The US-UK intelligence sharing partnership will remain intact if Huawei is allowed to participate in the roll-out of Britain’s 5G network, the head of MI5 has said.
The intervention comes amid a last-ditch attempt by US officials to force the government to drop support for the Chinese telecoms equipment giant.
The Trump administration has repeatedly threatened to withhold intelligence from allies which allow Huawei to supply components to their 5G networks.
But in an interview with the Financial Times, the outgoing MI5 director-general Andrew Parker, who is due to step down in April, said he had “no reason today” to think that the UK could lose out on US intelligence.
Describing the US-UK partnership as “very close and trusted”, Parker added: “It is, of course, of great importance to us. And, I dare say, to the US too, though that’s for them to say. It’s a two-way street.”
Some experts have predicted that US threats to withhold intelligence from allies that use Huawei in next-generation mobile networks will ring hollow in the UK given the NSA’s dependence on GCHQ.
The UK is expected to make a decision on Huawei’s role in the UK’s telecoms supply chain in the coming weeks. Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr yesterday, the security minister Brandon Lewis said the decision would be made “relatively soon”.
“We do take serious consideration on all of the issues around these kind of decisions,” he said (PDF). “We have got some very serious decisions to make in the period ahead around a whole range of things on security.”
Huawei security concerns
The US claims that while Huawei is a private company, its alleged links to Beijing and forced compliance with Chinese cyber security legislation means that it poses a security risk.
Huawei has repeatedly insisted that it operates independently of the Chinese state and would resist attempts to force it to spy on customers. “We would rather shut Huawei down than do anything that would damage the interests of our customers,” the company’s founder Ren Zhengfei has said.
The company also claims it has been used by the Trump administration to gain leverage in the US-China trade war. It placed heavy restrictions on the company’s American suppliers, including Google, last year.
What a ban would mean for operators
The UK’s mobile operators have already taken steps to remove Huawei components from the cores of their 4G networks. But the first deployments of 5G also run across 4G infrastructure.
Given the lack of compatibility between different vendors’ 4G and 5G equipment, a ban on Huawei participating in the 5G rollout means operators would also have to remove its equipment from the non-core of their 4G networks. Telecom analysts estimate that a total ban could push back the rollout of 5G in the UK by several years.
The government has previously indicated it would be willing to allow the firm to operate in the non-core parts of the 5G network. The government might hope that such a move would show the US that it was willing to listen to its demands, without also souring relations with Beijing.