-Is golden era in relations ending between the UK and China?
Only about five years ago both the UK and China claimed they were heading towards a “golden era” in bilateral relations. Since then, the global coronavirus pandemic and mounting tension between the US and China have strained these ties.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK in 2015, there was heady talk about the golden era of Sino-British relations. Now the crackdown in Hong Kong, Huawei Technologies' lead role in the UK's fifth-generation, or 5G, network and US President Donald Trump's pressure on allies to support American policies on China have soured these positive relations.
In a significant about-face, the UK government announced last Tuesday that it will push Chinese tech giant Huawei out of the UK’s 5G network by 2027. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told parliament of the government’s final decision after Prime Minister Boris Johnson convened a meeting of the National Security Council.
Dowden said no new Huawei 5G kits can be purchased after Dec. 31, 2020, but older 2G, 3G, and 4G kits can continue until they become obsolete.
It remains to be seen if the move will satisfy Conservative backbench rebel MPs who have pressed the government to implement a complete ban as in the US and Australia.
In January, the government had originally decided to limit Huawei’s market share to 35% and allow them to be involved in non-critical sectors of the 5G network.
British intelligence services were originally certain they could contain any potential threats, but after the US put sanctions on American technology used by Huawei, UK intelligence services had to reassess.
They now say they cannot be certain that Huawei’s technology – without the US components – is safe.
British telecoms companies have warned of 5G blackouts if Huawei is pushed out too fast, and the move could also increase the cost and time needed to roll out 5G to the UK. Adding to the complexity of the decision are British-American ties and thorny UK-China relations.
The UK and US are close allies and are currently negotiating a post-Brexit free trade deal. It is the US that has put the most pressure on Britain to cut China’s Huawei out of its 5G network, even threatening continued intelligence-sharing between Washington and London.
UK-China relations have been strained recently over China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as its controversial new security law on Hong Kong, which the UK vocally opposed, going so far as offering a route to British citizenship to around 3 million Hong Kongers. China, however, is an important trade partner for the UK, and in the post-Brexit era it will seek to strike trade deals around the world.
Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP, said he would step down from his current position as chairman of Huawei UK.
It is yet to be seen if and how China will retaliate - Will China take a stand against the UK’s Burberry or other British brands and/or increase taxes on British imports?