Senior U.S. officials visited London on Monday with a last-ditch plea that Boris Johnson’s government not allow Huawei Technologies Co. to supply equipment for its 5G broadband networks, warning that U.S. intelligence-sharing could be at risk.
The delegation, led by Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger and including officials from the State Department, argued that there was no way the U.K. could mitigate the security risks from such a network, according to a person familiar with the meeting.
Britain is currently weighing whether to use Huawei equipment as part of its 5G infrastructure. Supporters argue that the company’s equipment can be used in non-core areas in a way that keeps the network secure. But the U.S. warns that the effects of the leap to 5G technology are so poorly understood that the safest and best solution is to keep the Chinese company out altogether.
As some of the gear has already been installed, companies warn that a full ban would delay the roll-out of 5G and cost hundreds of millions of pounds. It would also potentially put into doubt Johnson’s pledge to deliver 5G to most of the country by 2027.
U.K. newspapers reported Monday that Pottinger’s team had handed Johnson’s government a “dossier” of evidence against Huawei.
But it may not impress. Speaking in September on condition of anonymity, British intelligence officers said that there was nothing the U.S. knew about the company that Britain did not. Andrew Parker, the head of the domestic Security Service MI5, told the Financial Times this month that he had “no reason” to believe intelligence-sharing with the U.S. would be harmed by a decision to allow Huawei in.
Johnson’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The prime minister’s spokesman told reporters earlier only that a decision would come “in due course.” The U.S. believes that with the general election out of the way, it is imminent.
The road to a U.K. decision has been long and controversial. Some officials have pushed for tough restrictions as a result of concerns over foreign involvement in critical national infrastructure, while others said this would saddle the telecommunications industry with extra costs and delay technological upgrades.
Huawei has become a lightning rod for tensions between the U.S. and Europe over trade and security policy as Washington threatens reprisals against any governments that allow Chinese equipment to form part of the crucial ultra-fast networks.
Of the so-called Five-Eyes intelligence-sharing nations, New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. have effectively banned the company while Canada and U.K. have not so-far followed suit.