Europe and China after Brexit: The 5G question

A decision looms for Britain on 5G and Huawei. London’s choice will signal whether it wishes to stay close to Europe when dealing with Beijing – or to go its own way.

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Now that we know that Britain really is leaving the European Union, it is time to seriously think through the future of EU-UK coordination on China. Boris Johnson’s government may be inclined to reinforce trade with China to hedge against the economic impact of Brexit. But, already, the question of whether or not Chinese company Huawei will be allowed to remain a player in Britain’s mobile telecommunications networks is demonstrating how this could put the United Kingdom at odds with the United States and further complicate its relations with Europe. And while the UK decision on Huawei’s future role in 5G networks has been debated extensively within the British government over the past few months, a final decision was postponed in November because of the general election and deferred to the next parliamentary term. The issue will now return to the top of the government’s agenda – with potential repercussions for the entire European debate.

When it comes to 5G, London will have to make its choices relatively quickly to avoid unnecessary delays and ensure clarity for UK telecommunications operators. There are really only two possible scenarios for Britain at this point: to allow Chinese providers a role in the UK telecommunications market, which would please Beijing and ensure Huawei’s foothold in Europe. Or to de facto shut Huawei out of the 5G market, in correspondence with the demands of the US. Washington has threatened to rethink London’s access within the Five Eyes framework – the intelligence sharing network comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK – after initial leaks allegedly confirmed the UK government’s inclination to not shut the door on Huawei. Even a future free trade agreement has been called into question, if Britain decides to allow to the Chinese company to further contribute to the rollout of 5G.

Over the past few months, operators and officials in the UK  have promoted a third option for Britain, which would see Huawei remain in the lucrative business of deploying base stations, while restricting the use of its technology in the historically more sensitive core of the network. But this is not a feasible option. While politically this sounds like a nice compromise, from a technological perspective the distinction makes limited sense in the new generation of networks. To achieve the desired combination of high speed and ‘low latency’ – which is necessary for advanced 5G applications, from autonomous driving to industrial applications in manufacturing – base stations are now more than the mere antennae they were in the past. They are becoming smart, as core functions are moved to the edge of the network and computing can take place closer to the end user in the base station. Pretending that there would be a clear-cut distinction – between a core network that can be secured and the radio access network – is an illusion. If users want the full functionality of 5G technology, such a distinction will become increasingly obsolete. And the base stations are not just smart, they are also vulnerable as communication content is unencrypted at a point to allow for access of law enforcement – something that is known as “lawful interception”. Thus, if the distinction no longer really exists, restricting Chinese technology from only one part of the network makes no logical sense.

Proponents of this half-hearted and politically motivated approach maintain that the risk in the radio access network can be managed with enhanced technical security measures. This could encourage other EU member states to follow the British model – but it would have significant repercussions for establishing a joint EU approach on 5G. 

The Huawei case is the first China-related policy issue to become part of a significant public debate in Europe. If the domestic argument that has unfolded in Germany over the government’s direction on this matter serves as any indication, the British 5G debate will likely get fierce in the weeks and months to come. In Berlin, the issue has underlined the divisions between government agencies; Merkel’s own coalition has staged a revolt against her accommodating position vis-à-vis Chinese vendors like Huawei; and the issue continues to receive wide coverage in the media. Senior members of the Bundestag have initiated resolutions calling for stricter security measures, and a de facto Huawei ban. Relations with China have moved centre-stage, and a broad discussion among the German public has ignited.

Ironically, since the Brexit referendum, Britain’s interests on many China issues have moved much closer to Brussels.

Johnson may find himself inclined to attempt to try to reboot the “Golden Era”, which was introduced by David Cameron as prime minister in 2015 to herald the dawn of new China-UK relations. That initiative failed to deliver the promise of huge increases in trade and investment. The current prime minister could thus reach out to Beijing in a new bid to boost trade, now in the context of Brexit. But the overall importance of Britain’s economic relationship with China is still dwarfed by the importance of trade with the EU and US. Britain, just like Germany, France, Italy, and others, has always underlined the importance of its bilateral relations with China. It has done so, however, backed by the mighty power of the single market. Now it will have to face Beijing alone. This puts Britain in the uncomfortable situation of likely having to decide between two less than optimal choices: hampering economic relations with Beijing or angering Washington. It will now be without the option of hiding behind a joint European approach, which can mitigate some of Beijing’s potential to retaliate and exert pressure.

And 5G is just the beginning. Over the years since the Brexit referendum, the geopolitical situation has changed markedly, and it has – ironically – moved Britain’s interests on many China-related issues much closer to Brussels. These issues range from industrial policy, to investment screening, to cooperation in research and technological innovation. On all of them, there should significant room for collaboration between Britain and the EU.

At the same time, for the EU it is a huge loss to now have to do without the UK voice, intelligence, and experience. Most recently, British expertise was personified in the figure of the commissioner for the security union, Julian King, who was responsible for the highly respected EU risk assessment for 5G networks. European cyber security policy is stronger with the UK than without it.

The new commission should turn its early attention to how best to coordinate with the UK on this question, as part of its current rethink of Europe’s overall relationship with China. The institutional framework for the future of EU-UK coordination on China will not emerge naturally from existing mechanisms. While the UK government will be busy negotiating its future relations with the EU and a potential trade agreement with the US, an absence of bandwidth for this issue could become a real problem. Establishing mechanisms early on in the process that allow for knowledge sharing and coordination will be key. Cyber security would be an immediate and crucial place to start.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Asia programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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