President Trump’s national security adviser flies into Paris today for talks on China, heaping more pressure on Boris Johnson to strip Huawei from Britain’s 5G network.
Robert O’Brien will be in France for three days, during which Sir Mark Sedwill, Britain’s most senior security official, will travel to meet him.
The visit comes as the prime minister prepares to chair the National Security Council (NSC) tomorrow where he is expected to finalise a U-turn on Huawei’s participation in the network. Mr Johnson has faced intense lobbying from the Trump administration and his own backbenchers, who fear that Huawei equipment could be used for espionage or sabotage by Beijing.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith urged the prime minister to “rip out” Huawei by early next year
LUKE MACGREGOR/GETTY IMAGES
The NSC is expected to agree a date after which no new Huawei equipment can be installed in the network, and a later deadline by which whatever has been fitted must be stripped out.
Tory rebels have told the prime minister to set the “rip out” deadline before the next election in 2024 or face a revolt but Vodafone and BT executives have requested a seven-year timetable to avoid mobile signal blackouts.
Huawei denies that it poses any security threat and insists it is a private company free from state interference.
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Mr O’Brien will also meet counterparts from France, Germany and Italy. Security challenges linked to Russia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, north Africa and the coronavirus will also be on the agenda.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, has called for a Huawei ban to be imposed by “early next year” at the latest. Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, will make a formal announcement to the Commons after the NSC meeting, where China hawks on the back benches will be on standby to examine the details.
The government is expected to outline two curbs on Huawei’s participation in 5G; an initial date after which no new items of its equipment can be installed in the network and a later deadline by which all existing Huawei technology must be stripped out.
It comes after intelligence chiefs concluded that new US sanctions on Huawei, banning the company from using verified American technology in its semiconductors, entail a security risk regarding its kit.
Sir Iain said that the final “rip-out” date must be the end of 2024, dismissing the argument of BT and Vodafone executives who say that any delivery period shorter than five years would cause mobile signal blackouts.
Sir Iain, UK chairman of the inter-parliamentary alliance on China, said the deadline “cannot go beyond the next general election, it’s got to be done before”. While 36 Tory MPs joined a rebellion in March over Huawei in a vote on telecoms legislation, Sir Iain said the revolt Mr Johnson faced if he failed to meet rebels’ red lines this week would be “a lot worse”.
China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the imposition of a security law in Hong Kong, and treatment of its Uighur minority had focused minds on the threat from Beijing, he said.
Other hawks are more flexible on the timetable. Bob Seely, leader of the Huawei Interest Group of Tory MPs concerned about the security risk posed by the company, said: “I think 2025 or 2026 is realistic and will probably get broad support. After 2026 it becomes more questionable the longer it’s delayed. The rip-out date needs to be enshrined in law.”