £49bn – both record highs.

Taking the US’ lead on foreign policy could be a perilous game. “When Trump and American policymakers talk about China as a threat, it preps everyone else to combat that threat and it’s creating a monster in a way,” says Turner. “Rhetoric matters, language matters, and we’re seeing a lot of Cold War rhetoric, which is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re talking ourselves into a Cold War.” 

A new Cold War against China could yield disastrous fall-out for the UK. The Huawei decision has already set the country back by several billion pounds and at least a few years in terms of 5G roll-out. This is while China continues to surge ahead with its 5G installation. Analysts have denounced the plan to use R&D spending to establish a new Western competitor to Huawei as “fairly ludicrous“, saying it would be prohibitively expensive. Can the open market beat a superpower’s centrally planned economy? The West turning its back on China could have the unintended effect of making it more self-reliant and, in the process, even stronger.