On the 28th of January of this year, the British Government announced that it would allow equipment made by the Chinese technology company Huawei to build its upcoming 5G network. Downing Street will give Huawei a limited role in the construction of the said network, even though the company has been labelled as a “high-risk vendor”. This decision by Prime Minister Johnson’s cabinet has signified the failure of the American Government in convincing their closest European ally to ban the Chinese corporation’s right to build the network. This decision is something the White House is very much at fault of.
The reason for such label that Huawei has been honoured to carry in Britain is because of various reports that put Huawei with close ties with the Chinese Government, where Beijing could use its influence to extract sensitive information from the British people and/or government. This move by London is especially significant since it belongs to the Five Eyes intelligence alliance of five anglophone countries which the United States also forms part of where vital signal, human, defence, and geospatial intelligence is shared.
Washington has already banned Huawei from building its 5G network and had been urging Britain to do the same. The complete lack of initiative from the Trump administration in this regard, though, is quite surprising. The lobbying efforts of the United States have been lacklustre in convincing Britain to adopt American companies over the Chinese tech giant. The White House does not seem to comprehend that unlike them, London does not possess the same spending power and therefore must take into consideration the various price ranges that are offered to them. Huawei (and consequently China) understands that. Subsidies, tax breaks, and state support are a big reason of why Chinese companies, not just Huawei, offer better prices on the world market that put Western companies at a significant disadvantage (or even out of the picture).
To use a little historical analogy, 75 years ago the United States found itself in a similar position regarding technological competition, more specifically: Nuclear technology. Massive state support allowed Washington to pioneer and make breakthroughs in nuclear fission. It not only helped to end the Second World War with fewer casualties (a land invasion of Japan would have been way worse), but it also helped propel the U.S. as a world superpower. Nowadays, communications networking is as important as nuclear energy was back in the 40s and 50s. The United States, fortunately, or unfortunately, is lagging behind not necessarily technologically but commercially, seemingly unable to understand the basic rules of supply and demand.
With the weakness and disarray of the European economies, the EU cannot be counted on supporting its own companies like Nokia or Ericsson in this 5G race. This means that the United States has to take the burden again and lead the Western faction in this race for technological superiority that is so important. Washington cannot afford to treat the United Kingdom (a UN Security Council Permanent Member and nuclear and financial power!) as a child and expect it to softly accept demands just for sharing a common alliance and special relationship. It is a sovereign nation we are talking about, an important one as well.
The Trump administration must not hesitate in offering US corporations, which possess the best innovative minds in the world, help in this race which the United States is more than capable of winning. American companies must be able to offer better prices to Britain in order to reverse the decisions that were made. Britain usually has been the closest European nation aligned to US interests and the first one to follow their requests. If London has made this decision, then the rest of Europe is bound to ignore the current American strategy and follow the British path. Whether this is something Washington can afford, only time will tell.