It’s the kind of balancing act Britain may have to get used to as the country forges its way in the world after leaving the European Union.

Three days before Brexit becomes reality after years of infighting, the government in London is trying to reconcile an increasingly truculent US with the demands of the domestic market in the debate over whether Huawei Technologies Co. should be involved in upgrading telecom networks. The US has campaigned for a ban on the Chinese giant citing security concerns.

Pedestrians pass a mobile phone store in central London on January 15. (Picture: Andy Rain/EPA-EFE)

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is set to allow the company to build fifth-generation wireless networks. Huawei is certain to be banned from core parts of the network after Digital and Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan earlier this month vowed to keep the company out of “critical national infrastructure.” The UK could also impose stricter rules to limit telecom companies’ reliance on any one vendor to curb Huawei’s market influence.

While the decision will end months of political wrangling, it remains fraught with peril for Johnson as he prepares to end 47 years of EU membership for the UK. A key pillar of his vision for a future outside the world’s richest single market is a trade deal with the US and the Huawei license risks setting up a clash with President Donald Trump.

Johnson discussed Huawei in a phone call with Trump on Friday, though his remarks on Monday suggested he wasn’t swayed by the push for a total ban. The prime minister said the UK could have the best of both worlds: retaining access to the best technology while protecting the data of consumers. British security services deem the risks manageable.

“We are going to come up with a solution that enables us to achieve both those objectives and that’s the way forward,” Johnson said. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have technological progress here in the UK but also protect our security interests and protect our key partnerships with other security powers around the world.”

Data Sovereignty

Under the decision, due to be announced after a meeting of the National Security Council, British phone carriers like BT Group Plc are likely to be permitted to buy antennas for 5G networks from the Shenzhen-based vendor.

That would also appease the Chinese side. The networks that Huawei would be allowed to supply are the most lucrative parts of the 5G roll-out. It would also mean the UK can avoid delaying the advent of ultra-fast internet that Johnson pledged in last month’s general election.

Huawei has been a key supplier to the UK and many other European phone networks for over a decade. The decision by Johnson will be closely watched particularly in Germany and Scandinavia where governments are also weighing the pros and cons of giving the green light to the company.

The timing of the announcement, though, is particularly sensitive because US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo is due to visit later this week. On Sunday, he re-tweeted an op-ed on Huawei by Tom Tugendhat, an influential Conservative backbench Member of Parliament who opposes the Chinese company’s involvement in British networks.

“The UK has a momentous decision ahead on 5G,” Pompeo tweeted. “British MP Tom Tugendhat gets it right: ‘The truth is that only nations able to protect their data will be sovereign.’”

Brexit Dividend

The UK is due to leave the EU on Friday and securing a trade deal with the US has been hailed by Johnson as one of the great prizes of Brexit. But there’s friction on several fronts between the two long-time allies. They’ve also clashed over British plans for a digital tax on US technology giants and the US refusal to extradite the wife of an American diplomat over her involvement in a fatal car crash in the UK.

As well as trade, there’s also the issue of sharing intelligence. American officials have said they may be wary of doing so with countries that use Huawei’s equipment because the kit may be used to facilitate Chinese espionage. They argue 5G technology, which will enable automated cities, vehicles and factories, creates new vulnerabilities and the safest route is to ban the Chinese supplier completely.

Huawei has always denied it poses a security risk. Yet within the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing partnership, the US, Australia and New Zealand have effectively banned Huawei, while Canada has yet to make a decision.

Tugendhat, the British lawmaker, led domestic calls for the UK to shun Huawei after posing an “urgent question” to Digital Minister Matt Warman on Monday. “Any decision that is made will nest a dragon into our critical national infrastructure or not,” Tugendhat told the House of Commons. “This is a decision that we will live with for the next 10, 15 or 20 years.”

He was backed by other members of Johnson’s Conservatives. Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, a prominent Brexit supporter, said the UK was in a cyber war with China and urging ministers to “reject Huawei immediately.”

No Alternative

Huawei has roughly a third of the UK telecom equipment market. Across Europe, its key competitors are Ericsson AB and Nokia Oyj. Johnson suggested earlier this month that the US had failed to indicate a credible alternative supplier that would allow Britain to access “the best possible technology.”

Warman on Monday was keen to show that the government wants to reduce Britain’s reliance on the Chinese company. “There are alternatives to Huawei, and we would of course seek to use them as much as possible,” he told parliament.

Under Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, the National Security Council had concluded Huawei could be allowed to operate in parts of the nation’s network. The finding was leaked in April, and an inquiry into the breach ended in the sacking of a cabinet minister.

That, along with a 2019 Conservative leadership contest after May resigned, last month’s election and the endless pressure of Brexit negotiations, delayed the final decision. The consequences may yet still play out.