June 30, 2020

Defence secretary: “We have no Huawei on our defence estate”

By Robert Scammell

The UK’s defence secretary Ben Wallace reassured MPs today that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has no direct role in the nation’s defence communication infrastructure.

He also told the Defence Committee that the Ministry of Defence is “not dependant on any one mode of communications, because to do that would leave us desperately exposed to an adversary in a time of war or even in a time of peace”.

In the event of 4G or 5G going down the MoD would be able to use “landline”, “secure radio” and “other networks”, he said.

“And as we’ve made clear, for example with 5G and Huawei, there is no Huawei in our very sensitive intelligence networks,” said Wallace. “So, if 5G Huawei went down that wouldn’t matter because we could still use our very high-level intelligence networks, which are removed of any high-risk vendor, to carry on communicating.”

Wallace made the comments in the fourth evidence session of the Defence Committee’s inquiry into the security of the UK’s 5G network. The inquiry was launched in March after Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave Huawei the green light to continue operating in the non-sensitive parts of the network and with a market cap of 35%.

“We have no Huawei on our defence estate, on our defence networks,” said Wallace. “We’ve been very clear with that. As I renew or place contracts, I now ask, even on the outside, have we got any [Huawei], what can we do to make sure we don’t get exposed to it.”

When asked by the committee’s chair, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, if working with firms that use Huawei, such as Vodafone or BT, would create risk, Wallace said: “On the hardware, and the hard part of the MoD network, there is no Huawei.”

UK defence network Huawei-free but US pressure mounts

The UK’s Huawei decision in January came after much delay and intense lobbying from the US, which accuses Huawei of being at the behest of the Chinese state – a claim Huawei denies.

In the previous evidence session, Republican congressman Mike Turner told the committee that the way the US shares information with the UK will “inevitably be impacted” if it continues to use Huawei.

However, Wallace said that he’s seen “no change whatsoever in the level and the detail of intelligence sharing between Five Eyes at all”.

This was echoed by Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden and Ciaran Martin, CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre.

The UK government has become more hawkish on China since January, with Tory MPs rebelling in a vote on a broadband leasehold bill in protest of the UK’s Huawei decision back in March.

And yesterday Boris Johnson appointed China hawk David Frost as his new National Security Advisor. His appointment is expected to have ramifications for the UK’s current stance on Huawei.

In May the US unveiled a fresh round of sanctions against China that specifically targeted Huawei by making it harder for it to develop its own 5G chips.

“It sounds like the American’s pressure is having an impact on your decision making,” said Ellwood to Dowden,

“It is just a fact that the Americans have imposed these sanctions. And it is a fact that those sanctions are targeted at 5G,” said Dowden.

New factors, such as the latest US sanctions, could possibly lead to a reversal of the UK’s Huawei decision, it has been speculated.

The NCSC is expected to complete a new review into Huawei that explores the impact of the sanctions on the UK’s relationship with Huawei. Dowden said that the review was “pretty much finished and going through the final stage”.

“If there is a change in policy, I will come back to the house immediately, then it will be for members of parliament to determine whether they support the legislation as it goes through the house,” said Dowden.

The committee also heard how the Huawei decision is not just a technical decision, but one intertwined with the geopolitics of China and its place in the world.

“Am I happy that high-risk vendors are contributing to the 5G network? No, I’m not, no more than any of the whole of government is,” said Wallace. “The government’s ambition is, over time, to remove high-risk vendors from the network.”

Read more: Too late for UK Huawei rival but other domestic 5G options remain, experts say

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