Huawei Risks to Britain Can Be Blunted, U.K. Official Says, in a Rebuff to U.S.

Huawei Risks to Britain Can Be Blunted, U.K. Official Says, in a Rebuff to U.S.

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LONDON — The Trump administration has spent a year trying to convince America’s allies in Europe that the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is a grave threat to their national security and should not be allowed any role in developing new wireless networks.

A top British official indicated Wednesday that the aggressive campaign may not be working.

The official, Ciaran Martin, who leads Britain’s National Cyber Security Center, expressed confidence at a conference in Brussels that any security risks Huawei posed could be managed.

Britain, Mr. Martin noted, has successfully managed the company’s presence in the country’s telecommunications networks for more than 15 years by subjecting its products to strict security reviews at a laboratory run by government intelligence officials, and would continue to do so.

“Our regime is arguably the toughest and most rigorous oversight regime in the world for Huawei,” he said. He added that the company’s equipment “is not in any sensitive networks, including those of the government.”

“Its kit is part of a balanced supply chain with other suppliers,” Mr. Martin said.

As Britain’s cellphone carriers begin to build 5G networks, officials are considering if, and how, Huawei fits into the effort. With a final decision expected by the end of the year, Mr. Martin’s remarks suggest the British government is unmoved by the Trump administration’s offensive against the company.

Because Britain belongs to the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance with the United States, whatever it decides on Huawei is likely to affect how other countries treat the company. Germany is also considering allowing Huawei in parts of its network, The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.

Europe has become a key battleground in the debate over Huawei. While the company has mostly been blocked in the United States, it is well established in Europe, working closely with carriers like Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and BT Group. The region is Huawei’s second-largest market after China.

If Britain does not ban Huawei, it would be a defeat for the White House. In private intelligence briefings and public speeches, American officials have warned that Huawei is beholden to the Chinese government, and that countries allowing its equipment to be installed as part of 5G networks will open themselves up to espionage.

Vice President Mike Pence, in a speech last week at an international security conference in Munich, took a direct swipe at Huawei, warning America’s allies “to be vigilant and to reject any enterprise that would compromise the integrity of our communications technology or national security systems.”

Administration officials have also said that decisions about where the United States puts military bases and troops could be affected by whether countries’ networks have such equipment.

Huawei has forcefully denied accusations that it is an instrument of the Chinese government. The company is the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment — selling antennas, base stations and other products used by the operators of the world’s largest wireless networks.

The 5G networks are considered critical to the global economy, providing not just hyper-fast internet speeds, but also new capabilities for sensors, robots, autonomous vehicles and other data-hungry devices and services. In Europe alone, mobile operators are expected to invest at least $340 billion to develop the networks, according to the wireless trade body, GSMA.

Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, whose daughter, also a top company executive, was arrested in December by the Canadian authorities at the request of the United States, denounced America’s campaign in an interview with BBC this week. He called the actions “politically motivated, and vowed there is “no way the U.S. can crush” the company.

In Britain, one of Huawei’s most important markets, the government’s treatment of the company has long been debated. A report published on Wednesday by the Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank, said that “allowing Huawei’s participation is at best naïve, at worst irresponsible.”

The British strategy for dealing with Huawei has traditionally involved containment. The country operates a research lab outside London to review Huawei’s products and code, and publishes an annual review of the company’s technology. Last year, Britain criticized Huawei for engineering and supply-chain flaws.

“We will monitor and report on progress and we will not declare the problems are on the path to being solved unless and until there is clear evidence that this is the case,” Mr. Martin said in his remarks on Wednesday. “We will not compromise on the improvements we need to see from Huawei.”

American officials have argued that 5G networks are much more complex than existing systems, and that the many lines of constantly updating code make the systems nearly impossible to protect entirely.

Peter Chase, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund specializing in trans-Atlantic policy, said that a determination by British officials that Huawei could be handled as a manageable risk would undercut the argument that the company poses an existential risk.

“They’ve made a pretty hardheaded evaluation that the United States was exaggerating the extent of the problem,” said Mr. Chase, a former American diplomat to London. “I don’t think they did that to please the Chinese.”

In his speech in Brussels, Mr. Martin said cybersecurity risks were not confined to one company.

“The supply chain, and where suppliers are from, is one issue but it is not the only issue,” he said. Last year, he added, his organization had “publicly attributed some attacks on U.K. networks, including telecoms networks, to Russia. As far as we know, those networks didn’t have any Russian kit in them, anywhere.”

The dispute over what risk the company presents has complicated Britain’s efforts to avoid becoming entangled in the trade war between the United States and China. As it prepares to exit the European Union, Britain is seeking new trade deals with both Washington and Beijing.

China is a small but growing trade partner with the United Kingdom. Businesses exported a record 22.3 billion pounds, about $28.8 billion, worth of goods to China in 2017, making it Britain’s sixth-largest trading partner. The United States is the largest, accounting for £112.2 billion worth of exports in 2017, according to a report from Parliament this month.

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