Capitol Hill

Why Britain’s Huawei decision frustrated lawmakers

The decision by United Kingdom officials to allow Chinese telecom company Huawei to build parts of the country’s 5G network was met with ire from members of Congress Jan. 28, as several members argued the decision will hurt the relationship between the two allies.

Senior U.S. officials have lobbied allies to ban Huawei technology outright from networks. However, according to a statement from the British government, Huawei could build parts of the country’s 5G infrastructure, but will be restricted from working on pieces of the network that are “critical to security."

“Allowing Huawei to the build the UK’s 5G networks today is like allowing the KGB to build its telephone network during the Cold War,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted, referring to the Soviet security agency. “The [Chinese Communist Party] will now have a foothold to conduct pervasive espionage on British society and has increased economic and political leverage over the UK.”

Cotton, along with fellow Republican senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and John Cornyn of Texas, sent a “genuine plea” Jan. 24 to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging the British government to ban Huawei from its 5G infrastructure. Members of Congress and U.S. officials are concerned about ties between the Chinese government and the tech giant, which Huawei denies.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a statement that the U.K.'s decision “infected” the intelligence sharing relationship between the Five Eyes, a group of close-knit allies that includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. On Jan. 27, top House Republicans introduced a bill that would curtail the intelligence the United States would share with the United Kingdom.

Several members of Congress, including Cotton, called for Office of the Director of National Intelligence to review the intelligence sharing relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom as a result of the decision.

“By allowing Huawei into their 5G network, [Boris Johnson] has chosen the surveillance state over the special relationship,” tweeted Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-highest ranking Republican in the House. “Tragic to see our closest ally, a nation Ronald Reagan once called ‘incandescent with courage,’ turn away from our alliance and the cause of freedom.”

Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that he was “disappointed” by the decision, but didn’t specifically address implications the intelligence relationship between the two countries.

“I remain committed to working with the UK and other key allies to build more diverse and secure telecommunication options that provide competitive alternatives to Huawei,” Warner said. He also called on the United Kingdom to partner with the United States to create Western alternatives to Huawei.

The decision by the British officials comes as Germany contemplates a ban on Huawei technology in its 5G infrastructure.

“I remain committed to working with the UK and other key allies to build more diverse and secure telecommunication options that provide competitive alternatives to Huawei,” Warner said.

Stateside, however, leaders want to move quickly to take Huawei equipment out of the telecom networks across the country. In November, the Federal Communications Commission voted to ban its subsidies to rural telecom providers from being spent on Huawei technology. Its commissioners have also advocated for the Huawei tech to be taken out of networks and replaced.

“We need to win the race to 5G and that question is up in the air,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said Jan. 28 at the State of the Net conference. “But achieving U.S. leadership in 5G will require a dedicated and coordinated effort at all levels of the government."

Wicker has introduced a bill that would provide funds for telecom carriers to replace Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese tech company, from their networks. In his speech, Wicker noted there was not a consensus on the bill in the Senate.

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