Ex-spy tells UK to ban Huawei kit from fixed and mobile networks

John Sawers.jpg

The US is on the verge of winning its battle to persuade the UK to ban Huawei from its telecoms networks, says a former spy chief.

The tide turned on Saturday when John Sawers, former head of the UK’s intelligence agency MI6, said that US sanctions on suppliers to Huawei “mean that reliable non-Chinese suppliers to Huawei can no longer work with the company”.

Sawers (pictured) wrote in the Financial Times (FT): “In January, I thought the UK had found a reasonable balance in limiting Huawei’s role in Britain’s 5G network, while not excluding it entirely. Huawei equipment was thoroughly checked by a testing facility under the control of UK intelligence services.”

He added: “Huawei’s use of reliable suppliers, such as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, for crucial components also meant we could assure its supply chain.”

However, he said that new US sanctions on Huawei has made him change his mind: “The latest US sanctions, at the end of June and last week, mean that reliable non-Chinese suppliers to Huawei can no longer work with the company. UK intelligence services can therefore no longer provide the needed assurances that Chinese-made equipment is still safe to use in the UK’s telecoms network.”

Huawei responded over the weekend by saying that US sanctions were “not about security, but about market position”. The statement went on: “All our world-leading products and solutions use technology and components over which the UK government has strict oversight.”

Last week UK prime minister Boris Johnson talked of “potentially hostile state vendors” when considering the UK’s reaction to toughening security laws in Hong Kong, the special administrative region of China that has retained elements of independence since the UK ceded control 23 years ago. It was clear from the context that Johnson was referring to companies such as Huawei.

In January the UK government said that UK mobile operators, BT’s EE, Telefónica’s O2, CK Hutchison’s Three and Vodafone, would be allowed to use Huawei kit in non-core parts of their 5G networks, but only up to 35% by value.

In the weekend FT article, Sawers said: “There are now sound technical reasons for the UK to change January’s decision. … The security assessment is now different because the facts have changed.”

Johnson has also faced pressure from leading backbench politicians in his ruling Conservative party to exclude Huawei altogether from UK networks. A decision from the UK government is expected shortly.

Sawers said in his article: “We must be careful not to go so far as to turn China into an enemy. We need its engagement on crucial issues such as managing climate change and regulating international trade.”

He headed MI6 – officially the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service – for five years from 2009, after spending two years as the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York.

Curiously, Sawers is now a non-executive director of energy company BP, whose former CEO, John Browne, is now chairman of Huawei UK. Browne left the BP role in 2007, long before Sawers joined the board.


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