In the battle over the next generation of telecommunications, China is winning. On Jan. 28, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided not to ban hardware made by the market-leading Chinese firm Huawei as the U.K. builds out its infrastructure for 5G wireless technology. The choice was a blow to the Trump Administration, which has waged a monthslong campaign to persuade allies to shun Huawei–and just lost its closest ally.
Although Johnson needs a post-Brexit trade deal with the U.S., he also promised voters a revolution in Internet speed and coverage. His decision not to ban Huawei–despite warnings of the risk of spying by Beijing–reflects the importance states are placing on the competitive advantage in Internet infrastructure. Huawei is to be limited to a maximum 35% role in the periphery of the U.K.’s 5G network, away from “sensitive” sites like nuclear plants. But on Jan. 29, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo still urged Britain to reconsider its decision.
In Germany, the same trade-off between economic growth and security is clear, with an added current of fear over Chinese retaliation. (An estimated 900,000 German jobs depend on exports to China.) “I don’t think we can quickly build a 5G network in Germany without Huawei taking part,” German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said on Jan. 18. And while new E.U. guidelines allow members to exclude “high-risk” 5G providers, they stop short of recommending a ban on Huawei.
For the past century or more, the cutting edge of technology has been dominated by the U.S. and its allies. Now, thanks to years of research and design subsidized by the Chinese government, Huawei’s hardware is cheaper and faster than that of its rivals. That could have lasting effects across the board for U.S. diplomacy. And as China’s sway grows, the Washington-London link is unlikely to be the only “special relationship” to come under strain.