Rocks and hard places: Trump is enraged and the Chinese are alleging a Huawei witch-hunt

via Flickr © cornstalker (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © cornstalker (CC BY 2.0)

  • The half in, half out approach to Huawei and UK 5G hasn’t really worked
  • And what happens next is unknown, but may involve a Johnson climbdown

It’s difficult to understand where UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, thinks he’s headed with his Huawei problem. The decision to green light a ‘half-in, half-out’ position for Huawei as a supplier of infrastructure for the UK’s public 5G networks was presumably designed to placate both the Chinese government and the US president to the extent that both parties might become only half enraged. 

If so, it doesn’t seem to have worked. Both sides have become fully enraged thus proving that compromise in these circumstances doesn’t really work. 

Last month the UK government announced that it had the answer to the question of whether Huawei should be allowed to supply 5G infrastructure into the UK’s four networks.  It classified Huawei as a ‘high risk’ vendor and for that reason maintained that it should only be allowed to deploy its equipment into the ‘less sensitive’ parts of the network, which essentially means the Radio Access Network. The core, where the central brains of the network resides and where software mischief (inserting so-called back doors and other malicious code) might be undertaken was to be roped off. 

As critics pointed out, however, the networks are all on a migration path to ‘stand alone 5G’ where more intelligence is to be invested in the network edge, so risks might also exist there in the future. That may have been the argument that resulted in the government adding a diversity cap of 35% market share for high risk vendors even in the low risk part of the network.

That is a slightly contradictory position soon pounced on by unconvinced conservative ‘Huawei hawks’ who have made the point that no risk should be acceptable under a half-in, half-out arrangement. Either a vendor is trustworthy or it isn’t. And if it’s untrustworthy enough to be phased out, as the regime intends, then it should be banished immediately. 

It may have been more sensible for the UK to have gone for the mitigation route which had been recommended by its security experts. This held that processes for screening any software (all vendors, all countries) brought into the network should be instituted, rightly pointing out that all software comes with risks, not just that hatched in China (see - How Ericsson and Nokia's 5G hackathon could be a PR win for Huawei). 

The upshot is that Huawei, far from feeling grateful for being let ‘half in’ is furious and  feels unfairly treated given that there is no evidence that it has any intention of inserting probes in the UK’s surveillance camera network to glean valuable insights as one of the more wild-eyed contributors to the ‘Today’ radio programme alleged a week ago. 

Needless to say Trump and his administration is just as miffed. Trump, we’re led to believe, had a ‘meltdown’ on the phone to Johnson and there are mumblings that Britain might be putting its future trade relationship with the US at risk . 

China’s  ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, maintains that Conservative party politicians opposed to Huawei are conducting "a witch-hunt" (where have we heard that before?), after they had written to Tory MPs to raise concerns about the government's decision to give Huawei a role in the networks.

The group, including four ex-cabinet ministers, want "high-risk" vendors ruled out now, or phased out over time. Mr Liu, of course, maintains that Huawei is a privately-owned company and has nothing to do with the Chinese government.

So, far from being over and done with, the Huawei problem looks like sticking around for a time yet.

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