Huawei has to go
Whilst the dust on Coronavirus is still swirling around us with no hint of settling, both China and America have already begun to set out their stalls for the post-virus relationship. There is a vigorous — if largely fruitless — debate going on as to how COVID-19 will redefine the relationship. The truth is that only at the heel of the hunt will we know, but the one thing we can be sure of is that international relations between the two will be radically redefined.
Britain, too, faces the same radical re-alignment problem. But for those of us across the pond, coronavirus is but the second controversy to raise questions regarding China this year alone, following the decision by the Conservative Government to include Huawei in the 5G network. This decision was taken despite a rebellion by Conservative MPs — the first against Boris Johnson’s government — and warnings from Mick Mulvaney that the decision to include Huawei would have ‘a direct and dramatic impact’ on the relationship between the US and UK due to concerns over information sharing.
The public conversation about our post-virus relationship with China has not yet begun in earnest. But despite reassurances from senior Civil servants that Huawei’s involvement is unlikely to be reversed, there are significant signs that Boris Johnson may be forced into a re-consideration. As our economy implodes like a faulty Russian submarine, there are signs that public opinion, and Government policy, is shifting against increasing Chinese involvement in the economy.
The last public debate on our relationship with China occurred in 2015 when then-Prime Minister David Cameron announced the beginning of a ‘Golden Era’ in relations between the UK and China, hosting a state visit by Xi Jinping and securing a raft of trade deals. 5 years is a long time in politics, however, and two Prime ministers later, events have meant that Cameron’s project for Britain to become China’s ‘best partner in the West’ never came to much.
The first indicator comes from the new leadership of Boris Johnson’s government. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary and interim leader in Boris Johnson’s absence, has warned that “there is no doubt we can’t have business as usual after this crisis, and we will have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it couldn’t have been stopped earlier.” But there is not just idle talk; an investigation has been launched into coronavirus’ origins, including the possibility that it may have spread from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The second signal is a result of the new make-up of the Conservative Party; the appetite to remove Huawei has always been higher amongst Conservative MPs than the leadership. They are so concerned, in fact, that they staged the first rebellion against Boris Johnson following his resounding election victory over the issue. Despite their defeat, MPs remain highly sceptical of Huawei, with 83% alarmed about potential national security risks, and 62% believing it shouldn’t touch anything that’s strategically sensitive. Over half are also concerned that, following American intervention, to continue with Huawei in the 5G network will damage the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US.
The third signal comes from British voters themselves; Brexit, Britain’s population has become both more engaged and more obstreperous, with voters alternatively empowered or enraged by the events since. Coronavirus is already engaging voters with defining the British relationship to China and their direction of travel is clear — a poll asking whether people supported or opposed the decision to give Huawei permission to supply equipment for the UK 5G data network in April last year showed 34% opposed, with 22% in favour. That opposition figure rose to 43% this January, with just 10% saying they trusted Huawei as a brand. Opposition to Chinese involvement is not just limited to the 5G network, however, with opposition to involvement in the newly-approved High Speed 2 railway line, Britain’s largest infrastructure project, also nearing 40%.
The growing scepticism regarding Huawei in both the corridors of power and amongst ordinary voters has risen despite the fact that the decision has already been take, and that involving Huawei is definitively the cheapest way of building the 5G network (and HS2 line), which has been well-publicised. Why?
Following China’s unrepentant response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they see no evidence of Chinese self-domestication to Western values. The way in which China allowed the virus to spread — then suppressed information that could have been key to preventing further deaths — has rightly worried them, and Huawei, as the most obvious example of Chinese involvement in the economy, is likely to bear the brunt of their frustrations. A removal of the company from the network will be a clear demonstration that when it comes to China, the British hold values beyond the purely economic. To do otherwise would prove little beyond that we may be mad, blind, or both.